Reduce, reuse, recycle, rinse, repeat: Q&A with WOMADelaide’s Sustainability Officer

WOMADelaide is renowned for its sustainable initiatives. For example, it was the first major event in Australia to adopt a waste management strategy that meant only biodegradable and recyclable wastes were produced by festival goers.

It might surprise you to learn that, up until a year ago, the push behind the festival’s strong protocol of environmental awareness has been a group effort by the organising committee – in amongst all the other logistics for the event!

We spoke to WOMADelaide’s first dedicated Sustainability Officer, Hugh Scobie, about what it takes to put on a sustainable festival, and what we can all do to reduce our environmental impact.

Q: What’s the story behind WOMADelaide’s environmental awareness?

A: It’s always been part of the festival really. There’s something about trying to draw people together from different cultures and consider what unites us that translates to ensuring we’re including and helping the planet as well.

We also have this amazing venue in Botanic Park, so we’ve wanted to minimise the impact on that local environment, which becomes the best way to ensure we’re taking care of the broader environment too.

This is where the partnership with Greening Australia really fits, trying to make sure there’s some level of transparency about the carbon footprint of running the event – resources, flights, vehicle use, fuel use, marketing, printing etc. It’s better not to emit carbon in the first place, but that’s not something we can just snap our fingers and change.

We all need to be more aware of climate change and what’s driving that – that our emissions are much more than our capture, so it’s becoming unbalanced. Trees are nature’s way of getting that balance back. Growing trees is one of the best ways to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. And it’s something everyone can do.

Q: You’re the first dedicated Sustainability Officer, what’s prompted the addition of your role to the organising committee?

A: WOMADelaide has pioneered a lot of sustainable initiatives over the years – from adopting a zero waste to landfill target, to mandating compostable cups, utensils and packaging that get turned into mulch for the Botanic Gardens.

The organisers have pushed the event forwards a long way over the years, but had to fit these considerations in around all the other logistics. They could see potential areas for improvement but didn’t have time to pursue them.

So in my role, I’m starting small in some areas that have already been identified for improvement. I’ve also come on to review the systems and get better outcomes for sustainability.

Q: Care to share what some of those areas for improvement are?

A: Phasing out single use items at the festival is a big one for me. Even though they are compostable it still uses a lot of resources to create an item that’s only used once and then thrown away. It’s far more energy- and resource-efficient to have items that are used again and again.

This year I’ve been focused on the reuse system with the bars and different kinds of single use containers – completing life cycle analyses that compare a reuse system to an alternative system. It’s about getting the best outcomes. For example, a reuse system that isn’t working may actually mean worse outcomes for sustainability than a single use system, in terms of resource use and overall waste production.

Q: What thought process is involved in making the festival sustainable? What might surprise people to know you think about behind the scenes?

A: It’s about looking at where things are coming from, trying to source closer to the festival to reduce the overall footprint. It’s going back to that basic adage of reduce, reuse, recycle, where reduction is always first. We need to think about cutting down the amount of items involved in the event, then how we can reuse things.

There’s more to it though, because while you can have systems in place at the festival to manage impact, you also need to get people who may not be aware of the systems to engage with them. So we need to consider how to make sure things are simple, easy to engage with and accessible to people of all different backgrounds.

Quite literally ‘behind the scenes’ this year we’ve done away with the single use plastic bottles we’ve traditionally had backstage for artists. We will have a reusable system instead, where we wash and reuse water bottles. That should cut out 1,500 single use items.

I mentioned before that we’re trying to finesse the reusable cups system. We’re worried it’s not functioning optimally, and if that’s true it could be creating more waste, depending how many get returned vs go missing. During the festival we’ll have two teams on the wash stations and make sure there are staff prompting people to return items. We’ll be monitoring how it’s working and then we can see where to improve or if we need to change our system.

We also decided to go with non-branded cups and bottles, which will hopefully mean fewer go missing, and then during the rest of the year other events and festivals can use them. That will help maximise the ‘cost per wear’ and ensure the energy involved in creating the items isn’t wasted.

Q: What can festival goers do to help reduce the festival’s impact?

A: The biggest thing you can do is reuse your own items. For example, rather than coming to festival and buying a water bottle, bring your own and refill it at the water stations.

Think about how you’re getting to the event. If everyone decided that, rather than drive, they would rideshare, take public transport, cycle or walk, there’s an opportunity to make a big difference.

Just generally, if you aim to reuse things, that’s better than just using it once, whether it’s a water bottle or a costume. Be creative and reuse to reduce waste.

Q: How can we apply WOMADelaide’s approaches to reducing its environmental footprint to our businesses, workplaces and personal lives?

A: The major lesson we can all take away is that there are always improvements to be made. If you always look for ways to improve, rather than thinking ‘that’s how it is’ or ‘we’ve ticked that box’, then you’ll be open to observing how a system is working or not and making adjustments. Be open to changing how you do things for a better outcome.

Q: How do you take your work home with you? What does living sustainably mean to you?

A: When you’re focused on something it’s easy to get tunnel vision, so I’ve found it really helps to canvas ideas from friends who don’t work in events or even the sustainability sector. They often have a fresh perspective on ways to engage with others on being more sustainable.

To me, living sustainably is about trying to be mindful of the impact that I’m having. Being less wasteful, being aware of the impact of my actions and trying to reduce that – whether that’s changing my diet or choosing a different mode of transport.

We all know that the way we, as a society, are living isn’t sustainable, so it’s about finding ways to reduce that impact.

Q: Final question – who are you most excited to see at WOMADelaide this year?

A: I’m especially looking forward to seeing L Subramaniam (India), Kikagaku Moyo (Japan), Themba (South Africa), Bill Callahan (USA) and Aldous Harding (NZ).

I’m also excited to hear from Christina Figueres – she was the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2010-2016 and will be speaking at the festival as part of the Planet Talks program.


We acknowledge the Kaurna people as the Traditional Owners of country in which WOMADelaide is presented, and honour the deep cultural, social, environmental, spiritual and economic connection they share with their lands and waters.

Greening Australia is proud to have partnered with WOMADelaide to offset the carbon emissions of the festival for over 12 years. Since 2007, $2 from every WOMADelaide ticket sold has been invested in native biodiverse tree plantings in South Australia. That’s created the WOMADelaide forests – 75,000 trees planted, 65 hectares of habitat restored, 21,650 tonnes of carbon sucked out of the atmosphere.

Greening Australia and the WOMADelaide Foundation’s award-winning partnership shows what can be achieved if we all work together to tackle climate change and protect the planet. 

More about the WOMADelaide Forests