Organizers of Øya, the World’s Greenest Music Festival, Explain How It’s Done

While the title of the “world’s greenest music festival” may be impossible to determine with total accuracy, Norway’s long-running Øya is as close as it gets. The festival — which has featured Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Robyn, Lana Del Rey, the Cure and hundreds of Norwegian acts since it launched in 1999 — has been named an “Outstanding” honoree by the international non-profit A Greener Festival nine out of the last 10 years the awards were held, and is certified as an “Environmental Lighthouse” by the Norwegian foundation of the same name. In 2010, it even received an honorary award from Norway’s minister of agriculture for its work in promoting organic food. 

This year’s festival, held over four blissfully sun-kissed days in August, featured top-shelf acts like Gorillaz, Florence & the Machine, Nick Cave and H.E.R. alongside homegrown talent like Aurora, Dagny (pictured above) and Girl in Red — but its green efforts were arguably even more impressive.

Øya — Norwegian for “island,” in honor of its original location on Kalvøya — is now held in Tøyenparken, a sprawling hillside park in central Oslo easily accessible by public transportation and bicycle, and within walking distance of the city center: Organizers estimate that 98% of its 22,000 daily attendees travel to the event by those methods. The festival itself uses approximately 50% zero-emission cars for its artist and internal transport, and is aiming to have an emission-free site within the next few years. Its power comes not from generators using fossil fuel, like many festivals, but rather from the city’s power grid. The hillside location creates a natural amphitheater for its multiple stages, eliminating the need for seating.

The festival has a material recycling rate of around 75% — receptacles for trash, recycling and compost are everywhere — the food is 95% organic, and approximately half of it is plant-based, with just 20% of the items including meat (which is much less climate-friendly to produce). All food packaging is compostable and turned into biogas after the event, and all non-water beverages are served in reusable cups for a 20 Krone fee (about $2). The festival’s garbage is hand-sorted on-site into 15 different categories, and more than 60% of the waste is reused for new products. Øya even publishes an environmental handbook for festivals and outdoor events, and is one of the developers of the Green Producers Tool, which measures and helps reduce emissions for the entertainment and event industries and launches later this month.

It also innovates new ideas with each festival: A few years ago, Øya experimented with bowls and utensils that were actually edible — conjuring visions of scenarios like “Can I please have another fork? I ate mine” — but did away with the practice because they were four times as heavy as compostable ones and thus required more energy to transport and process.

While American events like Bonnaroo and Lightning in a Bottle have been recognized by A Greener Festival in the past — and Live Nation recently announced plans to institute recyclable bottles at its events and venues — there’s no question that North American festivals are far behind their European counterparts in terms of sustainability. To an American, Øya — and Norway itself, with its clean streets, efficient public transportation and ubiquitous recycling receptacles and electric-car charging stations — is like a glimpse through green-colored glasses at a society without climate-change denial or special-interest-funded politicians who insist that fossil fuels still make sense in our burning world.

 “I think you’re having culture shock!” jokes Mia Frogner, Øya’s head of sustainability and food, to Variety. “We have to take care of this park because it’s an urban site that people use all year — but it’s also the right thing to do, and an integrated part of what we want to be,” she continues more seriously. “I think we are the only festival in Norway that has a person dedicated to sustainable initiatives, but we don’t do it just to pat ourselves on the back — we want to inspire not only other festivals, but other businesses and the audience, in their homes and jobs.”

Asked about the often daunting costs of recycling, Frogner says green policies are so deeply integrated into the festival’s budgeting and production that they’re almost impossible to itemize. “It’s something we’ve decided we want to pay for,” she says, “but a lot of the projects actually finance themselves, like the [reusable] plastic cups. The fee for the cups is used for the washing, distribution and logistics of it all. We try to make the environmentally sustainable projects as self-funded as possible.”

Øya uses reusable products and materials as often as is feasible, and has an extensive storage system for that equipment. It also works to reuse materials both inside and outside the festival, converting frying oil into fuel, coffee grounds into soap, and banners and tablecloths into cushion covers and other decorative items. It’s even calculated the average climate emission for every meal sold at the festival.

“All partnerships, contractors, food vendors, sponsors — everyone has to abide by our environmental guidelines,” Frogner says. “They’re part of every contract we sign.”

Øya is one of several major festivals in Norway — which also include Bergenfest, Inferno, Stavern, and the awesomely titled Tons of Rock — and dozens across Europe, and it’s a leader in the field. “When it comes to sustainable goals and environmental issues, I think Norway’s festivals have been at the center of the conversation, and many people come to them for advice on these issues,” says Kathrine Synnes Finnskog, CEO of Music Norway, a government-funded private foundation with a mandate to raise the international profile of the country’s music. “Most people in Norway are aware that we live in a very privileged country, so we have an obligation when it comes to how to take care of the world. But we also know that our governmental funding comes [largely] from the oil industry, so it’s a very complex issue.”

Indeed, Norway’s wealth expanded exponentially with the discovery of North Sea oil in the 1960s, and evidence of that largesse is prominent throughout Oslo. But combined with the country’s longstanding welfare-state traditions, that wealth has created an enlightened attitude toward sustainability that is relatively common in Europe but almost unheard-of in the United States.

“The oil money is relatively recent — my grandparents didn’t have it in their lives because the industry wasn’t developed as it is today,” Frogner says. “So we’re a very nature-oriented country. Norway is mostly forests and water, and I think living in it every day reminds us that we need to take care of it: We have a lot of water power and wind power, and we are aware of the need to transition away from fossil fuel. I think there’s a mindset that if we were able to do it with fossil fuels, we can be as innovative with other kinds of energy — we can take all of that knowledge and competence and all of those highly qualified people and companies, and put it toward how we can we be more sustainable in energy production.

“We look at ourselves as a testing ground for what can be done,” she concludes. “We’ve calculated that [at capacity], Øya is Norway’s 15th or 16th biggest city. So if something works here, it can work everywhere.”

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