Festival Waste Reduction

Beginning in 2002, Planet Bluegrass made a concerted effort towards reducing the waste produced at our events. We took a comprehensive look at festival impacts and discovered that simply recycling wasn’t all that efficient, especially in Telluride where, prior to 2007, recyclables had to be trucked miles out of town.

Waste station at RockyGrass (photo: Russell Bramlett)Thanks to meetings with visionary companies like New Belgium Brewing, we decided to implement a festival-wide composting program in 2003, working with a local composter whose farm was located only 16 miles from the festival site. That led us to research compostable materials such as corn resin cups, plates and utensils that would literally turn back into food once in the soil.

These items are now becoming widely used, and offer us an earth-friendly option as compared with plastics and other harmful waste. Reducing waste at our events has become part of our festival mission. We see you, the Festivarians, as an enormous resource in finding new ways to enhance the sustainability of all of our festivals. Join the discussion by emailing us at green@bluegrass.com.

Waste Diversion

Our book - Telluride Bluegrass Festival: Forty Years of Festivation
Telluride Bluegrass Waste Diversion (%)

In our 12th year of composting/recycling in Telluride (2014), the total amount of compost/recycling diverted from the landfill from both inside the festival and all 5 festival campgrounds was 60%. Within the festival grounds the diversion rate increased to 68%. The campgrounds remain our biggest challenge, where the diversion rate within the Town Park campground was 47% (up from 29% in 2010).


Composting is Nature's way of recycling and plays an important role in helping us reduce landfill waste. We partnered with Natureworks, PLA in 2004 and 2005 to help source compostable cups, plates, utensils and other items used by our concessionaires and backstage caterers. We now mandate that all food items be served on compostable products. Have a look at a case study of the 2004 Telluride Bluegrass Festival, produced by Natureworks.

BIOTA Artesian Spring Water was unveiled at the Festival in 2004 as the worlds first bottled water/beverage packaged in a container made from corn...not oil based plastics. With 100 billion plastic containers produced each year, many ending up in landfills around the country, we welcomed a compostable alternative.

Printed Materials (or lack thereof)

Planet Bluegrass has significantly reduced its use of paper products by taking advantage of the internet and implementing email announcements. When we do use paper products for our programs, we strive to use 100% recycled content and soy inks. We've also begun researching the concept of a paperless office, by replacing paper copies with electronic copies.

Waste station at Telluride Bluegrass (photo: Tim Benko)Organics

We're proud to offer more and more organic festival wear options at all our events, including Patagonia organic cotton and hemp T-shirts and casual wear. In the past, we have also sold shirts made from bamboo. For our staff and artists, we serve fair trade organic coffees courtesy of Allegro Coffee.


In order to reduce festival waste even further, we need to become experts at reusing things. The most significant area of reuse activity takes place at the beer booth. Planet Bluegrass offers a sturdy reusable plastic cup as well as a price incentive for reusing this cup. This has reduced the overall cups used by about 40%. After the festival is over, the cups can be brought home for years of continued use. They are made of #2 plastic and can be recycled in most states. We are always searching for a better solution as highlighted in this research article...

The Cup Debacle

Telluride Beer CupsFor those of you basking in the solstice sun, sipping a delicious New Belgium brew, know that Planet Bluegrass has been grappling with a seemingly simple question the past few years, What’s the best beer cup to use at the festival? The simple part of the equation is the math: 10,000 people over 4 days, and 600+ kegs, equals upwards of 75,000 cups. How to deal this with this inherently disposable situation? We asked Hillary Mizia of Prizm Sustainability (former sustainability goddess at New Belgium Brewing) to help us grasp the big picture of what’s the best solution for our waste-stream and earth environment. Here’s a summary of Hillary’s research...

The present choice: Durable Plastic Cups

There are many issues to consider when using plastic cups at the festival.  Foremost is the basic plastic issue, but also as important is cup reuse and cup recycling.

Plastic cups are made from a non-renewable resource: oil. Virgin plastic is a requirement of the FDA for items that will be touching foodstuffs, so getting a 100% recycled plastic cup is not an option.  Why then use plastic cups in the first place? Plastic is sturdy, will easily withstand four days of festival use, and can be brought home and used for years afterwards.  In fact, the festival has a history of selling relatively long lasting plastic cups, creating a culture where a new cup is issued each year, old ones are saved and even collected by some festivarians for continued use at home long after the festival ends.  The following is a list of plastic pros and cons:

Pros Cons
Can be taken home
Can be reused
Can be recycled
Can be translucent (easier to pour)
Made from a non-renewable
Hard to recycle
Does not biodegrade in landfill
Can promote disposables
Will need to be hauled

