The Student‘s editor-in-chief Maisy Hallam sat down with Kerry Cheek from the Edinburgh University Social Responsibility and Sustainability department, and Grace Thorner and Oli Savage from BoxedIn Theatre’s zero-waste venue The Greenhouse to chat about sustainability at the Fringe. Environmental awareness has become a hot topic during Edinburgh’s festival season, with considerations like the Fringe’s impact on the city, the vast amount of waste generated and pollution all on the collective consciousness.
MH: Tell me a bit about you, what you do, and the projects you’ve brought to the Fringe.
KC: I haven’t as such brought a project to the Fringe, but I am the Projects Coordinator for Sustainability and Festivals at the university, and my project came out of an internship last year that started from scratch looking at, a bit more holistically, sustainability in the Fringe and what is going on and what opportunities there are, and where the university sits. And we’re really well placed to bring academics and the public and other university members together to work on sustainability, so that spiralled into this project which is three-part: we have an online [sustainability] hub, a physical hub, and we’re supporting the Festival tenants [Assembly, Underbelly, Pleasance, Zoo Venues, and Gilded Balloon] in their sustainability initiatives as well.
GT: I’m head of marketing for The Greenhouse, and Oli is our artistic director. We are the Fringe’s first ever zero-waste venue, that our team has built entirely out of recycled and reclaimed materials. We house seven shows a day, alongside workshops and a music hour, and all of our shows and workshops are related in some way to our relationship with the environment. We’re trying to promote eco friendly theatre and environmentalism and issues surrounding climate change through theatre and other art.
OS: The project is set up as a proof of concept that if we, as 33 people of an age below 24 – a lot of students, some recent graduates – if we can do that, then anyone else can at least think about it.
MH: And how have you found the response from audiences and the community so far?
OS: I think it’s been quite positive. I think for us it’s important to divide this up into different subcategories of who we’re engaging with, and for me that’s mostly divided into artists and audience members. I think all the audience feedback that we’ve had is a) positive from a creative perspective, and b) positive from the perspective that people feel motivated and they want to at least think about what they can do [to be more sustainable]. And I think it’s good because we’re not saying “you need to do better”, we’re out there actually leading it and being that change. I think people are responding to that specifically quite well – they’re seeing that it actually is quite easy to be and create in a zero waste way. In terms of artists I think we’re also having positive interaction, it’s a very different set-up. I think what we’re discovering apart from anything else is that there is a big appetite for this, and people aren’t quite sure what the next steps are and what support they need.
GT: [The Greenhouse have] a zero waste marketing strategy, we have no flyers, we have no press releases. We were uncertain because obviously no one had done this before, so we were just unsure whether we would be able to connect with people on the Mile, whether people would want to stop and talk to us. I was concerned with morale and the team if there were days when it wasn’t working. But it’s been really really good, we’ve had really positive feedback. Obviously we have people that don’t want to talk to us, but you have people who don’t want to take flyers. The people we have actually had a conversation with, it’s been really lovely because the whole team is so passionate about the project. They’re grateful that we’re not loading them with another flyer, and we have recycling bins so we encourage them to take a picture of their flyer and then we can recycle the flyers for them.
OS: It encourages us to be talking about things that we care about rather than just trying to stuff people with flyers, and I think that’s really positive because people in our team enjoy it more.
KC: Our response is very different because we’re not a show, but we do have the public-facing element of the sustainability hub. I would say that I very much agree that the responses have been positive with the caveat that having worked in this exact field for a year now, what I saw last year was kind of like interest, but not calls for action. I’ve definitely seen an increase in expectations and also demands, and that people want to see change and they want to see change faster. Sometimes it’s where anger can be directed, because there’s a feeling of “what can I do?” and it comes out as anger, but usually it’s positive.
OS: It’s exciting for us, all of us as people in this kind of field, to then think about how we can engage with those demands. For me, that’s something I’m really looking forward to over the next 12 months, how we can work with that feedback to create a better environment.
MH: What you think some of the biggest sustainability issues at the Fringe are?
