It was the peak-hour performance from Grammy Award-winning DJ, Zedd, at Outside Lands. Light-weight millennials were scurrying to mount the nearest shoulders in time for the eminent bass drop. With a machine gun drum-burst and an overly flirtatious light show, a sudden barrage of 808 bass charged into the thousands amassed at the Twin Peaks Stage. All at once, hands shot upwards for the starless night sky over Golden Gate Park, while hundreds of clear cups and cigarettes fell to the earth. Just one week prior, the same field welcomed a multitude of neighborhood families, toddlers and pooches to frolic amongst the park’s otherwise pristine natural beauty.
For one weekend every August, Another Planet Entertainment commandeers a large part of Golden Gate Park to produce San Francisco’s largest festival. With bucket-list performances, wine from the best of Napa, and $20 lobster rolls, Outside Lands provokes the glutton in all. Consequently, this level of widespread indulgence attracts a variety of mouth-breathers who throw their trash on the ground. Still, Outside Lands holds a strong reputation as one of the greenest festivals in its weight class. How?
Outside Lands claims that 88% of the event’s recyclable and compostable waste was diverted from landfill in 2014 and 2015. A similar diversion ratio is also the metric of success at Recology, the resource recovery company devoted to a zero waste San Francisco by 2020 (Aka, the garbage company.) The city is currently 80% waste diverse—Seattle compares at 54%.
A short dig to find out how Outside Lands accomplishes such high waste diversion, unearths Clean Vibes, an organization with bighearted leadership and a backbone of volunteers, who manage waste at festivals and events. Attendees may have seen them in green shirts clearing trash throughout the fest, or a staffer may have kindly let you know that the beer cup you thought was plastic actually belongs in the compostable bin. At Outside Lands, Clean Vibes had nearly 60 paid staff and about 200 volunteers, and at this year’s event — in an attempt to grasp what Clean Vibes does to affect the handsome diversion rate — I was one of those volunteers.
The first shift began at the Twin Peaks Stage, shortly after Saturday night’s exodus. I swung my back off its hinges to pluck anything that didn’t belong from the trampled grass. About thirty other volunteers and I pigeon-walked tight patterns across East Meadow. We swept toward the vendor haven in the Polo Fields until 3:30 AM.
After working through the thick layer of crushed cups, paper plates, and soggy fistfulls of festival food, I aimed for the much more toxic abundance of cigarette butts. There in Hellman Hollow — backyard to many San Franciscans — lay the sort of festival aftermath that brought Clean Vibes into existence.
Clean Vibes was founded by its owner, Anna Borofsky, known by her team warmly and maternally as Anna B.
The day after that Saturday night shift, Borofsky and I sat on a golf cart talking about the first Phish festival she stayed to help clean in the 90’s. “I was totally horrified by what we saw. It took two weeks to clean up,” Borofskiysaid.
Clean Vibes started as a department within Great Northeast Productions (GNP), the New England-based company that produces events like Phish’s multi-day camping festivals, which were North America’s largest scale events from ‘96 to ‘04.
“We worked a few other Phish events like that,” Borofsky explained. “Then, the owner of Great Northeast said we should really start our own company. Thank God we did and here we are seventeen years later.”
At this year’s Outside Lands Festival, Clean Vibes positioned more than a thousand waste stations throughout Golden Gate Park. Based on hot spots relative to the event’s schedule, several bins were assigned a volunteer to help teach attendees where to throw their waste. The late night crew I was a part of on Saturday, cleans up the rest by hand. But this only accounts for the round up. So, I followed the trash as it exchanged hands to the 200,000 sq ft Recology Recycling Center on Pier 96.
Each day between 2 and 3 AM, all waste gets hauled from the fest to the appropriate handling facility, weighed, then sorted. Places like the Pier 96 facility and Recology’s Jepson Prairie Organics end-up in Vacaville — one of the largest food scrap composting operations in the nation. It eats 100,000 tons of organic material from San Francisco to Solano Count, so it’s got the belly for 50-ton drop-offs like Outside Lands created last year.
Five days after the fest at the Pier 96 Recycling Center, maps of Outside Lands still made up a visible portion of the material at the facility. “Every day, 600 tons of bottles, cans and paper come through that door,” said Robert Reed, spokesperson for Recology.
We walked in just as a Recology truck bucked it’s haul. The material was weighed, then front-loaded onto a conveyer belt. The belt feeds a massive superstructure where hand-power meets technology to sort all material into 16 commodities, such as colored plastic, cardboard, and aluminum cans. Once sorted, the material is compressed into bales, then shipped off to third parties for reuse.
The weight of the initial haul is the key in determining waste diversion, the metric for the success of everyone’s efforts. “[This] is the clearest measure of our waste diversion efforts,” said Borofsky. Though she admitted that it would probably be at least a few weeks before getting this data from Recology for 2016.
Meanwhile, Reed shared what he thinks it would take to get other cities and their festivals on San Francisco’s level:
“We have 3,000 active landfills in the United States, but less than 300 compost facilities permitted to accept food scraps. The infrastructure is set up for landfill and incineration in the United States. We need to plan and construct more compost facilities…so cities have a place to take their compostable material….Taking steps to protect and create healthy soil, is our best tool to address the challenge of climate change.”
Letting this information sink in, I began to think of ways I could contribute to this initiative on a personal level. That’s when I recalled a key element Borofsky addressed during our conversation about Outside Lands—the attendees. Each one of us has the opportunity, as consumers, to handle our own waste properly to improve the environment for our children and future festival-goers.
“This is San Francisco,” Borofsky said. “Everyone’s supposed to know how to do all of this. Still, it’s not necessarily at the top of [the]mind, or [the]highest priority while here having a good time. That’s why we’re out here—trying to educate people while also trying to keep it clean.”
Clean Vibes was aiming for 90% waste diversion at Outside Lands 2016. We’ll know the results by October. From a big picture perspective, San Francisco is dedicated to achieving zero waste by 2020. Melanie Nutter, Director of the SF Department of the Environment says the way the city gets there is with more waste-conscious citizens—that’s us. Recology and Clean Vibes have rocked their jobs to ensure the majority of compostable material and recoverable resources steer clear of landfill. But if we as conscious citizens put in a little more effort in throwing our trash where it belongs, we can cover the little remaining stretch towards the goal of a zero waste San Francisco.
Find out how to handle your trash at WhatBin.com, and head to
RecologySF.com for more information.
USF Alum, Ryan Mannix, is a San Francisco-based writer highlighting Bay Area music, rising artists, and festival culture.