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Can the world's largest music festival be sustainable? Glastonbury is trying


A year after Woodstock was held in the U.S., a British farmer decided to do something similar and invited rock stars to his family farm. That was southwest England in 1970. And now 54 years later, Glastonbury is one of the world's biggest music festivals. This weekend's lineup includes Dua Lipa, Coldplay and Shania Twain. Even now, the five-day festival somehow manages to stick to its founder's motto of leave no trace on the land. NPR's Lauren Frayer takes a look at how.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: It feels like every inch of grass is taken by a sea of multiclored tents. There are hundreds of thousands of people camping out here. The area is dotted with these massive stages, several stories high. There's even a pop-up hotel with a swimming pool installed in it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).


FRAYER: No plastic or glass is allowed here. Everything is biodegradable and compostable. But there's still a lot left behind by hundreds of thousands of campers. And that falls to Atholl Lawson and his team.

ATHOLL LAWSON: They're all volunteers. They come through like a herd of locusts.

FRAYER: He commands an army of trash collectors, deployed day and night, to empty 15,000 trash bins.

LAWSON: Paper cups, white bags, cans go. We pick up the bags.

FRAYER: Oh, it's color coded.

LAWSON: Yeah, so...

FRAYER: And they've got little grabber tools and...

LAWSON: Yeah, little grabber tools, loads of bags. We've got it down to a fine art now, so...


FRAYER: About 100 dump-truck-loads of trash arrive per day at a recycling facility that gets rebuilt on site each summer, where people in hazmat suits hunch over conveyor belts.

LUKE HOWELL: All of the waste that is collected is being hand-sorted over at a conveyor belt picking line.

FRAYER: Luke Howell is Glastonbury's sustainability and green initiatives manager. His job is to prepare the site for the return of its full-time residents, a flock of dairy cows, within a week.

HOWELL: Yeah, sometimes sooner. The festival will finish, obviously, on Sunday night, and as people leave the campsites throughout Monday. And I'll be picking up any random little broken pieces of plastic, you know, or wrapper or, like, a cigarette butt. And then we have a big magnet on the back of a tractor, and that will go through, and it will collect any metals.

FRAYER: To pull up any stray tent pegs that might get left behind. Now, most of the people doing this work are actually volunteers...

SCARLETT LAKE: I'm 27. I'm a scientist in real life, but here I clean toilets.

FRAYER: ...People like Scarlett Lake, a geneticist by day, who's doing some of the dirtiest work here in exchange for a free festival ticket. She's joined by Rachel Smith from the charity WaterAid.

RACHEL SMITH: We'll see a few scenes, you know?

FRAYER: I'm not going to ask.

SMITH: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But yeah, we've got strong stomachs, haven't we?

FRAYER: These are Glastonbury's signature long-drop toilets, which get suctioned out by tanker trucks multiple times a day. In addition to billing itself as sustainable, the festival also guarantees access for all, including children and people with special needs. There are calm zones for neurodivergent folks and wheelchair ramps for people like Karen Lamb.

KAREN LAMB: Well, I've got multiple sclerosis, so I can't walk far at all.

FRAYER: She navigates the more than 1,100-acre festival on a mobility scooter.

LAMB: These are the big off-roader ones.

FRAYER: The tires are like...

LAMB: Yes.

FRAYER: ...Sort of mud, all-terrain...

LAMB: And it's really good because it gets me about. I couldn't do this without it, so...

FRAYER: She's also got battery-powered flashing lights braided through her hair.

LAMB: Comes in handy later when it's dark and you're trying to get through the crowds to have something on your head that lights up so people see you. Otherwise, I end up running people over (laughter).


FRAYER: For now, this is actually one of the biggest cities in southern England, but it'll go back to being a sleepy farm in just a few days.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, in Glastonbury, southwest England.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.