OS: I am finding that one of the biggest sustainability issues is that question. I feel like a lot of the time, the question is ‘what is the problem?’, and not necessarily ‘what is the solution?’ Basically, I just think one of the biggest issues is that we’re asking the wrong questions. I feel like it is so easy to get bogged down in all the problems, and one of the things that The Greenhouse does is say “let’s forget talking about all the issues, let’s start fixing as we go.” A lot of the dialogue is about what has gone wrong and I think it’s important to talk about what is going right and what we can do, like for example looking at zero waste marketing policies. We’ve tried to explore paperless ticketing – those kind of things.
KC: If I had to choose, it’s travel. It’s a funny one, because everyone immediately goes to waste or potentially energy and it’s partially because it’s going to be such a hard thing to take on – especially with the Fringe once you start pulling at the string of travel, because it’s an international festival both in terms of visitors and performers. So no one’s really doing anything. The Seasick people are doing their carbon offsetting to do their flights, but everyone’s talking about them because [these initiatives are] kind of few and far between. I think people don’t like to launch into it because there’s no solution and as soon as you start addressing it you’re going to have to pick at the actual structure and entity of the Fringe.
MH: Do you think sustainability issues at the Fringe are at the consumer level or not? Is there anything we as consumers can do?
KC: I really do, because speaking at the level of what I hear from the production companies, they listen to what consumers are asking for. Luckily a lot of the companies do have sustainability as one of the core parts of their company, but even if they don’t, they listen if consumers are repeatedly asking and raising the issue repeatedly. It filters back up.
OS: At the end of day, these are businesses we’re talking about, we are the people who allow those businesses to function. Going back to travel specifically, I think there are consumer choices that we can make. Maybe not so much for someone flying internationally, but even coming from Europe, it is possible to choose to take the train, it is possible to choose to take a bus, and we know that they emit less. I mean, it’s still emissions but we know that they emit less than flying would do – so if you’re coming up from London choose to take the train. At the end of the day, it is almost the same amount of time! Which is something people forget. So, from a consumer level, [a solution might be] making those choices to try and travel in a sustainable way: if you have to drive up, try and carpool; if you’re taking a van up transporting set, why not reach out to other companies you know and see if they need help, see if you can work together. I know these are small steps but I think that they do add up quite largely, they add up to quite a lot in the long run and for now these are the solutions we should be looking at while we’re trying to explore greener options for travel. And also I think that carbon offsetting, while it isn’t a solution in the long term, [is] better than nothing.
MH: Edinburgh is at the forefront of cultural festivals in the world. Are you aware of any other festivals globally which the Fringe could take inspiration from in terms of sustainability? I would give Glastonbury as an example.
KC: I don’t know that Glastonbury is a good example because there’s a limit to the festival grounds and it’s controlled. It’s really hellish to try to create any top down policies [at the Fringe], which is what Glastonbury did – they decided one year, this year, they’re going to ban something. The Fringe can’t do that because there is no limit to the grounds. When I was trying to compare to other festivals, I ended up looking at the Adelaide Fringe. It is not as large but it is the second largest Fringe festival in the world and they actually are doing some really cool things at a more top-down level, because they have a Fringe Society counterpart that actually runs the festival; they’re more involved than our Fringe Society. But it’s a very tricky thing to start comparing to other festivals, it’s either going to be a problem because of scale or the duration, or the limit to the festival grounds.
OS: Edinburgh was also the first ever Fringe festival so I think what that means it that it has to be a trendsetter. We in Edinburgh have to be leaders, we have to lead the charge and we have to say, “Here are the solutions to how we can make these Fringe festivals more sustainable”. It’s difficult to look for models because we kind of are the model, basically.
GT: While I think we’re not comparable to Glastonbury, what was very interesting is as soon as they introduced the no plastic cups [rule] – what used to be a really big problem was people would leave all their tents, but this year they literally had hardly any. So it’s interesting to see that once you introduce one kind of environmental thing, and you publicise it, it has a knock on effect to other behaviours that people have. So while it can’t be a model for what can be done at the Fringe, it’s positive and it’s encouraging to see that if you implement one strategy it might have a knock-on effect that you didn’t think about before.
KC: I should clarify as well that while it’s difficult to compare the festivals, that doesn’t mean at all that we can’t learn from them, because everyone’s talking about Glastonbury banning single-use plastics and that in itself is great that it’s become a chatting point and part of the identity of the festival. Whereas the Fringe is still lacking that inherent sustainability identity.
