Putting the “Green” in Green River Festival

Jim Olsen admits that the Green River Festival – named by USA Today, the New York Times and Rolling Stone as one of the best festivals in the U.S. last year – had humble beginnings.

“It was a half-assed country fest,” says festival director Olsen of the first festival in 1986, which took place at Greenfield Community College, outside the small town of Greenfield in rural northwestern Massachusetts. Three bands played for five hours, and it was free.

Fast forward to July 2016 when nearly 14,000 music lovers from New England and beyond flocked to the college grounds to hear performances by more than 40 bands – ranging from indie rock to Latin to alt country – over the course of three days on three different stages.

Caption: Greenfield sits in what’s known as the Pioneer Valley at the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains. Photo credit: Brianne Miers.

While the growth has been dramatic, the festival has held tightly to its community ties for 30 years. “There’s been a really organic growth process,” Olsen says.

Since taking the reins two years ago, Olsen has had several priorities; however one of the biggest has been to strengthen the festival’s commitment to sustainability. Even though recycling and composting bins have been offered for some time, he says he wanted to do more. “It was a little depressing to see all of the dumpsters at the end of the weekend.”

Photo credit: Brianne Miers

Inspired by other local festivals, including the Garlic and Arts Festival in Orange, MA, which boasts that its 10,000 attendees only generate one bag of trash, Olsen and his staff decided to implement a ban on selling plastic water bottles at the festival this year.

The move generated only a handful of complaints, Olsen reports, most likely because of a new partnership with Klean Kanteen, which works with events and festivals around the country to reduce landfill waste (it diverted 400,000 single plastic bottles from landfills in 2015 alone). Klean Kanteen provided water stations throughout the grounds. Attendees who purchased four beer tickets, also received a commemorative Klean Kanteen cup, which could be filled at the Berkshire Brewing Company beer tents.

Photo credit: Brianne Miers

Photo credit: Brianne Miers

Another idea to help curb waste was the requirement that the festival’s two-dozen food vendors (many of which use natural and organic ingredients, and source their products from local farms on a regular basis), use compostable plates, napkins and utensils.

Photo credit: Brianne Miers

Caption: Sweet potato noodles with locally grown vegetables on a compostable bamboo plate. Photo credit: Brianne Miers.

To reduce the festival’s carbon footprint, Olsen and staff launched a biking program this year. Bikers could download maps on the festival website showing routes from the festival campground and points around Greenfield to the grounds. They even partnered with a valet to park bikes at no extra cost. Volunteers from the Pioneer Valley chapter of MassBike, the statewide bicycle advocacy organization, manned the bike racks. Chapter President Sean Condon estimated that he checked in nearly 250 bikes over the weekend – a number that Olsen thought could have been up to three times higher if it hadn’t rained both days.

Photo credit: Brianne Miers

The festival also encouraged carpooling by promoting an online rideshare forum and its new partnership with Skedaddle. The Skedaddle app, which Olsen calls the “Uber for festivals,” crowdsources rides to events. To limit the number of cars on the grounds, shuttle buses ran regularly from downtown Greenfield, the campground and satellite parking lots.

Green River Festival isn’t the only one changing things up. Other big-name festivals are trying to lessen their environmental impact as well. Bonnaroo, which strives to be the “greenest festival,” produces an annual sustainability report detailing its accomplishments; last year it diverted nearly 198 tons of trash from landfills. Coachella (which drew nearly 200,000 attendees this spring), sponsors a recycling bin decorating contest, randomly awards prizes to carpoolers, and trades festival merchandise for collected bottles, cans and cups at its “recycling store.”

Although it was too soon for Olsen to say if there are any plans for making the festival even more earth friendly next year, he remains committed to the cause.

“We just want to make it a part of what we do. And we want to have a good party.”

​Brianne Miers is a Boston-based nonprofit consultant and freelance writer whose blog, A Traveling Life, focuses on how to balance a professional career with a life of travel. 

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