SXSW takes measures to increase sustainability

Eleanor Dearman

With thousands of people coming from around the world to attend South By Southwest, there’s no doubt they will leave behind a lot of trash — not to mention the gas required to fly and drive them in, the increased water use in Austin businesses and countless other potential environmental damages.

The people who run SXSW have been working to control the waste issue, but it is no easy task.

“As far as trash goes, people are always alarmed at the amount of trash at SXSW, but that’s because we are not a fenced festival,” said Ellen Alger, program and special events coordinator for SXSW Eco. “It’s not like ACL or Fun, Fun, Fun where it’s in a fenced area and we can control all the waste.”

This unfenced festival style leads to decreased control over the festival’s sustainability. 

“We work really hard every year to try and come up with plans to lessen that footprint, but it’s really difficult because we don’t have control,” Alger said. “We have a limited number of resources and a limited amount of say about what we can and cannot do in the city.”

Even with these challenges, SXSW has come up with ways to decrease its ecological footprint. One way the festival is decreasing waste is by establishing a zero-waste initiative that encourages recycling and composting.

“Thus far we have been able to get well above 80 percent on our events for the past three years, but we are striving for 100 percent,“ said Chris Sonnier, SXSW Eco program manager.

They will also be providing reusable water bottles for many of the festival’s speakers and panelists in conference areas and decreasing paper use for festival events and advertisements. With the help of Green Mountain Energy Co., the SXSW Eco team will also be offsetting the carbon footprint of all of this year’s panelists.

In addition to these measures, SXSW accepted video submissions digitally this year instead of having them mailed in.

“This is actually cutting down over 1,000 pounds of electronics that are very difficult to recycle as well as reducing the shipping cost and the pollution from that,” Sonnier said.

Last year SXSW began hosting a three-day festival in October called SXSW Eco that brings in environmental experts to talk to guests about sustainability. There will be a SXSW Eco launch party on Saturday to promote the event. 

“We started SXSW Eco because what we do very well is throw events, and if we could throw successful events around sustainability, then we’re hoping this could really help to catalyze action across the world,” Sonnier said.  

The smaller festival allows for green programs to be tested and later implemented at SXSW in March. One successful initiative from last year’s SXSW Eco is SpinFish Event Solutions, a company that comes in and reuses waste from the festival’s trade show.

“An example would be we’re going to get a lot of cardboard and foam board and some wood pallets and 2-by-4s, so we are finding organizations that can use those,” SpinFish co-founder Stephanie Hansen said. “Instead of them going in the trash when the event’s going, we are collecting them and redistributing them.”

SpinFish’s process alone is estimated to prevent 10,000 pounds of trash. If its success at SXSW Eco is a premonition of what’s to come for SXSW, then it seems this year’s festival will be the most sustainable yet.

“At Eco this year we had an incredible amount of materials that were reused,” Alger said. “We only ended up with one little cardboard box of stuff that had to go in the garbage from the entire trade show.”