Oregon's Pickathon Points the Way to Music Festivals Going Green

Pickathon 2013
John Keel

When the stage goes quiet at the close of any summer music festival, there comes a new kind of chorus known to anyone who's tromped back to a campsite alongside 10,000 other weary music lovers: the crunch of a sea of disposed water bottles. From California’s Coachella to New York City’s Governors Ball, music festivals generate waste by the ton.

All except for one gathering, an Oregon fest called Pickathon that takes place on an 80-acre farm in Happy Valley this Aug. 1-3. This may be hard to believe, but it's an annual festival whose 3,500 attendees contribute almost nothing to area landfills. They drink from the same stainless steel cup for an entire weekend, and eat from bamboo bowls that are hand-washed and reused throughout three-day event.

If that seems like a crazy hippie idea, it isn't, festival founder Zale Schoenborn tells Billboard.

The festival began 16 years ago with recycled plastic beer cups, but after realizing they were burning through 50,000 to 100,000 cups in a weekend, organizers decided "that was just unacceptable to us," Schoenborn says, and they posed an intriguing question: "Is there any way to do this without all this plastic?"

There is: Five years ago, Pickathon's brass reached out to Kleen Kanteen, whose engineers happily agreed to design a stainless steel cup, sell it to festivalgoers at cost and allow them to tote it around the festival. Before implementing this revolutionary sustainability plot, though, Pickathon organizers reached out to its fans via the event's blog and vetted the idea.

“It went viral; people loved it,” Schoenborn said.

The execution was “flawless,” he added. “Those cups are incredibly bomber, and they’re great collectibles.”

Next came dishware: at Pickathon, attendees now buy a $10 token at the outset. To buy food, they fork over the token, and get it back again when they bring back the bamboo bowl to be washed by festival volunteers.

It works because there’s a buy-in from an already eco-conscious crowd, Schoenborn acknowledges, but there’s no reason such a system couldn't happen at any of the bigger festivals, he insists.

Tucker Gumber has attended 58 music festivals in the past three years, a journey he chronicles on his web site, All of the big festivals -- Coachella, Bonnaroo, Sasquatch -- generate mountains of trash, mostly plastic water bottles. Only those that don’t sell water bottles to begin with, like Pickathon and California’s Lightning in a Bottle, keep a lid on the trash problem. Gumber believes festivals organizers are reluctant to forgo the money they make selling water.

A possible solution: “I think festivals should put in a water tax,” he says. Divide the revenue typically earned on water among the festivalgoers and add that to the ticket price, then make refillable water stations ubiquitous. “Seventy-five percent of trash is bottles of water. If you get rid of the bottles, the festival becomes 75 percent cleaner.” 

The U.K. nonprofit “A Greener Festival” estimates that 20 million cigarette butts are left behind on the fields of the Glastonbury music festival each year, along with tent stakes and even entire tents. The organization hands out awards each year for festivals that clean up their acts, via cup deposits a la Pickathon, or by putting a small tax on paper and plastic dishware. The “perfect world” scenario is something akin to the Oregon system, according to the organization: attendees bringing their own reusable stuff.

The key is clear, says Schoenborn: Plan ahead with the fest's fanbase, which any festival worth its salt can do with the click of a Facebook post. Schoenborn says representatives from several different festivals have quizzed him about the potential for going plastic free, but they all want it to be an optional program, which wouldn’t work. The other roadblock: bottled water is a huge moneymaker.

So it may not happen at a Coachella or a Sasquatch any time soon, but imagine a music festival free of single-use trash.

“Everybody should be doing this,” he says. “Absolutely.”