Creative Economy

Meet a rogue environmentalist who cleans up after the biggest festivals

Meet a rogue environmentalist who cleans up after the biggest festivals

As the festival’s last set finished, confetti settles under the feet of exhausted attendees as they trudge back to their campsites for the night. What gets left behind is a whirlwind of empty water bottles, lost clothing, food packaging, cigarette butts, and miscellaneous unmentionables. As the silence creeps in, so do The Trash Pirates.

The waste diversion team is a dedicated group of volunteers responsible for the cleanup and disposal of waste at various Californian festivals such as Desert Hearts, Coachella and Boogaloo. After collecting the waste, the group will sort it out in order to divert as much as possible away from landfills to instead be recycled, reused or composted. The Pirates are just as active throughout the days of the festival, holding educational events and waste-sorting dance parties, where attendees can bring the waste they have accumulated to a the group’s sorting space where they are serenaded by a DJ and and conscious of their footprints.

“The general participants don’t realize there is a 24/7 waste management operation happening, all because of the excessive waste,” team member Stephen Chun says. “After participants leave venues, we need to gather a team to sweep large areas. Unfortunately at larger events–due to the short time frames, massive amounts of waste, and limited resources–most of the it ends up in the landfill. It is very disheartening, thousands of plastic bottles, food and organic paper products, all into the landfill.”

Chun, who has worked in waste diversion, media, guest services and site operations a number of festivals over the last four years, originally got his degree in kinesiology. After graduating and pursuing a career in the fitness industry, he found himself miserable and desperate for a way out. He quit, bought himself a DSLR camera and took to the road– “exploring life,” he says, “using festivals as travels stops and vacation spots.”

Soon he found himself falling in love with the scene that, for many, provides a space for community and freedom that is otherwise unattainable in day-to-day life. Many workers in the festival industry spend entire seasons traveling from festival to festival, working wherever they are needed. Volunteering with green teams like The Trash Pirates is an easy (and cheap) way to get into festivals and stay for prolonged periods of time. Not to mention, Chun adds, “all the unnecessary consumption by festival goers meant free camping supplies, cool swag, and enough food to last the entire stay.”


Today he works at various events that host to as many as 150 to 125,000 people. According to data estimated by The Trash Pirates, a small-scale, weekender camping event with close to 2,000 attendees will amount to three large dumpsters, or 90 cubic yards of waste. Other large-scale festivals such as Coachella may produce thousands of cubic yards of waste. And there are outliers. For example, craft food and drink festivals are likely to produce much more that music and camping events, but statistics on the matter are hard to track.

According to AEG Live’s 2016 sustainability report, the leading production and promotion company–of Coachella, Stagecoach and other live music festivals worldwide–has only begun collecting waste data from its festivals in 2015. “Whereas we can continuously improve our waste diversion programs over time at permanent venues, at festivals we rely on temporary processes and have very little time to course correct,” the report reads. The company plans to divert 70 percent of waste from landfills by 2020. While–as of 2015–they have increased the total amount of waste produced by their venues and events by 12,311 metric tons since 2010, they have also seen a doubling in attendance at such events. According to production manager Matt Adams, who managed wristband and control logistics at this year’s festival, The Coachella promotion company Goldenvoice recently purchased 280 acres of land surrounding the original site in Indio. In 2017, an additional stage–“Antarctica”–was put in, while attendance was simultaneously boosted from 90,000 to 125,000.

“It went from such as small festival to one of the largest in the world,” Adams said. “They expanded the property and the capacity with bigger stages and cleaner facilities and [there are talks that] they want to make it full time.”

On a local scale, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Solid Waste Management Plan of 2010 outlined responsibilities local municipalities should take in terms of recycling and renewability in energy and waste however ultimately stated that the department “lacks the authority to enforce local recycling requirements, and there is a wide disparity in the approaches to enforcement taken by New York State’s municipalities and planning units.” While municipalities have enforced a “Zero Waste Plan” for their local festivals, such as the Clearwater Festival in Croton-on-Hudson, the Rockport Exchange or the Pleasantville Music Festival, many lack in prioritization.

As the festival scene continues to grow around the world, Chun says awareness and spending on a “leave no trace” environment has to grow as well.

