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Coachella: Sustainable or Not?


It’s Coachella time! That means that influencers and people from all over the world are attending the annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, California. Many popular and upcoming music artists play their music over the course of 2 weekends. Various art installations, food vendors, and other stalls are set up within the festival to provide an exhilarating experience. With hundreds of thousands of attendees per weekend, the big question is: how sustainable is Coachella?

Coachella Sustainability Aims

With over 500,000 people attending Coachella 2023 and an average of 60,000 attendees per day in 2023, this leaves us wondering just how many people will attend Coachella 2024. Many reports already claim that Coachella Weekend 1 has sold out. With so many hundreds of thousands of people in Coachella, how does this festival expect to keep pollution low?


Coachella claims on their page to have aims of creating “a festival that leaves a positive impact on our desert home and beyond” as well as having pledged to be an “agent of change.” These claims are not entirely unfounded, as Coachella has several programs in place to encourage attendees to reduce their pollution and the festival itself to reduce environmental impact.


Waste

All food vendors serving at Coachella must do so with compostable plates, to-go containers, utensils, etc., with the exception of reusable cups. Leftover food from the various food vendors and caterers in attendance are donated to Coachella Valley Rescue Mission to provide food to community members facing food insecurity. Products and goods left behind by campers and from partner activations are donated to Galilee Center. Other waste is composted and recycled through Coachella’s comprehensive waste diversion strategy. Coachella also encourages its attendees to sort their trash by providing 2 liners at the toll booth so attendees can sort trash into recyclable and landfill bags. These bags can be left at the clearly marked and visible waste bin signage.


Water

Coachella hosts the BYOBottle Campaign, which encourages attendees to bring their own reusable water bottles. Spigots can be found for water refill throughout the venue and campsites in the festival. The festival has also reduced the amount of potable water used for irrigation by using alternative landscapes and only using water unsuitable for drinking to irrigate the grass. Coachella also is attempting to eliminate single-use water bottles everywhere on the festival grounds, except for in the stage safety areas and certain back-of-house areas.

Energy and Carbon

To reduce energy usage and carbon footprint from the festival, Coachella encourages attendees to use energy-efficient technologies such as LED lights, solar-powered electric generators, and electric utility cars. The festival also has various shuttles to decrease individual car travel, while also incentivizing carpooling with Carpoolchella — a contest to win various prizes by carpooling with 4 or more people and decorating your car with the word “Carpoolchella.” Camping of over 35,000 people is also coordinated with various campsites to decrease travel to and from the festival every day. Coachella also has an energy playground in which the crowd can play on the playground to charge up their phones and devices.


With these various programs and other unmentioned visibility campaigns, Coachella does take initiative in decreasing its pollution. The festival also partners with various sustainability organizations such as Global Inheritance to promote education and awareness of environmental issues by designing interactive programs that can be integrated into Coachella’s festival experience; Galilee Center to donate products and goods that can be used to provide food, clothing, and other basic needs to affirm people in needs’ dignity with love and respect; and Coachella Valley Rescue Mission to provide local people experiencing issues such as homelessness and hunger with recovery programs, community outreach, and emergency services. Coachella has implemented many programs to decrease its environmental impact both within and outside the festival to extend its reach and fulfill its claim to leave a positive impact on the desert and the world beyond. However, is it enough?



Issues with Sustainability

Coachella has undoubtedly taken many strides in reducing its environmental impact. However, there are still factors that Coachella has little to no control over that lead to its downfall in terms of sustainability. For one, Coachella needs energy to run its festival. Most of this energy comes from hundreds of thousands of gallons of diesel fuel. While it is true that Coachella provides the energy see-saw on the energy playground to allow attendees to sustainably charge their phones, there seems to be no plausible way for the Empire Polo Club to power this massive festival without using fuel. Nuclear power and renewable fuels are less of an option than one may think. Unlike the world’s greenest music festival in Norway, Øya, Coachella isn’t in a country that runs off 98% clean energy, with easily accessible, cheaper, and clean energy that can be drawn upon in mass amounts to run the festival.


