Preserving the Environment

The One-Of-A-Kind Oregon Festival That Is Friendly to the Environment and Music Lovers Alike

August 15, 2014
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The One-Of-A-Kind Oregon Festival That Is Friendly to the Environment and Music Lovers Alike
The ceiling of the Woods Stage at the Pickathon Music Festival is crafted from downed branches from the surrounding forest. Winston Ross
Klean Kanteen provided free filtered water — along with reusable stainless steel cups, for $6 — at the Pickathon Music Festival, held each year in Happy Valley. Winston Ross
Attendees of the Pickathon Music Festival are known to attach the stainless steel cups that have replaced single-use bottles and cans to their belts, via a silicon band and carabiner. Winston Ross
All food at Pickathon is served on reusable bamboo plates, which are distributed in exchange for a $10 token purchased at the outset, then traded in for a plate when buying a meal. After eating, festival staff will wash the plate and return the token, so music lovers don’t have to tote their dish around. Winston Ross
Jake Hofeld runs the recycling program at Pickathon, which includes compost collection. Winston Ross
Jam out to great indie bands and eat delicious artisan food, but don’t expect to quench your thirst from a plastic water bottle or toss your empty plate in a trash bin. You’re at Pickathon, the U.S.’s greenest music festival.

You can’t buy a water bottle at the annual Pickathon Music Festival, held on a private 80-acre farm on the outskirts of Portland, Ore. Rather, you can buy a water bottle — but only of the stainless steel, reusable variety.

You can’t buy food served on paper plates, either. You have to ask for a napkin if you want one. And the vendors don’t sell bottles of Coke or cans of Sprite. Everything you eat at Pickathon — unless it’s brought in from your own campsite — is served on a blue bamboo plate, its circular edges rounded into a shallow bowl shape. And the utensils used to serve the legendary Pine State Biscuits or scrumptious Bollywood Theater cucumber beet salad into festivalgoers’ salivating mouths? They’re also made of bamboo, with a spoon at one end and a fork at the other. The craft beers from local breweries and the Riesling from local wineries are served in stainless steel cups designed by Klean Kanteen to minimize foam and insulated to stay cool. Alongside every trash and recycling container is a five-gallon compost bucket, lined with a compostable bag and emptied throughout each of the festival’s three days by a legion of 53 volunteers.

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A permanent solar array mounted atop the Galaxy Barn (one of Pickathon’s seven venues) supplies not only the stage inside but also all the food and craft vendors on the farm with electricity, and three solar generators power the lights and giant lanterns dotting the trails between the camping areas. One of the stages is constructed almost entirely of recycled wooden pallets. Another, appropriately named the Woods stage, is tucked deep into the trees and features a dome above the performers built from curling tree branches. Its audience sits atop burlap sacks draped over hay bales.

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Pickathon is unique among the world’s music festivals for a dozen reasons: its 3,500 attendees are so amicable and well behaved that organizers aren’t forced to play the heavy at stage area checkpoints. Lines are often blissfully short, and musical acts are carefully curated not for their Grammy potential but their raw talent. Pickathon’s band lineup is about the next big thing — not the flavor of the week — and it makes for a real sense of discovery for music fans.

But what truly sets Pickathon apart from other music festivals is how environmentally sustainable it is. And while it may be hard to imagine scaling the aforementioned green innovations to a festival the size of Coachella or Bonnaroo, where hundreds of thousands flock to see the hottest bands on the planet play a live set, it shouldn’t be, insists co-founder Zale Schoenborn: “You just have to set it up to succeed.”

Pickathon began in 1998 at a small venue called Horning’s Hideout, with less than 100 people. The idea was never to make it big, but to make it better than some of the niche-oriented, profit-focused festivals in other parts of the country.

“We just wanted the art of the better party,” said Schoenborn, who created the festival with a few friends. The idea was to put together an event for local and up-and-coming bands that spanned musical genres. “People come to Pickathon knowing we curate the best of the music worlds we try to go after.”

The organizers were all green-minded, but in the early days, they had a venue with existing infrastructure, so there wasn’t much room to innovate.

After seven years, land use issues forced Pickathon to move to a site in nearby Woodburn, to a place called Pudding River, where a “ginormous field with nothing on it” lay, Schoenborn says. The blank slate “made us really create a whole different thing.”

Stages were built from scratch, and Pickathon’s founders began to ponder what this new autonomy might allow them to accomplish. But after just a year at Pudding River, more land use problems required the festival to search for its third home, eventually settling at an 80-acre farm in Happy Valley that is owned by Sherry and Scott Pendarvis. “Bohemian, wonderful people,” as Schoenborn describes them.

Like the previous site, the farm wasn’t set up to host a music festival, so it was up to Schoenborn and his crew to build it. They erected custom-designed stages and a shade structure made entirely of tensioned fabric to keep music fans cool at the ninth annual event, which was held in 2006.

