Hillside Festival

Photos by Azra Fazal

Festivals with clear skies are a rare sight to behold, but a festival with clear grounds — now that’s truly a sight to see. When you step onto the Guelph Lake Conservation Area, where Hillside Festival is based, festivalgoers are accosted by unique music, rather than the crunch of garbage underfoot. The noise difference occurs from Hillside organizers valuing the event’s environmental impact just as much as its musical performances. At Hillside environmental care is packed into each creek and opening with the intent that everyone who experiences the festival will finish with an energy of “See if they did it, so can the rest of the world.”

So how does Hillside earn its green badge of honour? Let’s start from the bottom. Disposing of waste is a nagging worry for every large-scale eventer, and while many are satisfied with deploying a team of litter pickers after the event, Hillside is different. Conveniently located across the festival lie numerous blocks of four coloured bins, each with a different motive and each labelling and illustrating that motive effectively. Festivalgoers gleam with pride as they separate their rubbish, knowing that they are part of the team making a difference. To prevent overfills and ensure correct sorting, teams of volunteers scurry along with wagons to collect and distribute the waste.

For the most part, what can be recycled gets recycled — but something unique happens to the compostable waste. Instead of moving the waste to designated areas to form compost for it then to only be further moved to areas that use compost, Hillside does it all on site. On the very island that Hillside Festival is based, a hole is dug and the compostable waste emptied in, then add some occasional stirring and voilà — compost. Fulfilling the full circle dream, the compost is then used on site and areas currently undergoing stresses from the festival will receive a well-deserved nutrient boost.

The distribution and usage of waste is profound, but as the old saying goes: Prevention is better than cure. About 17 years ago, Hillside put this saying into practise by introducing the Dish Ninja. At the time they cleaned the plates and bowls for Hillside volunteers only, but they knew that more could be done. Their determined wishes were soon fulfilled when in 2009 the spork was introduced; this reusable plastic spoon and fork combo replaced disposable cutlery in one swoop. 2011 saw the next step when the sporks were replaced entirely with metal cutlery. The spork, however, held on to some nostalgic volunteers who still carry it around as a fond reminder of change. Today, thousands of dishes avoid the landfill; instead Dish Ninja’s wash, rinse, dry and sanitize them all by hand. The progressive thoughts did not stop there. The installation of a solar water heater now results in a 30 percent reduction of energy consumption, while still giving Dish Ninja’s constant supplies of hot water. What’s more, dishwater is retained and used to dilute waste from Hillside’s fleet of port-a-potties, resulting in an easy flow off the site.

Preventing waste is further achieved by the prohibition of water bottle sales. Instead the City of Guelph provides Hillside with a Water Wagon where festivalgoers fill reusable bottles with Guelph tap water. The result this year was thirsty Hillsiders consuming over 17,883 litres of water; that’s 35,766 plastic 500mL water bottles not being chucked into the landfill. Better still this Water Wagon is not unique to Hillside festival, the City lends it to any nearby non-for-profit event that has over 500 attendees and in total this summer has resulted in 45,568 plastic 500mL bottles being saved. The Water Wagon dream came into practice when Guelph introduced initiatives to reduce their plastic waste, after some debating and thought processing, the idea came and was soon implemented. The company Quench Buggy built the Water Wagon for Guelph, and now offers rentals to events all round the world – making any communities’ dream of no more plastic bottles, very achievable.

As you walk towards Hillside’s main stage you will see blurs of green mixed with the blue sky. This is Hillside’s show closer: The Green Roof. This is a roof covered with hardy plants that become maintenance free in just one year. Apart from adding an aesthetic value these plants also improve air quality, provide insulation, filter heat, and provide habitats to birds and insects. Maybe on a roof, these plants and animals will finally receive some peace from us prodding humans.

The creativity, innovation and use of new technologies that Hillside embraces makes them the first ever festival to evolve with their environment. Already plans to create an Energy Park are transpiring, here Hillsiders would exercise and play to create electricity for the festival. Despite this excitement, Hillside knows not to get ahead of itself. Currently they are undergoing a huge examination of the festival and intend to create a map of how much energy went where; this will allow easy navigation of where best to next strike their keen minds.

Hillside is on the forefront of change; they beam the way through a stunning, green-lit path, evoking an undeniable passion that one-day they will be just one of the crowd.


Julia Galbenu graduated from Oxford University with a degree in Biological Sciences. Currently, she's making her way down Latin America with one simple aim: to get people outdoors and make them fall in love with nature. She'll be posting all about her adventures, as well as sneak peeks and excerpts from her book "Find Your Wild" on her instagram @juliagalbenu 

If you liked this article, please subscribe or donate today to support our work.

A\J moderates comments to maintain a respectful and thoughtful discussion.
Comments may be considered for publication in the magazine.