Roskilde Festival is not only a damn good week of music; it’s at the cutting edge of sustainability. Yes, you read that right: it’s acting as a test market for big change. Think of it as a kind of NASA Project where you can also get a pint of Jacobsen’s.

This year it was the least Roskilde-ish experience you could imagine. ‘Dry and hot’ are characteristics not generally associated with the Danish climate, even in the summer, but there we all were, having discussions about keeping hydrated, watching drunk people pee against the fence, and wondering what actually happens when it evaporates.

“Does it turn into some sort of lethal piss dust?”

Denmark is usually damp and verdant in July, but flipping through my photos, featuring tanned, dirty people with a cloudless, harsh blue sky behind them you’d be forgiven if you thought I’d taken them in the Kalahari.

The music was fantastic, as always. Major acts like Nine Inch Nails, My Bloody Valentine and St. Vincent played alongside indie heavyweights, like Thee Oh Sees, Preoccupations, and Blonde Redhead. Up and coming Danish act, Nelson Can, delivered a strong performance, as did the already legendary Minds of 99. Other than a phoned-in set by Massive Attack, which felt like neither, everything I saw was top notch and ran with Swiss watch precision. Especially impressive when you consider the chaotic nature of festival stage changeovers. David Byrne’s current show had people discussing how it might be the most relevant thing he’s done in 25 years.

Of course there were many ‘you had to be there moments’, such as Nick Cave calling out his normally locked-in bass player, Martyn P. Casey – “Can you just play the bass… like it is… on the song?” – during ‘Weeping Song’. Gorillaz played a tight, flawless performance, but a surprise came during the last number, ‘Clint Eastwood’. Del The Funky Homosapien came out of the gate, cool, confident, determined, ready to deliver the goods…

…and then he walked right off the edge of the stage.

From where I was standing, in the crowd, beers aloft, with the crew from the LoveCopenhagen blog, it looked like a planned effect. Did he drop through a trap door? ‘What happens now?’ we wondered. In actuality he had marched directly into the photo pit, easily a four metre drop straight into metal guard rails. The music stopped, and the usually composed Damon Albarn looked confused. A few minutes later, clearly distressed, he uttered, “thanks for a lovely evening,” and that was it.

Later, news came through a tweet: Del was banged up but alive, also saying some sweet things about the Danish healthcare system, which probably had the country brimming with pride.

‘Take Care of Each Other’ (c) Kim Matthai Leland

Every summer the relatively sleepy town of Roskilde turns into the fifth largest city in Denmark. Roughly 150,000 people descend on what is essentially the Viking Glastonbury for a week of music, culture, talks, and increasingly more impressive dining options. Food stalls from legends of gastronomy, Kiin Kiin, Mad Klubben, and Claus Meyer sit side-by-side with those selling classic flæskesteg sandwiches and fiske frikkadeller. Emerging food options, including burgers made from insect protein and inventive vegan dishes have not only become available, they make up an impressive number of the selections.

Which brings me to the word not often associated with a music festival: sustainability.

On the surface, Roskilde Festival may look like your typical week long rock ’n roll mud orgy, with an impressive roster of acts playing until the wee hours of the morning, but since its inception, in 1972, it’s been non-profit.

That’s right; all of the money goes to charity.

In recent years that means roughly £5m, annually, has been going to well-vetted organizations focusing on human rights, women’s issues, and healthcare access, outside of Denmark. One way this is possible is because, out of the thousands of people who put the whole thing together, only a small handful are on the payroll. The rest do it out of love, which ties into a long history of philanthropy and volunteer work common among Denmark’s citizens. While it seems inconceivable for a boss to encourage an employee to take time off to work for the annual rock festival, which requires 365 days of preparation, it’s looked at as a means of ultimately getting resources to people who need it. It’s the ultimate charity event, like some giant black tie ball, if the dress code were downgraded to ponchos and gummy boots, and people sipped beer while Four Tet plays.

Roskilde Festival Site (c) Thomas Kjær

Most impressive is the festival’s strategy for improvement. I was given literature to review which detailed clear objectives for the 2016-19 period. It’s based on environmental and social commitments:

Fossil Free Energy – As you can imagine, it takes quite a lot of electricity to make sure Eminem’s subwoofers deliver, not to mention lighting, and transport. Denmark manufacturers more wind power, per capita, than any other place on earth. Solar and hydroelectric are also part of the equation.

Waste is a Resource – Northern Europe has been making great strides in nearly pollution-free power by incinerating waste, so the festival has a wealth of information available to mine. That’s, of course, after all recyclable and compostable items have been put aside for reuse. Abandoned camping gear is recovered, cleaned, and donated to disaster and refugee relief. Damaged inflatable mattresses pose a challenge, though. Incineration isn’t an option because they contain PVC’s. So what to do? What else, send them to a company in Germany that specializes in shredding them and turning them into mats for horse stalls. Few things in this world are more closely related than beer consumption and frequent urination. In 2017, tanker trucks of high grade festival pee were shipped off to become fertilizer for the grain fields, thus becoming part of the great beer life cycle.

Environmentally Responsible Sourcing – Everything from the building materials used, to the food served to the volunteers, is purchased from vendors committed to sustainability. This includes paint, cleaning supplies, rental cars, all the way down to the toilet paper.

Inclusiveness, Dignity, Education – The festival believes all people contribute to social value, every task should be a learning experience, and there is no room for discrimination, or harassment, of any sort.