As Oregonians, holding an event that was light on the land was an important part of Pickathon’s ethic, so it has always had a heavy emphasis on recycling. But even serving beer in recyclable plastic cups resulted in the distribution of tens of thousands of cups and bottles in a single weekend. There had to be a better way, Schoenborn figured.

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The following year, that number dropped to zero.

Via Pickathon’s blog, Schoenborn asked festivalgoers if they would be willing to consider some kind of single-use container, something they’d buy once at the outset and then carry with them from stage to stage. Overwhelmingly, respondents said yes.

So Schoenborn and Pickathon’s other organizations reached out to Klean Kanteen, makers of a line of reusable food-grade stainless steel products, who in turn, designed a steel pint cup, which sells at the festival for $6. Organizers set up a dozen or more filtered water refill stations strategically placed throughout the farm, so that people wouldn’t have to wait in long lines to fill their cups (or their own water bottles.) Even that first year, Schoenborn says, the idea went off without a hitch, and Pickathon became the first music festival in the world to implement such a system. “It was flawless,” he says.

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The next innovation was those bamboo plates, a far trickier challenge than the cups. While the cups are fairly easy to tote around the venue — Klean Kanteen also sells a silicon accessory that loops around the rim of the container and can attach to a belt buckle via carabiner to aid in the process — imagine having to lug around a whole plate and a bamboo spork for an entire weekend.

Enter the token system. Before purchasing any food at Pickathon, you must first visit a station that distributes a wooden coin about the size of a quarter, for $10. Then, you take that token to a food booth, hand it over (along with additional cash for your food), and receive a meal served on a bamboo plate. Once you’ve eaten, you can either wash the plate yourself at a nearby dishwashing station and keep it, or head back to the token station, where you return the plate (someone else will wash it) and receive your wooden coin back.

If that sounds complicated, it really isn’t. First-time festival-goers do require some explanation and vendors had some difficulty understanding that they couldn’t choose what dishware to serve their food on, everyone picked up the concept quickly, Schoenborn says.

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Those two steps alone — replacing all the single-use dishware and plastic cups with reusable materials — have helped reduce Pickathon’s landfill impact by about a dumpster load, Hofeld told NationSwell.

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“My job keeps getting easier,” he says.

But he and the festival’s organizers remain on the hunt for new ways to reduce the event’s environmental footprint.

Pickathon itself creates very little landfill waste, but the festival goers still bring in loads of their own stuff for their campsites: individually-wrapped snacks, cans and bottles, anything you might tote along to a camping trip. Plus, people leave things behind, such as tents that break during the weekend, chairs and tennis shoes. Once, an abandoned sewing machine remained.

“The majority of the trash is coming from the campers, not from the event,” Hofeld said. “Camping is messy business. That’s why we can’t be a zero-waste event.”

Organizers could ask people to “pack it out” (the way you would on a backpacking trip), that only reduces the amount of trash Pickathon hauls away, not the amount of trash generated. Plus, part of the festival’s charm is that it’s not a place where someone is always telling you what to do: “We don’t want to get too preachy,” Hofeld says.

The event partners with Clackamas County and the local trash hauling company Hood View Disposal, which provides the waste collection equipment gratis, but if it’s not recyclable as a curbside pickup back in Portland, it has to go in the landfill. And because it’s so labor-intensive to sort out the less obvious recyclable material — the plastic packing of a dozen apples from Trader Joe’s, for example — there’s actually less product that can be easily tossed in a recycling bin today than there was a few years ago, Hofeld says, so it’s mostly bottles and cans that go in those containers.

Composting is a different story, though. Four years ago, the festival convinced the local trash company to drop a compost bin at the festival. Recycling crewmembers fan out throughout the festival grounds, informing people what can and can’t be composted. Food is an obvious choice; paper, though compostable, stays out, because the hauler can’t collect it. Compostable items from the campsites (which are scattered throughout the woods) aren’t gathered because it’s not worth the effort.

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Pickathon’s sustainability works well in part because it takes place in part of the country whose population is already well attuned to the ethic of recycling, Hofeld says. Much of what makes the system work here, then, is that there’s a well-oiled infrastructure already in place to receive all those recyclables.

As awareness about climate change increases, though, there is growing interest in sustainability across America, and part of that movement includes making music festivals easier on the environment. Both Schoenborn and Hofeld regularly field calls from their counterparts at events across the country, and they tend to give the same advice to everyone: Whatever you do, go all in. If you design an optional system — selling stainless cups but also plastic water bottles, for example — it won’t work.

For music lovers, the options are a little more complex. Convincing your favorite festival to go greener may be more about convincing the county that hosts it to provide more recycling options. After all, festivals can’t recycle what their trash collector doesn’t haul. But a good first step, suggests Hofeld, is to contact your state representative to lobby for better recycling options in your home state.

Or, journey to Oregon, for next year’s Pickathon.

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