Reusable Cups

What about the cups that festivarians don’t want? Last year, a program was implemented by New Belgium Brewing to reclaim unwanted cups, wash them, and then reuse them.  Promoting reuse is one of the best environmental solutions to reducing waste.  With reuse, there is no waste and no new product (or decreased amount).  This can decrease disposal and purchasing costs. The following is a list of pros and cons of reusing cups:

Pros Cons
Less waste
Lower #of cups to be bought
Can have a sturdier cup
Dispel disposable event
Give people another memento
Charge more for the cup
Can have recycled content
Can provide deposit/refund option
Won’t biodegrade in a landfill
Must be collected and washed
Personal cups pose quality issues
Harder for volunteers
Can lose making a new design/year
Hard to recycle

High End Cups

What about using more expensive cups, essentially coffee/thermal mugs, which can be made of recycled plastic on the outside and then lined with virgin plastic on the inside where the beer will touch?  Perhaps Planet Bluegrass uses these cups in the future while promoting reuse. It would be possible to have a new cup design each year.  Those that want/need a new cup will purchase them, but the hope would be many people would bring their old cups back each year. This way, a smaller amount of new cups need to be made each year, older cups are reused constantly, people who need their $$ back can get it, and people who want a new Telluride Bluegrass cup can buy one.  Less and less waste is generated without compromising the artistic integrity of the cup design and cost savings are realized as less money is spent of making cups and disposing of them.

Cup Recycling

Consistently at Telluride the beer cups have been a plastic cup similar in weight to what one would find in a stadium. Generally these cups are made from #2, #5 or #6 plastics, the latter two of which are not recyclable anywhere in the country.  However, #1 and #2 plastics are recyclable in many markets.  Unfortunately, there are no recycling centers in the state of Colorado that accept wide mouth #2 containers (they accept only narrow necks).  Be that as it may, there are still recycling options for a #2 (high density polyethylene) cup. The cup recycling option as discussed below does not include collection for reuse as described above, although reuse is mentioned.  This reuse is in reference to those festivarians that take it upon themselves to reuse their cup.  Implementing a cup reuse incentive program will boost that number. The following is a list of pros and cons of for cup recycling:

Pros Cons
Can be recycled into new items
Can promote reuse
Can be coupled with reuse incentive
Familiar for beer volunteers
Consistent look from previous years
Opportunity for artistic collection
Cannot be recycled in CO
Cost of recycling is high (hauling)
Does not promote reuse
Still disposable aspect
Made of a non-renewable
Won’t biodegrade in a landfill
Must be collected and separated

There are ways of recycling an HDPE (#2) cup.  This is the same type of plastic used to make milk jugs and is often recycled into plastic lumber, which can then be used to make everything from decking to benches. What if a bench or two can be made directly from the cups and then be donated to various parks in or around Telluride, or maybe even auctioned off?  Hillary found there are very few places, especially in the Western US, that both process the plastic into lumber and make the bench. Those that do, have strict cleaning requirements and costs of around $1,000. However, there are currently no recycling centers that recycle wide mouth #2 containers.  This would mean having to ship the cups elsewhere.

Cup Collection

Unless Planet Bluegrass decides to go with a compostable cup, a cup collection program will once again need to be implemented. 

Possible solution # 2: Compostable Cups

Another sponsor of this years event, Cargill Dow (AKA NatureWorks) makes a compostable cup out of a corn-based resin called PLA.  New Belgium Brewing has been using these cups for almost a year now, and they perform very well from a quality standpoint. They are clear, you can see the beer and the pour, they foam less than plastic cups, and they can be composted, or will even biodegrade in a landfill setting. They are, however, a less substantial cup, and promote a disposable message. Over the course of four days, one person could potentially use eight, ten, twelve of more cups. Sample of these cups abound at the festival in the vendor areas and in Greentown.

The follow is a list of pros and cons for using the PLA cups:

Pros Cons
Made from corn, not oil
Can be composted
Will biodegrade in a landfill
A great educational opportunity
Good from a quality standpoint
Easy for volunteers to pour into
Can melt in direct sunlight
Pushes disposable items (no reuse)
Cups cannot be taken home
Poses a large single stock for Kris
Will most likely need to be hauled
High cost for a disposable cup

GMO is of concern to some

Examining the waste stream generated by beer consumption at Telluride Bluegrass, or any festival for that matter, is a huge, complex issue.  The next step would be an in-depth Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of all these options. An LCA for this type of situation could prove to be very helpful, but will only give you the in-depth analysis of what has less environmental impact: it won’t provide the answer.  Darn, it looks like yet another year of trials and tribulations in the ongoing question of what is the best cup to use.