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Annual parade of discarded Reading tents shows waste still a huge issue at festivals

By | Published on Friday 3 September 2021


We’re often told that young people are filled with anxiety about the climate crisis. Thankfully though, the return of the Reading Festival is here to remind us that, actually, quite a lot of them really couldn’t give a fuck.

With the beginning of the return of the festival business post-COVID shutdown comes another annual tradition – aerial footage of the tens of thousands of discarded tents left behind after the Reading Festival has finished. The vast majority of which will end up in landfill.

This is not just a problem at Reading, of course, but more than any other festival, it has earned the dubious honour of being the big music event that is made an example of every year. The festival has made various attempts over the years to get people to take their tents home with them or use pre-pitched tents, but many punters are still failing to take these messages on board.

As the aforementioned footage of all those discarded tents predictably did the rounds on social media earlier this week – accompanied by much virtual tutting – the festival’s sustainability manager Lily Robbins told BBC Breakfast that it was “heartbreaking” to see so many tents still being left behind.

Some people discard their tents and sleeping bags at the festival’s site because they believe that they will be donated to refugee camps, which is true for a small number of them. Angus Clark, CEO of Herts For Refugees, said that the charity has collected around 2300 tents and 500 sleeping bags to be taken to refugees in French camps.

“In winter time it can be quite desperate, so the things we salvage from festivals like Reading can actually be life-saving”, he told the BBC. However, he added: “The bigger picture environmentally has to be considered… we can only take such a small amount compared to what’s left behind”.

Of course, a key reason why most of the tents left behind can’t be used by charities like Herts For Refugees is because they aren’t in any fit state for future use. Many of the discarded tents – different accounts estimate between more than half to up to 90% – are damaged to the point of being unusable. In some cases that is due to cheap, poor quality equipment having been bought in the first place, in others the damage appears to be deliberate.

In the past, the idea of a ‘tent tax’ has been proposed – a levy added to ticket prices that would be refundable if the ticketholder can show that they had taken their tent away with them. That would pose some sizeable logistical issues, however. The end of a festival is chaotic enough without people queuing for refunds, and if the refund process happens once people get home, what would be adequate proof that they didn’t dump anything on site?

To date, Reading and sister festival Leeds have taken a more positive approach by working with the FestivalBag initiative, which allows people to pre-order a festival camping kit, pick it up when they arrive at the event, and have it delivered back to their homes afterwards. A reward scheme is also included in this for people who actually do bag up their equipment at the end of the weekend.

“We passionately feel it is unacceptable to leave clothing, camping equipment and rubbish behind after a festival”, says the FestivalBag website, which now also operates at other Festival Republic-promoted events. “The act is irresponsible and not in-keeping with the ethos of a modern festival”.

“Over 60 tonnes of abandoned clothing and camping equipment (which is often reusable) and rubbish blight the beautiful green pastures of the UK annually and this figure is only set to rise”, it continues. “It really is a very sad state of affairs. Add to that the phenomenal consumption of single use plastic items that are brought into play throughout and the 1000s of cars needlessly taken to the festival sites. Something has got to change. Our festival culture is becoming unsustainable”.

As hinted at there, it’s not just tents and sleeping bags being left behind. “You don’t even want to know what I’ve seen”, one security guard at this year’s Reading Festival told BerkshireLive, before going on: “We’ve had soiled underwear – always women’s underwear weirdly, never men’s – and condoms, used and unused”.

While he stopped there, presumably leaving off the worst of what he’s seen, BerkshireLive went on to make its own list, including “fouled underwear with stains in”, “tampons (used)”, “ball gag”, “pair of false teeth (but only half of them)”, “50 iPhones”, and “an inflatable penis with a hole in it”.

In a separate article published while the event was underway, BerkshireLive also noted a new type of rubbish being found at this year’s festival – lateral flow tests showing that the user tested positive for COVID-19.

Of course, this is not the only festival where waste is an issue, and the singling out of Reading each year is likely due to its audience skewing younger than some other events. Who doesn’t love a bit of demonisation of youth, after all?

There are many reasons why someone might leave their tent behind though – including it being broken because it was cheap; it’s seen as the norm now; or a genuine belief that it will be used to help others. But maybe some people really just don’t give a fuck about the environment.

Or perhaps they are just so despairing of what they’ve been saddled with by the older generation in terms of the climate and environment that they don’t feel it’s worth bothering doing anything about it. So don’t go around feeling too smug all you old people.