Plastic cups and ticket stubs: could the Fringe be more sustainable?

The summer months see the quaint and quiet city of Edinburgh turn into Festival City; a vibrant canvas of culture teeming with artists, performers and theatre-lovers.It’s extraordinary to behold. As August rolls around and the Fringe hits full swing however, you find yourself slaloming through cobbled streets filled with human obstacles. Public bins overflow with plastic cups, ticket stubs and half-finished bags of chips. A light breeze encourages a wad of promotional flyers to dance disgracefully at your feet.

In a society ever more focused on the disposable, the average Fringe goer may not give a second thought to the waste problem during Edinburgh’s festivals as they stroll down the Royal Mile, plastic pint in hand. To the eco-conscious, the festivals are a harsh reminder of an ongoing global problem of unsustainable consumer attitudes towards rubbish – not to mention the waste created by stage productions themselves that goes unnoticed behind the scenes. Rather than concede that these things can never change, let us look at the ways that the Fringe can and is being made more sustainable.

Four years ago, the Fringe Society created a document setting out how to be more sustainable when producing a show. It sheds light on a problem that you could call ‘backstage waste’; all the rubbish we don’t see that a Fringe production generates. It doesn’t explode out of public litter bins, but it’s there. Sets, props and costumes are rarely designed with minimal wastage and long-term re-usability in mind, but the Fringe Society suggests avoiding single-use sets made of high-impact materials like polystyrene, and reducing discarded fabric offcuts from costume design. Furthermore, they discourage excessive printing of promotional materials, which often yields more paper flyers than anyone could ever deem necessary. Instead, they promote the use of technology and social media to publicise shows.

At the end of August, the Fringe Society runs a Reuse and Recycle Day for unwanted stage props, costumes and promotional materials, making reducing backstage waste that little bit easier. Still, the extent to which any of their eco-friendly suggestions are enforced is unclear.

The Fringe sees the University of Edinburgh’s George Square campus transform into a veritable cacophony of festival cheer, begging the question of what is happening on campus to reduce the environmental impact of the pop-up venues, bars and food trucks. Since 2011, George Square has largely been occupied by Assembly Festival, who are members of the Green Arts Initiative – a community of arts organisations in Scotland concerned with minimising their environmental impact. Their website clearly sets out their sustainability policies, which mention their commitment to reducing consumer waste, using compostable and recyclable materials in their venues where possible, and working to recycle surplus wood when dismantling sets at the end of the month. The Green Arts Initiative represents a huge step forward in terms of encouraging sustainability during Edinburgh’s festivals, but unfortunately many of the larger production companies aren’t members.

Overall it looks like the Fringe is headed for positive change, but is it doing enough? As the world’s largest arts festival, the Fringe needs to be an ambassador for other festivals. With 2020 fast approaching – marking the deadline by which Edinburgh will hopefully have reduced its carbon emissions by 40 per cent – resolving issues of sustainability is at the heart of the city’s identity. Hopefully in the coming years we can expect evolutions such as a system of e-tickets rather than the non-recyclable printed tickets that are a necessity in most venues; more visible recycling bins and food waste bins alongside litter bins; and most importantly, a collective understanding that large-scale entertainment and environmental sustainability are not mutually exclusive.

Image: Stinglehammer via Wikimedia Commons

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