DGTL Festival: Sustainability
Photo by Kirsten van Santen
Sustainability is a big buzzword. Many festivals have some sustainable elements in place, the most obvious being recycling bins that are more often than not used for trash by attendees.
Truth be told, there aren’t many event promoters changing their practices to actively create a “circular festival,” the term Netherlands-based DGTL Festival uses for its events currently setting the standards for sustainable events.
“A circular festival has zero waste and zero emissions,” says DGTL’s sustainability coordinator Mitchell van Dooijeweerd. “All the materials used to put on the event are kept in the production cycle, with no pollution or materials wasted after the event is over.”
DGTL has worked toward its circular festival goal since launching in 2013. Currently, DGTL has three full-time employees who work solely on sustainability. The model festival for these practices is DGTL’s flagship event, which takes place annually on Easter weekend at Amsterdam’s destination neighborhood, NDSM Wharf.
The blueprints that come from the Amsterdam festival are implemented at DGTL festivals across the globe, whose sites can vary greatly from NDSM Wharf.
DGTL splits its circular approach into five different sectors: energy cycle, food cycle, water cycle, resources cycle, and mobility cycle.
DGTL’s first step is to collect the energy needs of all its supplies. From this data, they put together an efficient energy plan. The energy used at DGTL comes from renewable sources including solar and wind. For this, the festival taps into NDSM’s power grid, which gets its energy from a green supplier.
Power sources in the Netherlands give consumers the option to choose green energy or fossil energy (“grey energy”).
“The energy the suppliers are generating is coming in one system,” van Dooijeweerd says. “If you choose green energy suppliers, they will grow and increase in number. We pick the company that is only working with those green sources.”
The festival site also uses solar panels, whose stored energy does not always last through the night. To make up for this, they use green batteries, which are pre-charged with green energy sources. One battery can power an entire stage, and six batteries can run the whole festival.
The locally sourced food at DGTL exists in a no-waste cycle that avoids using animal products whenever possible. Leftover “food residue” is reimagined by DGTL’s local chefs into delicious recipes. The festival also has relationships with supermarkets to receive soon-to-be expired items and with farmers to collect surplus produce. Daily menus are put together based on what is available.
“The chefs we are working with have food left from their restaurants that they didn’t use that they would otherwise throw away,” van Dooijeweerd says. “We collect all the day-old bread from bakeries and make toast. Our plates and cutlery are compostable. We give it back to the soil so we can grow new food out of it. We don’t have any food waste, which gives us a circular food court.”
Water at DGTL is from a renewable source. It is filtered and reused, including from showers (waste is also composted), to minimize the use of fresh water and keep water in a closed loop.
This is a complex system that involves asking each supplier what they bring to the festival, what they reuse, what they take back with them, and what they leave at the festival. For these, DGTL has to come up with a means of process.
For example, the reusable hardcups DGTL uses for beverages. Festival-goers “rent” their first cup for €1. Each time you get a new drink, the cup is swapped for a fresh one. The alternative is to pay for a new hardcup with every new drink. Attendees are used to these practices and are compliant with the swapping system DGTL has in place.
When it comes to the last hardcup used, DGTL has collection points and incentives for attendees to return their hardcups. Attendees are entered into a drawing for a variety of desirable rewards such as tickets to the following year’s festival, or to one of DGTL’s festivals in Spain, Brazil, or India.
Prior to breaking down the festival, a sweep is made for all hardcups, which results in a 98% return.
“We collect them all,” van Dooijeweerd says, “We count them all, and then we separate them all by the right size. That’s a hell of a job. There are 400,000 cups. We put them all in the crates to transport them to the washing station, then they will be washed and we will have them back for the next event.”
For festival-goers who would prefer not to use hardcups, DGTL has single-use plastic softcups. For these, there is a recycling hub at the site. The festival workers separate the items returned to create monoflos which are conducive to reusing or upcycling, which is preferable to recycling. If there isn’t a way to make something new of these collected items, DGTL stores them until there is.
This also applies to structures that are made for the festival, such as a lighting rig, which now lives at the NDSM Wharf.
