Gathering hundreds of thousands of spectators around avant-garde musical stages, in the middle of the Californian desert, the Coachella music festival generates decidedly less than rosy consequences: enormous quantities of waste.

Along with plastic cups littering the floor and mountains of water bottles discarded at the end of each day, lighting and sound devices consume a lot of energy. According to a study of the city of Indio, where the festival takes place, only 20% of waste is recycled at Coachella, just like in other festivals such as Stagecoach organized by the company Goldenvoice.

But that is not the most serious, far from it. In terms of carbon footprint, the worst is due to the movement of the public, artists and professionals, explains to AFP Kim Nicholas, a professor specializing in climate at the Swedish University of Lund. “I think the first step to making festivals truly more sustainable and low-carbon is to reduce the distances and the carbon intensity of travel,” she says. From this point of view, Coachella is a bad example: the festival takes place in a remote site, a three-hour drive from Los Angeles.

Elsewhere in the United States and around the world, in many other festivals acclaimed by spectators and managed above all with the objective of return on investment, ecology does not seem to be a priority. Certainly, efforts exist: Coachella has launched an initiative encouraging carpooling and rewarding participants arriving in groups. Despite this, the surrounding fields are transformed into car parks giving rise to Dantesque scenes and inextricable traffic jams.

And the rare snow-capped peaks of the nearby San Jacinto Mountains are ominously reminiscent of the erratic Californian winter, which in recent months has seen a string of unusual atmospheric phenomena, ranging from drought to record-breaking snowfall. , floods, and many other disasters.

Ms Nicholas insists that festivals should be held in areas accessible to public transport. In New York, the Governors Ball Music Festival, which took place on an island that was not easily accessible, was thus relocated to a stadium in Queens, originally because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but above all to be within easy reach of the metro.

For Kim Nicholas, it is also up to the artists to take initiatives to “promote local tours, and to make low-carbon travel desirable, sexy and cool”. “It’s a bit of the opposite of flying in a private jet, to be considered as a social objective or an aspiration of the past.” Some musical groups have taken concrete measures. British rock band Coldplay halted their world tour for a while citing environmental reasons. The British trio of Massive Attack have called for an “urgent and substantial reorganization” of the music industry after commissioning a study on the impact of the latter on the climate.

The bulk of the effort at Coachella is focused on selling drinks in aluminum cans instead of plastic wrappers, as well as installing water fountains scattered around the site. But thousands of plastic water bottles continue to be distributed to fans in front of the stages to avoid any risk of dehydration under the scorching sun. And many cocktails are also served in plastic cups.

Conor McCauly, 23, is part of a charity organization, Global Inheritance, who came to Coachella to encourage recycling by rewarding, with derivative products and other prizes, spectators who deposit their recyclable waste. “We’re here to listen to incredible music,” he says. “But that doesn’t stop taking care of the environment, and making sure we reduce our footprint – even if we’re in a festive context.”