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Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011

A Greener Music Festival

Rock the Green strives for near-zero waste

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It doesn't take an expert to understand the environmental toll most outdoor music festivals take. A quick glance at almost any festival grounds after the music ends gives a sense of the damage: fields littered with plastic cups and water bottles; garbage cans overflowing with paper plates and napkins; parking lots backed up with idling cars. Those sights have long bothered Milwaukee promoter Lindsay Stevens Gardner, who noticed that the events she's organized since the '90s have usually ended the same way, with trucks of waste hauled off to landfills.

That's an outcome Gardner looks to avoid with her latest venture, Rock the Green, an eco-minded concert in Veterans Park this Sunday that she's billing as the Midwest's first near-zero-waste music festival. Concerts have been slowly trending greener for the last half-decade—with some making real strides to reduce their carbon footprint, and others mostly paying lip-service to the cause—but few have been more aggressive than Rock the Green, which is introducing a number of environmental innovations that Gardner hopes will be adopted by other festivals.

The event will be powered by a mix of renewable energies, including solar power, bio-diesel fuels and pedal-powered generators. All materials provided on-site, including cups, forks, plates and napkins, will be compostable or recyclable. On-site waste reclamation stations will use a new color-coded bin labeling system designed to make recycling simpler. Official festival merchandise, including T-shirts, will be up-cycled from reused Goodwill donations.

To replace plastic bottles, all guests will receive reusable BPA-free water bottles and access to free water stations. To discourage driving, the festival will offer a free valet service to bicycles and organize two bike rides to the concert, one from Stone Creek Coffee Roasters in Bay View and the other from the Urban Ecology Center. Parking discounts will be offered to carpools of at least four people.

All food at the event will be local, sustainable or organic—options include an heirloom-tomato/fennel soup and grilled-cheese sandwich from the Bartolotta Restaurant Group, grilled shrimp and spiced sausage kabobs from the SURG Restaurant Group and desserts from Classy Girl Cupcakes—and leftover food will be converted into fertilizer.

“This local company out of Racine, InSinkErator, which makes disposal systems you see in sinks, has provided four disposal units for the event,” Gardner explains. “So after you're done with your Strauss, free-raised brat, you can go up to one of these mobile, stainless-steel InSinkErator units and they'll grind up your food, which will be put into a holding tank until Monday morning, when it will be made into a slurry and driven over to the MMSD plant and made into Milorganite before it's returned to the earth at Veterans Park. That's a festival first.”

Without getting into the details, Gardner adds that the festival has a similarly elaborate, eco-friendly system in place for treating human waste.

The festival is headlined by a pair of piano-rock acts: The Fray, the Denver group which will be performing in advance of its upcoming third album, Scars and Stories, and Ben Folds, who last year released Lonely Avenue, a collaboration with novelist Nick Hornby. The bill also includes the lively Los Angeles soul-pop band Fitz and the Tantrums, adult-alternative singer Michelle Branch and the soft-rock band Parachute. Local singer-songwriter Evan Christian opens the stage at 11 a.m. Sept. 18.

Proceeds from the event benefit the Urban Ecology Center and The Park People of Milwaukee, an organization that supports county parks. For more information on the event, visit rockthegreen.com.