“We design something that is good for our festival, but we also want it to have a purpose where we have the event,” van Dooijeweerd says. “NDSM Wharf said they needed lighting because it gets really dark there. The lighting is not only built for our purpose but for future purposes, so we built it in a way that keeps its value after the festival.”
Mobility refers to transportation to and from the festival for workers, suppliers, artists and attendees. As the biggest emitter of DGTL, mobility is the most challenging of the cycles and is not yet quite at zero emissions.
DGTL encourages commuting to the festival by train, which in the Netherlands is run on green energy. They provide train ticket deals and free shuttles from the station to the site. They also make sure attendees know that there is no parking on-site and the nearest spaces are a 20-minute walk, without a shuttle option.
For non-local artists, DGTL provides flight options on aircrafts operating with sustainable aviation fuel. They are moving toward having more Netherlands-based artists on the lineup, who would travel to the festival on trains.
DGTL has a zero emissions tool it uses to collect data on everyone transferring to the festival. This tool helps determine what means of transportation visitors are using so the festival can take the necessary steps to reach zero emissions.
Filling out the tool’s form is not a requirement, but it is an essential component of DGTL’s zero emissions goal, and using it means it’ll get there sooner rather than later. Similar to the hardcups, DGTL motivates via incentives, enlisting the help of artists and suppliers to act as ambassadors for the tool and its benefits. Even so, there are gaps in the data collection.
“There are some emissions left,” van Dooijeweerd admits. “We try and split the compensation with visitors and artists, but it’s a hard process to reach everybody and get them on board. We can compensate for those ourselves.”
DGTL’s sustainability practices require that the festival provide an educational component for attendees. There is a lot of information on the DGTL site and dispersed through its communication networks. A lot of their systems are learned by festival-goers by practice on-site
For their last in-person event in Amsterdam, DGTL did away with garbage cans altogether but was not faced with any trash being thrown on the ground.
“We don’t want any residual waste, so why have residual waste bins?” van Dooijeweerte says. “If we let our visitors separate their waste, they don’t do it the way we want.”
The only items that aren’t reused or composted are things like gum wrappers, ice-cream wrappers, and cigarette packs. For these, DGTL sets up collection points where crew members separate items for recycling.
“Anybody who had something they wanted to throw away was looking for a bin, saw the recycle point, walked over and gave it to us,” van Dooijeweerte says. “It was a completely different approach: giving back your resource instead of throwing it away. If the whole festival ground is super-clean, no one throws their cup on the ground either. If you design it really well and it is the norm, then everybody follows.”
DGTL diligently communicates the results of its efforts to visitors after the event, including them in the process of moving toward a wholly sustainable festival.
Sustainability usually comes at a higher cost than less green options. DGTL is applying their circular approach to these expenses.
The cost of expensive sustainability experts is balanced by DGTL’s low power costs. They don’t incur the expense of residual waste and their recycling of bottles is so clean, they earn money from those returns. The Dutch government also provides some subsidies for sustainability practices.
“When you’re a frontrunner, some of the first things you do are really expensive,” van Dooijeweerte says. “It’s hard, but we’re working toward a sustainability program that is cost-neutral.”
DGTL acts as an incubator and living lab for innovations in sustainability. It has partnered with Innofest who provide support for small-scale innovations to grow and test their products prior to launching (and possibly failing) on a larger scale. Trying out these innovations at DGTL allows for a higher percentage of success in the real world. Additionally, DGTL has a solid sustainability program that van Dooijeweerte offers to all artists who wish to be sustainable.
The practices DGTL has put in place have set a standard for festival sustainability in Amsterdam. In order to receive a permit for your event, the city has made 100% renewable energy and 100% separation of waste at the site a requirement.
“We see the festival as a micro-cosmos,” van Dooijeweerte says. “People have to travel, to eat, drink, go to the toilet. It’s kind of a city. We give stakes to circulation innovation in the city so they can try systems at our festival, and later, they can grow these systems and implement them in the city. It’s a small living lab for the city of Amsterdam.”