On top of the energy issue, Coachella also cannot recycle nearly as much as other music festivals. While Coachella is not the largest music festival in the world, it continues to have very many attendees annually. While some smaller festivals may hold tens of thousands of attendees throughout the entire festival, Coachella holds hundreds of thousands of attendees throughout each weekend. Recycling and donating all the waste that is produced is impossible to achieve. Reports show that of the 214,000 pounds of waste generated daily at Coachella, only 20% of it is recycled, while the remaining 80% ends up in landfills.


As for the biggest issue of all music festivals, including Coachella, there is little to be done about the transportation issue. The estimated air pollution from music festivals from transportation is 80%, due to the mass amounts of cars and planes emitting carbon as people travel to the festival. While some people may be able to avoid these emissions by traveling by bike if they live in the local area hosting the festival, many attendees cannot avoid the cars and planes, as the average festival attendee travels 903 miles.


As stated earlier, Coachella has attempted to lessen its environmental impact from transportation through incentives to carpool such as Carpoolchella. However, even with carpooling, the amount of carbon emissions arising solely from transportation directly harms the environment severely. These 80% emissions from transportation do not even include the impact of the artists’ travel to Coachella. For all these artists traveling to perform at Coachella, many of them own private jets. Emissions from private jets are incredibly harmful to the environment, as discussed in our earlier blog, “The Truth About Private Jets.”


All in all, the negative environmental consequences associated with Coachella are dire despite being, for the most part, unavoidable. Coachella is not a completely sustainable music festival by any means.



What can you do?

Currently, Coachella has many programs in place to attempt to reduce its environmental impact. However, many attendees do not participate in these programs. If you are someone who enjoys attending music festivals, you can partake in their BYOBottle Campaign by bringing your own reusable water bottle. You can also sort your trash with their provided liners and be sure to actually dispose of your trash rather than littering. Coachella incentivizes picking up trash through their Recycling Store, which provides prizes for turning in recyclables you collect on the festival grounds. This is a wonderful program you can participate in to help clean up the grounds while benefitting from it. Using Coachella’s energy see-saw, their shuttle buses, camping on the grounds rather than driving back and forth from a hotel, and carpooling with their Carpoolchella program are all ways you can help reduce your environmental impact when attending the festival.


As someone who doesn’t attend music festivals, you can still help the environment by making it easier for Coachella to reduce its environmental impact. Currently, the US has the capability to recycle 75% of its 292 million tons of waste. However, the US only recycles about 30% of its annual waste due to people not trying to recycle or recyclable trash being mishandled. With awareness campaigns, we can help the environment by getting more of the trash produced by the US recycled.


In addition to getting the US to recycle more, increasing the accessibility and lowering the cost of renewable energy could encourage Coachella and other music festivals to switch over. At the moment, the US uses 79% fossil fuels, 8% nuclear power, and 13.1% renewable energy. Due to the lack of renewable energy usage in the United States, the cost of this power is much higher than diesel fuel. To keep costs of powering Coachella at a reasonable level, Coachella has not switched over to renewable energy. However, if the amount of renewable energy used in the United States were to increase through petitions to get more renewable energy facilities built, Coachella may switch over and lower its environmental impact.


This energy issue can also be helped through research into renewable fuels for transportation vehicles including airplanes and cars. At the moment, despite biofuel existing, the increased cost of using renewable fuel is too high in mass amounts for powering a plane or car. Research into increasing the efficiency of these fuels may lower costs and encourage others to drive cars that use renewable energy.



 

Recap

Coachella claims to aim for sustainability and to leave a positive impact on the desert and the outside world, which it does so through its many programs dealing with waste, water, and energy. However, these programs are not enough simply because there are factors Coachella cannot control. Transportation to the festival is the biggest cause of pollution, even with carpooling and other attempts to reduce emissions such as camping. The mass amounts of diesel fuel used to power the festival, as well as the mass amount of waste generated from Coachella, are also factors Coachella cannot control due to the United States’ lack of renewable power and inability to recycle all of the waste produced by Coachella.


To help with this issue, if you are a music festival attendee, you can participate in Coachella’s pre-existing sustainability programs. If you are not a music festival attendee, signing petitions and providing support for an increase in recycling, building renewable energy facilities, and research for biofuel can help the environment. Building these facilities and research may lower the costs for energy enough that Coachella makes the switch over and people will use biofuel for transportation rather than regular non-renewable fuel.


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Author: Karen Wong


Editor: Charlotte Wang

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