Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival reduces its carbon footprint

The Tolpuddle Martyrs' Festival in Dorset has grown in numbers over recent years - but it has also been proactive in cutting it's carbon footprint and making the event as green as possible.

Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival

When it comes to meeting the challenge of the climate emergency, the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival does not merely talk the talk by foregrounding green issues on the festival fringe.

It also walks the walk by working with organisers, stallholders, campaigners and visitors, to reduce the environmental impact of the three-day event, which is held every July in the Dorset village that was home to the six farmworkers transported to Australia for forming a trade union in 1834.

With the significant increases in energy, water, food and waste generated by the festival, let alone the apparently ever-increasing number of similar events throughout the summer months, Tolpuddle’s organisers are doing all they can to minimise the environmental impact of the event.

This is vital work, as demonstrated by the 2018 report The Show Must Go On, which was produced by festival industry thinktank, Powerful Thinking. That report estimated the industry as a whole is responsible for 20,000 tonnes of onsite CO2 emissions every year (a figure that excludes audience travel) and generates 23,500 tonnes of waste (more than two-thirds of which ends up in landfill).

But while there is as yet no agreed industry-wide approach to sustainability, Tolpuddle is demonstrating that major changes can be made to successfully reduce the carbon footprint of the festival.

Tolpuddle Martyrs Museum Manager Tom De Wit explains:

We’ve been interested in reducing our environmental impact for many years, in line with TUC policy on a just transition to a greener, fairer economy.”

But we really decided to up our game five years ago because we recognised that putting on an event that is a good time for visitors but causes negative environmental impacts is not justifiable in a modern climate and flies in the face of the message we are trying to get out.”

The earliest significant innovation was the installation of solar panels in December 2015–24 on the roof of the museum plus 15 smaller panels on another building.

Over the past four years, the solar panels have between them generated 40 megawatt hours (MWh) of electricity, which has saved more than 20 tonnes of CO2 from power generation and significantly helped offset the carbon emissions generated by the festival.

Reducing waste, always a major issue at any festival, has also long been a priority, Tom says.

Tom said:

Although we’ve recently changed our waste contractors, even the people we were working with before were genuinely passionate about making sure food waste was properly composted, that any waste that could be re-used would be re-used, and had a real enthusiasm to keep landfill to an absolute minimum.”

Single-use plastic is another priority, both inside the museum shop and outside in the festival.

Tom added;

We have completely eliminated single-use plastic in the shop – the drinks we sell are either in glass bottles or cans that can be recycled.”

And we have moved on from that to make the festival plastic bottle-free as well.”

Even those small number of visitors who do arrive with the plastic bottles they may have bought en route can refill them with tap water now that the museum has become a Refill Station, which it did in June 2019, enabling visitors, walkers, hikers and cyclists to stay hydrated without having to buy a plastic bottle. (The app-enabled initiative is run by City To Sea, which is also based in the south-west.)

But combatting single-use plastic is not only about eliminating the need for plastic bottles. The festival has also almost entirely replaced the tens of thousands of cable ties it used to get through each year.

Tom says:

We asked ourselves what people used to do before cable ties and the answer, of course, was string, so we’ve been investing in all sorts of different kinds of string to put up banners and attach bits of equipment – and it’s fabulous!”

The cable tie will have a legacy in the environment for decades to come and may end up somewhere where it could cause real harm so we think twice before using them now – and it's really not that hard.”

The festival is also working very closely with all the organisations that come onto the site (stallholders, campaign groups, catering companies) to keep plastic to an absolute minimum.

Tom said:

We’ve had problems in the past with organisations giving out plastic freebies that are destined to end up in landfill, so we have been getting out the message that that kind of stuff isn’t welcome here – it’s not what we should be doing and it doesn’t inspire people!”

This case study first appeared in “Cutting Carbon, Growing Skills – green skills for a transition.

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