Coming from the United States, I’m used to hearing about strategies, manifestos, and mission statements, but at the end of the day, these declarations almost always take a backseat to profit. At Roskilde there was a palpable feeling that the thousands of people making it all happen actually believe this. Frankly, at times it’s close to being cult-like, but if this is what cults are about these days then sign me up. As Roskilde approaches each year, the country is buzzing with talk of the ‘Orange Feeling’, which is named after the colour of the main stage, a remnant of the Rolling Stones’ 1976 tour. While it may be as difficult to define as hygge itself, it’s very real, and in recent years the festival has worked to make these sustainability goals a part of it.

Sometimes it’s as simple as disseminating the message that you should refill your water bottle or, you know, not leave your dirty sleeping bag behind when you head home. However, nearly 3000 tons of gear used to be abandoned with nary a thought. That’s been decreasing by about 10% a year, every year, and what’s left has been cleaned and repurposed, reused, or recycled. A decade ago it just ended up in a landfill. A group called ReAct not only sorts trash throughout the festival; they educate people on how to do it themselves.

Campsite (c) Jesper Bjarke Andersen

Other solutions have required completely new ways of thinking, however. A few years ago the directive came down the pike that 70% of the food sold at the festival needed to be certified organic. The next year that was bumped up to 80%. Last year it went to 90%. According to Roskilde’s Lars Orlamund, it’s nearly impossible to get to 100%, festival-wide, but 20% of the stalls have achieved it. Additionally, all stalls are required to have a vegetarian option.

The whole thing has been a case study in how an entity can induce massive change on an industrial scale. Though ostensibly in charge, and calling the shots, as the primary sponsor of the festival, Tuborg was not immune to the requirement, and was asked to come up with an organic beer. As the go-to lager of the country, it wasn’t really part of the plan for them to go off the map, but rules are rules, and Tuborg Rå (‘raw’), an unfiltered, organic lager, was developed and presented. What was originally assumed to be a boutique option now accounts for over 40% of their sales in Denmark. Beloved ice cream brand Hansen’s is now sourcing its vanilla from farms that meet spec, and they have come out with a vegan option. “Our goal was to create something even non-vegans will choose because, vegan or not, it just tastes good.” I sampled one and can attest that they have achieved this. I had a second one because you can never be too sure when it comes to ice cream. Confirmed.

And the innovation continues in the form of on-site R&D as well. This year, sleeping mats made from mycelium, aka mushroom roots, were given to some festival goers to test. A company called Flow Loop has developed a recirculating shower, thus reducing water consumption from 80 to 12 litres on average. The smoothie bar at the food court was using a system employing centrifugal force to blend the juices in its serving cup, thus eliminating the need for disposable stirrers, straws, or a container to clean.

Volunteer travels on bike at Roskilde Festival 2018 (c) Krists Luhaers

Most impressive was a collaboration between The Danish Food Bank and Rub & Stub. Food waste is a growing topic of discussion. It should be. While parts of the world can’t get enough to eat, tons of perfectly edible food are tossed into the skip annually because of blemishes, approaching perish dates or, worst of all, overabundance. With 130 food stalls in operation, and no way to tell who is going to buy what on any given day, the potential for waste is high. To combat this, excess food is gathered daily, and brought to a kitchen near the site. Some of the food can be delivered to recipients as-is, but the majority of it needs to be prepared in some way, often including transforming it into complete meals. From there packages are delivered to over 50 locations, where it is distributed to the needy.

While all of this sounds more like going to idealism summer camp than a music festival, the whole thing comes off as an intrinsically linked, all-encompassing happening, if I may nick that from the hippie lexicon. I guess that’s a component of what the ‘Orange Feeling’ is: an ever-evolving series of improvements. Rather, a commitment to do better in a way that not only doesn’t diminish the experience, it enhances it. Yes, of course legions of festival goers leave, at the end of the week, unchanged beyond setting new personal best records for being hungover and sexed up, but it’s indisputable that huge numbers of people reenter the real world as vectors armed with new knowledge, understanding, and enthusiasm about what we can do to stop treating our planet like a cesspool, and how we can treat each other better.

Every year, at the end of the last night of Roskilde, I break away from my friends and take one last stroll around the massive grounds, by myself. Off in the distance, sound systems blare out dance music as people enjoy their last hours. Friends who have known each other since childhood sit in circles, sipping their last drinks. There’s a 35 year old, well-dressed woman looking for her shoe. Older couples stroll hand-in-hand, passing younger ones who are making out (and vice versa). Gaffers, getting a lead on things, are already coiling cables, and vans of musicians exit the site. A sense of melancholy sets in.

Is it really over already?

I think about the great bands I finally got to see, what I learned, and how cool it was to watch old friends perform on the various stages.

Equality Walls – Actual Size Mockups of Trump’s Barrier between the U.S and Mexico (c) Kim Matthai Leland

This year I passed a row of eight giant walls on my stroll. How had I missed these? The write up next to them said they were actual size mockups of the various barriers the Trump Administration had developed to close off the border between the U.S. and Mexico. I’d just spent a week amongst people who were genuinely committed to breaking down barriers, helping out the less fortunate, and becoming better global citizens, and here I was, face-to-face with the ultimate symbol of the contrary. I got a bit of a pang in my stomach thinking about how this was what my country’s government was prioritizing. It was 3 a.m., and the main festival grounds which had recently held 40,000 Bruno Mars fans were nearly empty. I continued to read the description, which said they had been erected to invite debate about nationalism, borders, and inequality.

As I looked down the line of walls, I spied a lone person, disheveled from a great week, pants at his knees, pissing against one of them. As he was zipping up and walking away I laughed and said, “Hey man, what’s your name?” hoping he didn’t think I was asking because I was a narc.

“Hello! It’s Søren!” he yelled in a friendly voice. “How are you?”

“Søren, I think you just won the debate.”

Words: Alex Maiolo
Main Photo: Jesper Bjarke Andersen

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