Festival Fundamentals

Earlier this year I wrote a blog post entitled Why People Litter that outlines the reasons I’ve identified that drive littering behaviour in the UK. Very soon after it was published, the Off the Ground Twitter feed was full of photos of a littered Hyde Park after a sunny Bank Holiday weekend, prompting me to write a quick addendum

I’ve been a little busy this month with Plastic Free July so I haven’t had the chance to address the photos that emerged of similar scenes from Glastonbury until now. I have never been to the festival, but I can easily imagine that similar reasons are at play:

It’s someone else’s job

There is a strong streak of this in the UK, and it comes in various flavours. At the more extreme end is “Litter is a good thing because it makes a job for someone”; this is a difficult mindset to shift. But potentially more common is the knowledge that an area will be cleaned, so therefore it’s okay to leave things behind because someone else will pick it up. My understanding is that Glastonbury has an army of volunteer cleaners who tidy up every day; I can easily see how a significant minority of people will leave things behind in the belief that someone else will clean up behind them.


Did you notice that I used the phrase “leave behind” in the above paragraph, not “litter”? I can almost guarantee that most of the things that are pointed out as litter at festivals and parades aren’t considered such by the people who left it. Instead, they “put” or “sit” or “set” or “leave” items to be picked up by others. This is especially likely to be true of recyclable items; if recycling-on-the-go facilities aren’t available (or readily visible), I can easily see how the assumption of “Oh, the people who clean up will sort and recycle this” may play a role in leaving things behind. After all, if your definition of littering is maliciously throwing something on the ground and you place it where you know it will be picked up, you don’t identify your behaviour as littering in the first place.


Once an item is no longer needed—a packet of crisps has been munched or a can of soda polished off—research has shown that it loses relevance to the consumer. They seek to get rid of it, either deliberately (hopefully deposited in a bin) or unintentionally. For example, someone has lunch on a bench and puts an empty sandwich carton down next to them when they’re done, then they play with their phone for 15 minutes. The carton is now off their radar, and the longer it is left, the more likely that they will get up and leave it behind. The same thing tends to happen to umbrellas on sunny days! But imagine this scaled up to something like Glastonbury or a park on a sunny Bank Holiday weekend.

Social norms

This is the big one. Humans evolved as social animals: we look at each other to see how to behave in different situations because we don’t want to stand out from the crowd. In modern society, we’re not worried about attracting the attention of sabre-tooth tigers but embarrassing ourselves. If people are uncertain about what to do with their rubbish—perhaps because the nearest bin is full or a bin isn’t visible—and they see others leaving things behind, it is very likely that they will do the same thing. After all, it has the social seal of approval.

Keeping all this in mind, one more example. Every so often we throw a Christmas party at our house with friends, family, and neighbours. It’s a gentle gathering, with cake and carol singers. Yet as the last guest departs, we find rubbish piled throughout the house: on window ledges, the floor, bookshelves … basically any available flat surface. Rather than use the very visible bin or put things near the kitchen sink or simply ask us what to do with their cups, plates, and cutlery, people will place things wherever they finish with them. The problem is not just at Glastonbury. 

Simply saying “don’t litter” doesn’t work (especially when there are no legal or social consequences for it … and see the point above regarding terminology)—the brain doesn’t deal well with negatives. It’s like the classic experiment: Don’t think of a pink elephant. Whatever you do right now, don’t think about a pink elephant … But I’m guessing there’s a pink elephant in your mind at the moment?

Instead, people need crystal clear messaging about what the correct behaviour is: put all rubbish in a bin or take it home with you. You can even make it rhyme:

Litter doesn’t like to roam
Use a bin or take it home.
If a bin does overflow
Find another place to go.  

Whatever works so that people automatically know what to do with their rubbish in any situation. This type of messaging needs to be constant and consistent throughout the country. For Glastonbury—or any festival—there are a few simple things I would love to see tested:

  • From the very moment that people browse the website and buy tickets, the message that they are responsible for disposing of their rubbish (and taking tents home with them) should be clear. A box that people have to tick when purchasing tickets that they agree to abide by Glastonbury’s ground rules (no single-use plastic; all items recycled, binned, or taken home; etc.) is one way to do this.

    You may be thinking that no one reads EULAs (end user license agreements) and you’re probably right. All text should be kept short and simple but, being digital, why not add photos? Perhaps an emotive picture of wildlife endangered by litter with the phrase “We all want to avoid sights like this. Please tick here to show that you agree to put all rubbish in a bin, recycle it, or take it home”. Or a picture of happy festival goers with the reminder: “You are responsible for the reputation of Glastonbury. Please tick here to show that …”

  • Could a message be printed on the wristbands that are given to attendees to further reinforce the new social norm? “I bin at Glastonbury” has a nice ring to it.

  • Next up is making sure this message is everywhere attendees turn, such as with posters in the loos and at the stalls of vendors selling food. A simple “Please help our volunteers by putting your rubbish in a bin” may go a long way to resetting the norm that it’s someone else’s job to dispose of rubbish.

  • Regarding vendors, could they proactively thank customers for disposing of their rubbish-to-be when food or drinks are purchased? “Enjoy! Thank you for binning/recycling this when you’re done”? I haven’t seen any research on whether this is effective so it could be a great opportunity to test a no-cost method of reducing litter.

  • This may be tricky for small festivals, but a large event like Glastonbury could potentially trial reverse vending machines. In a situation like this, it would be great to give people who are recycling the option of which charity to donate to with every can or glass bottle they feed the machine.

  • There are two final components I’d like to see addressed (although I’m a bit fuzzy on the how at the moment). The first is empowering festival goers to pick up any rubbish they see: a place that is clean is likely to stay clean and picking up litter is something that anyone can do. Ensuring that bins never overflow is more of a challenge for organisers, but an important one to make sure that the right message is sent.

In speaking with my husband, a veteran of over ten Glastonbury Festivals, he said that the end of the festival is when people go into survival mode: they are concentrating on getting out and getting home (and, quite often, getting a shower). As a result, they are focused more on individual needs rather than the bigger picture. However, if they have heard the steady drumbeat of the correct behaviour (Litter doesn’t like to roam …), I would hope that it would make it much easier for them to make the right decision at this time, rather than leaving a mess for organisers to clean up.

I fully expect that there will always be a small percentage of tossers. However, it seems that if we want to change things for the better, we need to move beyond sharing photos and preaching to the choir. Instead, we need to start looking for solutions to tackle the reasons people leave rubbish behind in the first place.

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