Event’s environmental impact being assessed by KU auditors

Each year, it gets a little greener.

But can a massive event such as the Wakarusa Music & Camping Festival, which attracts people from across the country, ever have zero impact on the environment and meet organizers’ goal of 100 percent sustainability?

“As long as people are flying here and driving in gas-powered automobiles, that in and of itself would make it not 100 percent sustainable,” said Jeff Severin, director of Kansas University’s Center for Sustainability, who conducted a “sustainability audit” of the festival this year at organizers’ request.

“One hundred percent sustainable is pretty difficult to achieve,” Severin said. “If you’re looking at it from that perspective, every product sold would be something that was made locally within 50 to 100 miles of Lawrence. Every bit of waste that’s created would either be recycled or composted or reused in some way.”

Severin and two other graduate students in urban planning spent the weekend observing the festival’s operations and interviewing campers. In coming weeks, they’ll write a report that includes data – such as how much electricity and water were used, the effect on the local economy and to what extent people participated in recycling.

A few early observations: Recycling seemed to be widespread inside the festival grounds, but in the campground areas, there was plenty of recyclable material in the trash, Severin said.

He said that perhaps the biggest single issue to tackle is the energy used to power the festival – even though the 18 generators ran on a biodiesel blend for the first time this year, and it was the second year organizers have bought “green tags” to offset their carbon output with the production of renewable resources.

“I got this from a lot of the festivalgoers: that compared to other festivals that people have attended, these guys are doing a great job and really making an effort. I think they’re really on the right track,” Severin said.

Last year, an estimated 20 percent of the volume of waste generated at the festival was recycled, but that didn’t include glass, which can be difficult to transport and doesn’t fetch a good price in Kansas. This year, glass is in the mix of what’s being recycled, but as of Monday it was too early to estimate how much total waste would be recycled, said Rylan Ortiz, who runs the Recycalusa program at the festival.

The plastic New Belgium beer cups used at the festival, made of high-density polyethylene, will be taken to Concordia and sold for use in making picnic tables, Ortiz said.

Jami Sweeney, one of the festival’s assistant directors, said he’s looked into powering one of the festival’s stages through solar or wind energy, but at this point nothing exists that would be reliable enough for the job.

“Those generators are a necessary evil at this point until technology catches up with us,” he said.

Composting, too, has proven to be a challenge. Vendors were required to use special utensils and plates this year with the goal that they would be composted along with food waste, but organizers said they realized as the festival neared that no one in the area was equipped to process the material.

As far as car travel goes, an estimated 400 festivalgoers chose to offset the carbon output of their drive by buying “green tags” that support renewable energy. About 100 people bought the tags last year.

“We could easily offset people’s travel. It’s fairly cheap. It’s something we could roll into a ticket price,” Sweeney said. “We prefer to give people a choice.”

Sarah Hill-Nelson of Lawrence-based Zephyr Energy, which sells wind and hydroelectric power through the “green tag” program, said car travel is a problem inherent to the festival.

“The flip side of that is that people drive there and they don’t get in their car for four days,” she said.