MH: Do you think the sustainability issues at the Fringe outweigh the cultural good?
OS: Absolutely not. I think that in a lot of liberal sustainable circles, there is a false dichotomy emerging between the natural heritage and the cultural heritage of Scotland in the context of the Fringe. I think that people kind of see the Fringe against nature and the nature against the Fringe, and that the two aren’t compatible. I think that is essentially why The Greenhouse exists: we’re here to demonstrate that there is actually not a dichotomy and you can be engaging with nature, you can engaging with the environment, you can be protecting and connecting to the natural heritage of Scotland. We’re positioned right underneath the potentially most iconic natural landmark in Scotland if not at least in Edinburgh, right beneath Arthur’s Seat. It turns out it is actually quite easy to connect the two. I also think the cultural good can become the environmental good, basically. I think especially with the project that we’re working on, the message and the idea and the value of it artistically is centred around the value of it from a sustainability perspective. So I think that we don’t need to separate them, basically. I think that what we need to see is the two kind of coming together a little bit more and artists thinking about how art and sustainability can go hand-in-hand.
GT: That’s why the arts in general is such a great method for talking about environmental problems, because culture has a symbiotic relationship with its context so that includes the environment and politics and science and even your history. Everything that is produced at the Fringe has a relationship with the environment [in some way] so there doesn’t need to be that dichotomy between the cultural and the natural heritage. That’s just separating two things that work together so well, so what’s the point?
MH: Can the Fringe continue to grow at its current rate? Does something have to change to save the city?
KC: Speaking not actually for myself but what I’ve heard from just going to constant events this Fringe, and meeting with people many of whom care about sustainability but many of [whom] are artists or are running a venue, I would say there is definitely a feeling that something has to be done to kind of stop the growth of the Fringe. I’ve heard there’s a lot of feeling that shows should be capped and that it’s doubled in the last 20 years and is continuing to get bigger and bigger, and the more shows you have is directly related to how many visitors are coming in. I have no solution, and I’m still working on my own opinion of it, but it’s just something I’ve heard about in the last few weeks that there is a lot of sentiment both on the local residents and people coming in who aren’t local but feel the same way because they’ve been involved in the festival for so many years they feel a sense of ownership as well. And I think there is a lot of feeling that it can’t continue to grow in the way it has been.
OS: As an artist, from my perspective the Fringe should grow and grow and grow, and it should have as much art and it should be as many people as possible. But I do recognise that there are definitely other opinions like locals’ and the opinions [Kerry is] expressing wherever they have come from, that probably hold more weight than that.
KC: I can also say speaking as the university, not as the other people I’ve heard from, that we’ve recognised throughout the year but especially during the Fringe that there’s a need to engage with and find ways to benefit the local community more. But it is an issue that’s recognised and that I’m hoping will be addressed more in 2020 – how do we benefit the local residents and how do we take their opinions into account?
MH: Finally, what can our readers do to have a more sustainable Fringe?
OS: I think the ‘take a photo’ campaign is great. If someone tries to hand you a flyer just be like, “I’m trying not to take flyers, but I would really happily take a photo and keep that on my phone.” I think that’s a really fantastic thing to do – that, and make sure you’re recycling if you do collect flyers. Those are some easy steps in the right direction, if we’re talking simple – I could go into much more detail about more complex things!
GT: Reusable coffee cups are a good one because, especially all the big chain coffee places at the moment, even if you sit in they give you a disposable cup because the turnaround is too high for them to wash the normal cups. Take your own water bottle, pack your own lunch if you can, or bring a container – it’s not as fun but it helps, it’s cheaper for you.
KC: I’ll come back to it one more time, that it’s really considering your sphere of influence and not limiting it, because I think many people would say “what actions can I take?” and they really do focus on just themselves. All of those [individual actions] are big actions in themselves, but also your sphere of influence is much larger than you think it is. There is not going to be some single solution to fixing sustainability at the Fringe especially because there can’t be anything top-down that encompasses the whole Festival. So we’re all gonna have to just work on our own level, and that’s all that can be asked of you.