Is this the greenest festival in the UK?
This May will mark the 30th year of the Hay Festival in Hay on Wye and while literature still looms large, its strands of conversations on politics, human experience and sustainability can be considered a forerunner to the TED talk format. Bill Clinton famously called it ‘the Woodstock of the mind”.
But that’s not the only thing this Welsh festival has pioneered, it’s arguably one of the greenest festivals in the UK and has laid a festival greenprint for others to follow.
Tue 2 May 2017
Andy Fryers, Sustainability Director at the festival, has overseen a decade of serious commitment to bringing the environmental impact of the festival down, as the crowds have grown to capacity. 250,000 tickets are sold to the various events over the 10 days.
“A lot of it is trial and error,” he explains. “We’ll talk to a range of people, look at what worked well the previous year and what new technology is around and make a change. If it works, we’ll keep it.”
Everything is monitored, measured and assessed for efficiency and written up to help others follow in their green footprints.
“It’s easy when you first start out as there are some dramatic changes you can make but we’re into finessing it now, with smaller tweaks,” Fryers explains. “Other stuff has crept in as the technology has changed - we’ve got an infra-red camera we use to see where heat is escaping and we’ve introduced Wi-fi across the whole site so people can use their own tech more. We still need to print a small number of programmes as people like to buy them for souvenirs and at some point the Wi-fi always goes down.”
Fryers makes a good point. The course of a big event never runs smooth.
“In the middle of each festival we try and take a step back and see how things are working - it’s only natural that we forget something every year but that’s when you need to make sure you have good people around you and accept that you’re not going to get everything 100% right,” he says. “But you learn for next year and look at the long term plan.”
To be honest, most events would run a lot better without any people. At pretty much any festival, the carbon emissions of the people travelling to the venue undermines the good work the venue has done to be carbon friendly or neutral. At Hay, the emissions of people travelling to the festival outweighs the eco-friendly measures by ten times. So you can have all the recycling bins and water stations you like, but really the key issue is transport.
“We have a poor public transport system in mid-Wales, the train station is 40 minutes away and the buses are inadequate for even normal use so it’s a battle,” Fryers says. “But we promote car sharing, we put on extra shuttle buses and extend their routes, we do park and ride and provide electric car charging points but it’s always going to be a struggle.”
What is making it easier to plan how to maximise how much impact all these things have is Big Data. Knowing where people are travelling from and in what numbers makes a powerful difference when planning - it’s not big and sexy but most of the initiatives that Hay Festival has implemented are functional not flashy - and they are making a difference.
"The biggest impact the event has is not what I do to organise events or mitigate the travel emissions it’s the ideas and debates and getting people thinking"
Inspire and inform
But of course it’s not just about behind the scenes changes. Changing people’s minds to think green beyond the couple of days they’re in Hay on Wye, can have a much larger effect.
“The biggest impact the event has is not what I do to organise events or mitigate the travel emissions it’s the ideas and debates and getting people thinking about making changes when they get home" says Fryers."
Over the last few years Hay Festival has had some enormous names drop in for chats with Fryers in a field, such as Al Gore.
“One of the best things about Hay is the things you pop into while you’re killing time and they’re the ones that are the most fascinating,” he explains. “It’s amazing what you can learn in an hour and it opens a different door in your life, you’re not expecting it."
He’s not the only one who thinks so. One year one man was so inspired by the festival’s commitment to the environment, he went home and tried to make his whole village carbon neutral. Ten years later he’s 70% of the way there.
“That impact is a lot bigger than reducing waste and electricity on site,” says Fryers. “That’s where we have an opportunity and a duty to send people back out there better informed and inspired.”
The 2017 Hay Festival runs from 24 May - 4 June. Hay on Earth, the sustainable forum at the festival will focus on entrepreneurs who have found new ways to grow food and transport people.