“Waste management is the last thing production crews want to spend their budget on, it is also the last thing on participants minds. Therefore, we have too much waste and too little resources to fully reduce the impact of the event. I don’t blame participants though, we are born into a society where we don’t think about our resources and where they go. We are trained to be dependent on services and products so we consume more in capitalist civilizations. The side effect? it is destroying our environment and other civilizations.”

Having also worked at Coachella and Stagecoach this year, Chun has seen that the level of freedom and carelessness that drives the vibes of attendees can make his job harder–he describes this year’s social media challenge that had Coachella-goers “cannonballing” into the waste division’s cardboard bins.


“People don’t realize that we go through most of their waste. So, when you put things in a receptacle, remember there is someone on the other side of that. The more waste we create, the more money and time we spend on tackling the issue. That is money being diverted away from the production value of the festival and spent on labor because of people who think, ‘someone else will pick it up.’ I wish people knew, there were no such things as trash cans before [modern civilization.] Someone is providing that service for you.”

Chun spent a month in the festival’s catering hall, teaching the staff about sorting waste and says he has seen that the majority of young people interested in sustainability.

“Let me say, I have never received more appreciation in my life,” he says. “The younger generations are certainly more environmentally aware than the previous generations…The biggest challenge is changing someone’s habits. It takes in-depth communication skills and personality to make someone stop, think, and take time to sort their waste. The biggest payoff is when people become excited about sorting their waste and reducing their environmental impact.”

Finding a way to positively affect the environment around you and maintain a cleaner space–even in the midst of the busy festival culture– is only a matter of small changes.

“The first step is simply being conscious that you produce waste,” Chun says.

“How did it get transported into your hands, where in the world did it come from, how was it packaged, what is it made out of? We need to question everything we buy in order to learn if we are supporting companies that that follow environmental practices or not. Unfortunately the truth is that most recyclable items don’t get recycled. Companies use ‘green washing’ to trick consumers with labels like ‘bio-based’ and ‘biodegradable’ which does not equate to being compostable. Support companies that make compostable utensils, straws, and products–stop using single-use items like plastic cups.”

But making a positive environmental impact isn’t just putting an end to quick and easy habits. It’s about making waste a resource and one of the best ways to start healing the land and climate is to feed it what it craves.

“Sustainability is big, but now we are focusing on being regenerative. By composting, you are creating soil to grow plants that reduce carbon in the atmosphere,” Chun explains.

Though he is an adamant supporter of renewability and sustainability today, Chun says this job helped open his eyes to just how much a person consumes on a daily basis–and just how mindless it can be.

“When we are exposed to the amount of waste we consume as a collective and realize there is no place to throw things away except on our planet, we are obligated to make a change. It’s actually quite addicting–the culture and movement that has arisen from this simple bit of information, he says, “I have found more meaning and purpose in my life through this industry and it’s ironically the field where we are trying to put ourselves out of work.”


Tips for festival attendees to reduce their impact:

  • Refillable bottles/cups and jugs at camp.
  • Using cans instead of glass is more valuable and a lot lighter for us to transport. Even better get your campmates to go in on a keg and save reduce even more waste!
  • Having three bags/bins at camp for landfill, recycle, compost.
  • Using a wash cloth and bowl instead of baby wipes (which are all landfill)
  • Refuse or reuse straws (also mostly landfill)
  • If your material was once a plant or an animal, which is almost everything, it can be composted (if composting services are provided at your event)
  • Buy tobacco pouches and roll your own cigarettes to reduce waste

2 Reader Responses

Yes!! When I volunteered for green team it inspired me to be a Trash Pirate 24/7 !! I had the pleasure of working with Stephen a few times during build and green team, he is super awesome!! I tell people which bin to put trash everywhere I go and always bring my reusable utensils and cup! I make sure to tell people they are sexy when they sort the trash correctly and even more so when they practice conscious consuming. I realize I am 200% always thinking how I can reduce my stress on others and share those tips with all I meet. IT IS amazing how many people really have no clue( or do not care) about where all of their consumables comes from …..and who even really needs a plastic straw? I don’t want that in my mouth..ick. Thank you for all of your hard work Trash Pirates, I hope to do amazing photoshoots with yall!!

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