Anyone who grew up in the 1970's in Tennessee like I did can sing a bit of "Tennessee Trash," a comic and catchy PSA that was sponsored by the State Department of Transportation to discourage littering. The spot featured a wild looking ruffian sporting a heart shaped tattoo with the word "Trash" instead of "Mom." This character, "Tennessee Trash," spends all 60 seconds of the PSA (Bill Hudson & Associates Advertising Agency) speeding around in a junky old Corvair covertable throwing out trash and "messing up the highways, junking up the byways" until his bumper falls off, the camera rests on his vanity plate "Trash," and the song ends with the message, "Lord, there ain't no lower class than Tennessee Trash."
Watching that old PSA makes me nostalgic for the good old 1970's when most of the litter was paper, glass bottles and aluminum cans. Where were the plastic bags in that 1970's highway litter? Since the first plastic bags were introduced in grocery stores in the 80's, the floating plastic bag has become inexorably associated with our driving experience. The glass bottle that Tennessee Trash ran over in his Corvair? An updated version of the PSA would surely feature a plastic bottle instead as nearly all beverages, including water, have come to be packaged in PET. While the trash of the 1970's could be easily recycled back into the same materials if only it got into a trash can and to the right facility, most of today's trash is made up of petrochemical plastic polymers that can only be "downcycled" into lesser grade material, just another step from the landfill at best, where it will last forever without biodegrading. Oh the simplicity of the 1970's. We didn't know how much trashier things would get.
For a modern day Tennessee trash experience, I headed to the 10th annual Bonnaroo Music Festival on a 700 acre farm in Manchester, Tennessee held on 4 sweltering days in June, 2011. I was there for Eminem, Arcade Fire, Sister Scissors, The Black Keys, Loretta Lynn, Wanda Jackson and the opportunity to talk trash. I was invited by Rock the Earth, a nonprofit that does environmental programming at Bonnaroo and other music events, to say a few words about plastic pollution on behalf of the nonprofit I co-founded, Plastic Pollution Coalition, from the Solar Stage on Friday afternoon right after a performance by Aunt Martha ( a cool band, not a character like Tennessee Trash.) Before I got to Bonnaroo. I envisioned trying to give my pitch about refusing single use plastics to an unruly, drunk crowd waiting to see Aunt Martha, not me, who would pummel me with plastic bottles for my efforts. I was pleasantly surprised to find perhaps the friendliest 80,000 people ever assembled, and a well- orchestrated waste management team at Bonnaroo that got almost everything right.
The clever folks at Bonnaroo know a thing or two about trash. (1) First of all, they know that 80,000 people make a lot of it. (2) Next, they know that very little of that trash needs to go to the landfill. Most of it can be recycled, downcycled or composted. (3) Third they know that most people, especially those who may be a bit buzzed from beer, sunshine and possibly other substances, have no idea which trash is recyclable, compostable or goes straight to landfill. (4) In addition, they know that waste stations placed conveniently around the concert venue can be efficient and educational if manned by educated staff who help people choose the correct bins. And finally, (5) they know that avoiding waste by encouraging reusable containers is the best way to reduce overall waste.
It's hot as blazes in summertime in Tennessee and the Bonnaroo folks know that hydration is key to keeping their audience from overheating. But instead of just pitching bottled water to the sweaty masses, Bonnaroo has installed giant "hydration stations" around the venue where concert goers can refill their reusable containers with cold filtered water for free. Yes, plastic bottled water is still sold on site, but most people seemed to love the hydration stations and were willing to wait in line for a refill. Some people purchased Bonnaroo commemorative steel water bottles at the merchandise booths, but many others came to the concerts with their own reusable containers.
Clean Vibes, a company formed and dedicated to the responsible waste and recycling management of outdoor festivals and events, has been a part of all 10 Bonnaroo festivals, handling the trash and recycling management for each event. Over the past nine years, Clean Vibes has diverted over 2 million pounds of recyclable and compostable material produced at the festival from the landfill. Take a look at the waste statistics from 2010 alone. What's more, Clean Vibes has educated every concert-goer through its "Trash Talkers" staffing each waste disposal site to show the public how to separate their waste into "landfill," "compost," and "recyclables."
The food and drink merchants sold plenty of cold drinks and tasty treats besides water. Much to my surprise, almost everything was served in compostable containers made of paper or corn based bioplastic that could be thrown into the compost bins with the food waste as directed by ever present and always helpful Trash Talkers manning each waste station. Though Clean Vibes manages to divert bioplastics from landfill at Bonnaroo, a commendable achievement, bioplastics are not yet a practical or sustainable alternative in most applications outside Bonnaroo. Compostable plastic present many issues that remain to be solved, such as the lack of access in most regions to industrial composting facilities and lack of waste collection services to get the bioplastics to a composting facility. There is also concern about diverting agricultural product to packaging, corn as a GMO monoculture that is heavily treated and fertilized with chemicals, and chemical additives that may make the bioplastic ill suited for crop soil.
The plastic bottles and plastic cups that were sold on site were collected into the recycling bins at each waste station. The amount of this plastic waste was reduced greatly due to the hydration stations. But no plastic bottles are good. As I told the crowd from the Solar Stage, this plastic doesn't get recycled like glass or aluminum that comes back to life again as bottles or cans in a perfect repeating cycle. The plastic that makes it to a recycling plant may never be recycled at all if the price of virgin material is low enough, which is often the case. Then it's straight to the landfill or sent overseas to be incinerated (air pollution!) If the plastic does get melted down, the process weakens the polymer bonds and the resulting material is most often used for fluff, filler of road fill - not for new bottles. That means a never ending production of new bottles from virgin petrochemicals and a lot of downgraded plastic fluff and fill that lasts forever without biodegrading. Every piece of plastic ever created is still in existence in some form.
But back to the positive, clean vibes at Bonnaroo. Bonnaroo has figured out how to keep everyone on the farm happy, hydrated and well fed while reducing their trash. Now that's class.
Please consider volunteering as a Trash Talker for Bonnaroo XI in 2012. You will get free admission to the festival, food and a campsite.