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

Marco Torres
Sold-out Jay-Z crowd = A lot of trash at Toyota Center.

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."

buzzfest09.jpg
Meredith Baker
Hungry crowds at events like Buzzfest 2009 test the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion's recycling capacity
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.
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