Waste Watchers

No One Left Behind: Invite some 20,000 folks over for a weekend party and produce no trash? That’s the idea.

Waste Watchers

Health and Harmony wages a zero tolerance campaign on trash

Julia Butterfly Hill was not pleased.

A few years ago, at Santa Rosa’s Health and Harmony Festival–the annual entertainment event focused on peace, justice, environmentalism and really cool music–the world-famous tree-sitting activist and author was among the many high-profile guest speakers on the festival’s Eco-Village stage. The area was packed with humans eager to hear of Hill’s adventures and earth-saving ideas. Her audience certainly got what they came for–and a lot more. Pointing to trashcans overflowing with discarded water bottles and other garbage, Hill pointedly scolded her listeners for their slothfulness.

“This,” she pronounced in paraphrase, “is an embarrassing amount of trash for a so-called eco-event.”

Although the festival has been at the forefront of the environmental movement for years, Hill challenged the organizers and the event’s many attendees to do even more, to work harder to leave an even smaller environmental footprint on Santa Rosa, and on the planet.

Her message was heard.

“The bar’s definitely been raised,” says new executive director Scott McKeown, who for years coordinated the festival’s popular Saturday night Techno Tribal Dance and who has taken over the festival reins from founder Debra Giusti. McKeown was personally affected by Hill’s message–experiencing an overnight conversion to the sustainable housekeeping cause–and cites such events as Hill’s We the Planet event in San Francisco and the annual Bioneers Conference as examples of major environmentalist summits that leave a minimum environmental footprint.

Inspired by the creative waste-watching policies and highly green standards of those events, organizers of the Health and Harmony Festival have committed themselves to meeting–and beating–those standards. “We’ve been challenged to walk the walk we’ve been talking, and that’s what we’ve committed ourselves to doing,” says McKeown.

It’s an impressive goal. This year, the festival organizers aim to accumulate no leftover waste by the time the gates close at 7:30pm Sunday night. That’s right–no waste. No trash to be hauled off to the dump, no plastic bags full of unrecyclable bottles, no alcohol-scented wine and beer cups, no mountains of origamied napkins and paper plates, no plastic forks embedded in half-eaten tofu burritos. It’s a demanding goal, but a noble one. When the event is finally over, any waste–if there is any–will be weighed and used as a mark to beat for next year’s festival. To pull this off, the team has adopted some extraordinary measures.

As a response to Hill’s challenge, the festival has established a strict BYOB policy, as in “Bring your own bottle.” None of the food vendors will sell water in disposable plastic bottles. Instead, all visitors are asked to bring their own refillable water containers. Free water will be available at several water refill stations, and a range of inexpensive reusable bottles (ranging from $2 for a basic bottle to $15 for a stainless-steel model) will be available at information booths and at Harmony Central, for any and all who show up thirsty and without a bottle.

“It’s better than buying several bottles of water and throwing them away,” says McKeown. “Think of it–even if you have to buy one of our cheap reusables, you get free water all weekend for just $2!” Holding to the “no throwaway bottle” rule is not a simple matter, and the festival organizers have had to make some painful decisions, including turning down a Jamaican bottled-water company that offered $10,000 to be the festival’s official water sponsor.

“We could have used that money,” McKeown allows. “But being a responsible citizen of this planet means making some hard choices. Health and Harmony needs to be the best example to the country–to the world–that we can be. That’s what we’re committed to doing.”

No kidding.

As in the past, the festival will have five action-packed stages operating in all corners of the fairground site. While festival organizers could have plugged into the fairground’s electricity lines–which they’ve done in the past, mainly because it costs them nothing to do so–they have chosen instead to spend an extra $5,000 in order to run the stages completely off-the-grid, powering each one with a different form of alternative energy, from solar and biodiesel to an engine that runs on vegetable oil recycled from the festival’s numerous food booths.

As for the plates and cups and food scraps that overrun any major outdoor event, the festival has decided that merely recycling cans and bottles is not enough. With one exception (the recyclable food containers used by festival sponsor Whole Foods), each and every food and beverage booth will be using compostable dishes, from nifty wine and beer cups made of processed cornstarch (“Looks like plastic,” says Health and Harmony “Green Team” organizer Mary Munat) to plates made from wheat gluten paste.

Since such products are considerably pricier than paper and plastic, the festival established a system in which all food and drink vendors could pool their money and buy the compostable items in one massive money-saving package. As for the disposal end of the system, all compostables, including all leftover food scraps–except oyster shells, for which Johnson’s Oyster Company will be providing special bins–can be deposited of at any of 20 Resource Reclamation Centers. The compostable materials will be transported to the Laguna Treatment Center, where it will be degraded and sold in the future.

“Most people don’t realize that almost everything we eat is compostable,” says Munat. “Even meat is compostable, so it’s a shame to toss it in the trash can. Were composting everything we can, so there’s nothing left to put into a landfill.”

Admitting that many of these steps may seem radical or overreaching to some, McKeown shrugs.

“Look, aside from being one of the best open-air music festivals in Northern California, we have an opportunity to open eyes to new ways of living,” says McKeown. “George Bernard Shaw, I think, said that all great truths start out as blasphemies. If one person comes to Health and Harmony for the music, or the food or the crafts or whatever, and they leave with a new commitment to living lighter on the planet, then we’ve done a good thing.”

The Health and Harmony festival runs Saturday-Sunday, June 12-13. Sonoma County Fairgrounds, 1350 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa. Saturday, 11am-8pm; Sunday, 11am-7:30pm. $20-$25. 415.389.TIXX.

From the June 9-15, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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