Reaping a harvest from festival waste

Have you ever wondered what happens to the rubbish left by crowds at a music festival? Three people in the know are the team from Complete Wasters, a ...

Have you ever wondered what happens to the rubbish left by crowds at a music festival? Three people in the know are the team from Complete Wasters, a  workers co-operative based in Sileby, Leicester.

Since 1996, Complete Wasters has been sorting and recycling the waste generated at festivals around the country. It has tidied up at Glastonbury, Blenheim Palace and Highclere Castle – also known as Downton Abbey.

Every July, it spends a dirty weekend at Hatfield House, an elegant Jacobean mansion in Hertfordshire. Here, it clears up after a ‘Battle Prom’ – a concert with fireworks, cannons and cavalry – on Saturday to make way for the Folk by the Oak festival on Sunday, after which it clears up again.

Deborah Parker, Darren Potter and Colin Bowles, the three members who run the co-op, cannot do this on their own, so for each event they recruit up to 50 volunteers. Many are regular helpers, while others just come for the day. They all offer a few hours of labour in return for a free ticket to the event.

The co-op has a longstanding partnership with Battle Proms Picnic Concerts, which holds festivals at some of Britain’s grandest houses. Complete Wasters’ workers pick up the waste by hand – it just wouldn’t be cricket to damage grounds landscaped by Capability Brown – and sort on site to maximise the amount recycled.

“We want to get a slightly higher percentage of recycling, and that’s why we sort on site,” says Deborah. “We usually contract with a bigger waste company to take the non-recyclables away.

“There isn’t generally a lot of glass – usually festival organisers discourage it – but Battle Proms are different. People are encouraged to bring picnics. They generate tons of  glass, including champagne bottles.” 

Each year, Complete Wasters recycles more than 10,000 glass bottles at five Battle Proms. Every festival has a different character, a different mix of waste and different methods of collecting and sorting. And each requires careful planning.

Complete Wasters’ key members Colin Bowles (left),  Deborah Parker (right, with Emily) and Darren Potter (kneeling), with volunteers Stuart, Monica and Linda
Complete Wasters’ key members Colin Bowles (left), Deborah Parker (right, with Emily) and Darren Potter (kneeling), with volunteers Stuart, Monica and Linda

At this year’s Summer Sundae, a three-day music festival staged by Leicester City Council, Complete Wasters worked with organisers to ensure as much packaging as possible was biodegradable.

Deborah says: “It’s not easy to persuade traders to use recyclable packaging because it’s more expensive and harder to get hold of than conventional packaging, but at Summer Sundae we had success, aided by the introduction of a Green Trader Award for the most carbon-neutral trader. We managed to get that across the board.

“After the event we took about 300kg of biodegradable plastic pint glasses to a local composting facility, where they were mixed with other green waste. The resulting giant heaps got hot enough for the pint pots to fully biodegrade into useful compost for the local farmland.”

The volunteers must be trained and supervised, and the co-op often relies on the more experienced volunteers to lead teams in order to provide an efficient service.

“We have a core group of regular volunteers who have been with us for 10 years or so and we advertise locally to attract new volunteers,” says Deborah. “It works really well for students who want to go and see something but can’t afford it.”

“We try to recycle everything as local to the event as possible,” adds Darren. “There’s little benefit in transporting waste too far to be recycled – otherwise, our carbon footprint increases – so local merchants are important.

“At last year’s Hatfield Weekend, we took over 16 cubic metres of cardboard and plastic bottles to a merchant just eight miles away.”

Metals including aluminium cans, the only waste stream of significant value, are sold locally. However, income from sales is not sufficient to cover the cost of the clean-up.

Instead, Complete Wasters works on a contract basis, offering a tidy-up, waste disposal and recycling service. There are also a few extras – for instance, it plants a tree for every tonne of waste it recycles.

“We sometimes do that locally ourselves,” says Deborah. “We also work with the National Forest and we’ve planted abroad through the RSPB’s Rainforest Pioneers.”

The co-op holds upcycling workshops and sells recycled gifts at some events to demonstrate closed loop recycling. It also shares information with revellers about what happens to the waste after the party is over.

“We’re trying to raise awareness of recycling and reusing materials, rather than being this invisible force that tidies it all away,” says Deborah.

Over the years, Complete Wasters’ recycling business has changed and adapted as recycling has transformed, but its busy summer festival season has remained a constant, and become its specialism.

Deborah and Darren created the co-op in 1996, working from their spare bedroom.

“We’d been doing some work at festivals because we were interested in music and festivals anyway,” Deborah recalls. “We thought we’d like to get more involved, and decided to have a go on our own.”

They created a local business which recycled paper, card and can from offices and small businesses around Leicester. “The markets fluctuated quite a lot,” she says. “There were times when the paper market would skyrocket, or collapse.

“We started doing something quite new: we charged the customers to collect it. They were already paying to have their non-recyclable waste taken away, so it wasn’t too much of a problem for most people.”

It wasn’t long before Complete Wasters branched into other kinds of office recycling, including computers and office furniture. “I got a manual and learned how to build computers,” says Deborah. “People started to offer all sorts of stuff.”

As legislation tightened and the financial benefits of recycling increased, more recycling companies entered the market, until office recycling was no longer financially viable for Complete Wasters.

Instead, it put its energy into the Green Place, its base in Sileby. Here, it runs a cafe, sells recycled goods and holds upcycling workshops for children and adults.

This year it hosted two mini music festivals featuring local bands. As well as raising the profile of Complete Wasters, and of recycling and sustainability, these events have supported the Farside music club in Leicester, which supports local musicians as they develop.

The co-op has started upcycling furniture. It provides volunteering opportunities for up to 20 helpers a week and holds children’s parties at weekends. But it still relies on the keystone of the business, those dirty weekends at music festivals, to make the co-op and its activities viable.

“I’ve always enjoyed the great British festival experience, even with a bit of rain,” says Darren, “and I like being part of a team that, in no small way, contributes to making these events green and successful.”

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