What the Roskilde Festival Sustainability Lab Learned from its Rock ’n’ Roll Hosts

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Danish indie rock band VETO performs for an enthusiastic crowd in Roskilde, Denmark.

Flickr/Kristoffer Trolle under Creative Commons

Danish indie rock band VETO performs for an enthusiastic crowd in Roskilde, Denmark.

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Steven Tyler, Aerosmith’s infamous vocalist, once noted in a flash of rock wisdom, “We believed that anything worth doing was worth overdoing.” Indeed, the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, with its enthralling appeal, embodies elements of excess and waste. To this end, the Roskilde Festival, which for a week turns into Denmark’s fourth-largest town each year, with more than 130,000 participants, leaves behind an unlikely trove, one that contains leftover supplies, beer cans, and food wrappings in the event’s wake.

Recognizing the potential of this setting for exploring global problems, such as those highlighted during the Rio+20 conference, ignited the idea for the Rio to Roskilde Roundtrip project, an initiative conducted by a group of researchers and supervised by the Copenhagen Business School and the Roskilde Festival’s management. In this way, the festival has turned into possibly the world’s largest laboratory for sustainability.

To the tunes of musical performers like Rihanna and Metallica, the researchers explored sustainability practices in three major areas: alternative housing, general waste and food waste. The results of their work were presented at a conference in Copenhagen’s House of Danish Industry in mid-January and foretold of big developments in how we care for our planet.

Inside, a small octagonal-house prototype with a red roof, placed in the glossy conference lobby, was soon frequented by groups of delegates. It was tested by insulation provider Rockwool International at Roskilde as a green alternative to ordinary tents. Made of innovative stone-wool material, it is waterproof, fire-resistant, and temperature-regulating.

The stone-wool tent prototype in the lobby of Copenhagen’s House of Danish Industry during the Rio to Roskilde Roundtrip conference.

Student Reporter / Eliza Petrova

The stone-wool tent prototype in the lobby of Copenhagen’s House of Danish Industry during the Rio to Roskilde Roundtrip conference.

Kim Haugbolle, head of the housing team and a senior researcher at Aalborg University, recognizes the potential of stone-wool tents in settings where it is essential to build thousands of homes in a short period, such as other festivals, refugee camps, slums, and catastrophe-afflicted regions.

Encouraged by the input he received at Roskilde, Steen Lindby, vice president of Rockwool International, said, “There is so much energy for free at the festival, and it is so concrete. You have to find a solution to certain problems. I think that more companies will see the festival as a laboratory in the future.”

Pondering new ideas for next year’s event, he suggested the possibility of inserting stone wool inside a ditch surrounding the festival, whose purpose would be to absorb runoff bodily fluids.

A World Bank report shows global solid waste piling up speedily, with an expected increase of 70 percent by 2025, compared with 2010. Meanwhile, at the Roskilde Festival a total of 300 tons of waste was recorded in 2013, an increase from 290 tons the year before, accounting for an estimated 17 kilograms of rubbish per festival-goer.

Taking a behavioral approach to this problem, the waste team, headed by Jesper Clement from the Copenhagen Business School, sought to understand the “live like there’s no tomorrow” festival lifestyle while promoting a train of thought reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow … yesterday’s gone” lyric. They noticed that visitors accepted waste as an integral part of the event. The green profile of the Roskilde Festival didn’t seem to matter in this respect.

Clement further noted that knowledge in terms of waste handling is contingent upon a monetary reward rather than concerns about sustainability. He observed that “Tony From Togo,” a representative of a group of independent waste collectors, can spot the difference between Danish and German beer cans from meters away. The difference is that Danish cans yield a small reward when recycled, while foreign beer or food cans have no direct value. Accordingly, the waste team recognizes the need to work with the festival’s incentives structure in regard to waste management.

“One-third of the world’s food is being squandered,” Esben Pedersen, a professor at the Copenhagen Business School and head of the food team, said in his presentation. This also entails huge waste in the use of resources such as land, water and fertilizer. Regarding food practices at the Roskilde Festival, Pedersen had a few suggestions. “We want to focus on collaborative consumption and make more changes in this aspect. For instance, can you make some food available to your neighbors at the camp?”

Another possibility brought up was portion control, or setting as a default smaller portion sizes, among which people can choose from. This idea of “nudging” was brought to light by prominent Harvard professor Cass Sunstein, an ardent proponent of setting defaults to nudge people toward more sustainable choices.

A ripple effect seems to have been initiated in the bustling fields of Roskilde. It is growing with the Rio to Roskilde conference in Copenhagen and could widen internationally. Organizations with a global presence, such as the United Nations Development Programme, are becoming acquainted with the potential of the solutions presented at the conference. “We are looking at the Roskilde Festival for inspiration for the work that we do in the field and in developing countries,” says Stine Junge, communications officer at the UNDP. She notes that in the future she can “approach Rockwool to see what can be applied in slum areas” worldwide.

Markus Kerber, director general of the Federation of German Industry, said during his presentation, “I want to see how you can make an event with 130,000 people more sustainable. We need showcases … we need credible answers to sustainability questions.” Establishing the Roskilde Festival as a showcase would be another step in bringing the research findings back to the global arena, perhaps even at the next United Nations sustainability conference.

Beyond the work of the researchers, progress within the sustainability context at the Roskilde Festival largely lies within the willingness of young festival-goers to take the necessary changes to heart. In this context, perhaps the things worth doing are indeed worth overdoing.

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