Instead of plastic water bottles, concertgoers will receive a Rock the Green bottle they can refill for free at water stations positioned throughout festival grounds. Photo: Rock the Green

By Jenni Spinner

Usually, most of the refuse generated at summer galas is destined for landfills. But one concert or-waste by educating attendees as they enjoy the tunes.

Scheduled for Sept. 18 on Milwaukee's Lake Michigan waterfront, Rock the Green is a music festival with a zero-waste mission. The day-long event will entertain throngs with national acts — including The Fray, Ben Folds, Fitz and the Tantrums, Michelle Branch, and Christina Perri — while emphasizing the importance of low-impact living and encouraging attendees to get involved in sustainability-related causes.

“The purpose is to draw in mainstream crowds, not just sustainability soldiers, and then engage and educate,” says Founder Lindsay Stevens Gardner. She also helped create Now & Zen Fest, another green-minded concert festival that serves as a jumping-off point for Rock the Green's larger mission.

The eco-minded event isn't just talking the talk or rocking the rock. Instead, organizers are working with partners — from city and county officials to sponsor Veolia Environmental Services to the U.S. EPA — to eliminate waste entirely by:

  • Replacing disposable cups and plates with compostable equivalents; volunteers from Veolia will collect and process the items.
  • Placing waste recovery stations throughout festival grounds.
  • Replacing paper schedules with a smart phone application and LED signs that tell attendees what's going on and where.
  • Composting food waste in an Insinkerator and giving the byproduct to the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewer District to make Milorganite, a fertilizer used to treat public grounds and parks throughout the city.
  • Encouraging attendees to get to the event via carpool, public transportation, or bicycle by providing services such as a free bike valet.
  • Operating entirely off the grid. Equipment onstage and off will use clean energy from solar- , wind- , and biodiesel-powered generators.
  • Donating proceeds to Milwaukee's Urban Ecology Center and other non-profit organizations.

According to Mayor Tom Barrett, Rock the Green fits well with the city's sustainability efforts.

“The event will showcase Milwaukee's role as a sustainable community and build on our tradition of hosting great festivals,” he says. “Rock the Green offers a fun and easy way for businesses and residents to support our community's efforts to make smart, green choices.”

Green evangelism will continue even after the festival's over.

The Web site will stay live as a resource for sustainability information where, Gardner says, the lessons organizers learn will be an “open book” for cities and counties looking to offer similar events. The idea is to help officials change their towns and, in turn, change the world.

“Take small steps and you can make a big difference,” she says.

— Jenni Spinner ( is a Chicago-based freelance writer and a former editor of PUBLIC WORKS.