It's Not Easy Being Green: How Venues And Festivals Handle All That Garbage

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On any given night, 18,000 to 25,000 people fill the Toyota Center, whether to watch the Rockets play or to see Lady Gaga in full regalia. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American produces more than four pounds of municipal solid waste per day. Multiply that by 18,000, and you've got a lot of crap to pick up after Carrie Underwood exits stage left. In the past few years a number of Houston music venues, both big and small, have taken steps to become more green, but the changes lead to questions - how much work can those places alone do to get people to be less wasteful, and at what point does going green become cost-prohibitive? The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion is one of the few places in the Houston area with the space and bureaucracy in place to host an all-day music festival like Buzzfest or Lilith Fair. And of all the venues Rocks Off talked to, they've been working the longest to provide environmentally friendly entertainment. "Whether it's low-water shower heads or fluorescent lights in the dressing rooms, we've been trying to do it for about five years," said Jeff Young, operations vice president at the facility. "The more that we can do to make sure the lion's share gets recycled, the better."

Those measures have included hiring Waste Management to haul away recycling, sending the Pavilion's used cooking grease to Griffin Industries, and hiring a company called LampTracker to properly dispose of fluorescent bulbs. "Unfortunately, recycling, there are some expenses to it," Young said. "There's a substantial cost for (LampTracker), but it's done the right way."

Young said one of the biggest challenges is getting concert-goers to recycle their concessions. "Bands like Coldplay, Dave Matthews Band, Radiohead - they're much more active since they're a younger audience with a potential to change things," he said. "The classic-rock fans - they're kind of set in their ways." The Pavilion has hosted the Buzzfest music festival since 2001. The concert draws around 16,500 people, who remain at the venue for as long as 12 hours at a time. "They'll consume three or fours meals during that time. Obviously, the longer they're here, the more impact they'll have."

So the Pavilion has installed recycling bins throughout the facility instead of just trash cans, and has taken steps to avoid the problems that faced the Austin City Limits Festival last year, when rain mixed with the feet of several thousand hipsters, turning the substance known as Dillo Dirt into one giant pig slop. "We spend a tremendous amount of money on native plants that are high heat and low water tolerant," Young said. "This last year we've changed to a French drainage system to reduce flooding, and parts of the lawn are sand-capped, like a golf course."

In addition, the Pavilion works with a company called MosquitoNix, who provides natural insecticides, and a local composting business, Nature's Way. In a few weeks, it will participate in a pilot program with Waste Management to use solar-powered trash and recycling compactors. "Eventually, our hope is to turn into a zero-waste facility in the next 10 years," Young said.

Young said a concert's clean-up ratio has as much to do with the weather as it does the concert-goers. The Austin City Limits Festival's attempt to go green hit a roadblock last year when heavy rain hit Zilker Park on Saturday. The "Dillo Dirt" used under the park's turf - a combination of yard clippings, compost and treated sewage - caused the 2009 festival to be known affectionately as "Austin Shitty Limits," and the rain and mud damage to Zilker Park's grass was so bad the area had to be closed for more than a month afterward for repairs.

Rocks Off contacted ACL organizers to find out what their plans for a greener festival were for this year, but Sandee Fenton with Fresh and Clean Media said the organizers are still working on their "greening plan" for 2010. She did, however, email a link to this information on last year's policy, which states that thanks to Green Mountain Energy, the festival is 100 percent carbon neutral. This means that the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere during the festival is completely offset by festival-instituted programs such as recycling, carpooling and the selling of carbon-offset credits. About a year ago, employees at the Toyota Center formed a green committee to explore ways both the employees and Rockets and music fans could cut down on waste. "I think a lot of people kind of realize that Houston lags in a lot of ways in that area," said Cara Tamburello, ticket services executive and member of the green committee.

Tamburello cited Discovery Green, the Embassy Suites and One Park Place as examples in a general movement on the east side of downtown to become more environmentally friendly. "We have anywhere from 18,000 to 25,000 people in the Toyota Center each night, so we can have a huge impact," she said. "By changing even one small thing, that makes a huge impact." Tamburello says a lot of it boils down to awareness. Thanks to a new policy, individual offices in the Toyota Center no longer have trash bins. Employees have recycling bins, and there's one trash can for each floor. So, if a person wants to throw something away, they have to get up and walk through the office where everyone can see them. "It's not a mindless task any more, so you have to think about it," she said.

In addition, the arena's catering company has switched from plasticware to plates and utensils made out of recycled, biodegradable corn starch. Tamburello grew up in New York, where recycling was mandated in her neighborhood. She also said there were incentives - deposits on aluminum, for example - that encouraged recycling. The Toyota Center is trying to do the same thing for Rockets games. Each month the venue features a recyclable item - fans can bring old Rockets gear, used cell phones, eyeglasses and other items to be recycled.

And Tamburello said the most successful program Toyota Center has instituted was to make recycling bins available for guests' consumed concession purchases. "The way we know that that has worked is that the bins are full each night," she said. "We definitely want to be more efficient. Houston is getting there with some of the incentive programs. You have to make it easy for people." Omar Afra, editor/publisher of Free Press Houston and organizer of both the Westheimer Block Party and the upcoming Summerfest, echoed Tamburello's sentiments. "The biggest thing I've learned in the short amount of time is that in order to make your efforts effective, you've got to make (recycling) as easy and dumbed-down as possible. The effort is really on us," he said, referring to event planners and venues.

Afra said that after Summerfest 2009 he and his employees had to hand-sift through all the event's recycling bins because people were putting the wrong items in them. But at some point, he said, "You've got to balance expediency against recycling." Take, for example, Summerfest's use of the City of Houston's Eleanor Tinsley Park. "The requirement is clean it all up, cleaner than you found it, because they always remember it cleaner than it was." Afra said if he had three weeks to clean the park, he'd recycle everything, but unfortunately the city wants the park cleaned by the next day.

For Summerfest 2010, Afra has dreamed up an incentive scheme to get concertgoers to help them pick up waste. The festival will give a limited amount of free bottled water to every person who picks up and turns in 10 discarded plastic bottles from the park's grounds during the show. Afra also said businesses need to rethink the idea that "going green" is a business incentive. Sometimes, as with the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion's use of LampTracker and Afra's commitment to sort through Summerfest trash, recycling takes more time and money than people expect.

"It has come to the point where people say it's gonna be a win-win situation," he said. "We need to ask ourselves, what are we willing to do to be green?" It's especially hard for a smaller place that might not have the overhead or city backing of, say, the Toyota Center. Afra said he's run into problems at Mango's, the Montrose vegetarian restaurant and music venue he manages, because his neighbors didn't like the piles of cardboard boxes outside waiting to be recycled.

"We want to recycle everything we can but they don't want to see what they perceive as trash," he said. "I also had a chef try to start a compost bin in the back and they really didn't like that." The bottom line, Afra said, is that an environmentally friendly lifestyle and music scene has to become a way of life and not just a trend, and it takes constant re-examination and re-education.

"It's important that people point out their own hypocrisies. If it weren't for my wife to point some of these things out, I'd be complacent," he said. "It's discipline. It's hygiene. You have to do it. If you didn't brush your teeth until you were 30 and then someone tells you you have to brush and floss twice a day, then you have to learn to do that."

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