My first adventure scavenging at a festival had a bittersweet ending.
Andy 20 September, 2019 - 12 min. read
Scouring across a festival camping left in ruins in search of valuables, I’d heard of people doing it but didn’t know anybody who had. Apparently scavenging after a festival is a real thing. You can even make some money off it. With sustainability in mind, it’s obviously better to save as many things as possible from landfills and the ever-growing plastic soup. So I decided it was high-time to take a deep dive into the world of festival scavenging.
The bittersweet ending of my first scavenging adventure
Scouring across a festival camping left in ruins in search of valuables, I’d heard of people doing it but didn’t know anybody who had. Among my friends, I’m known to be a bit of an economical drinker - not that I’m tight with money - but in the sense that I would take any unfinished beer home with me after a festival. I had always held off actually walking across a festival camping site in search of forgotten but salvageable belongings. Apparently scavenging after a festival is a real thing. You can even make some money off it. With sustainability in mind, it’s obviously better to save as many things as possible from landfills and the ever-growing plastic soup. So I decided it was high-time to take a deep dive into the world of (bittersweet) festival scavenging!
It’s Sunday night and I’ve been chatting with some friends outside a bar when one of them drops that he’s going to go scavenging at a festival campsite the next day. He blindsides me by asking if I want to join. All we would need to do is walk around for a bit and collect as many left-behind tents and beer as we could. We’d sell the tents and save the beer for some other time. Now, I’m no stranger to festivals, so I have a fair idea of how much stuff gets left behind after a weekend of hedonism. He’d caught my attention, so I decided to join him. He (Let’s call him ‘Scavenger A’) said he’d pick me up in his van at twelve o’clock the next morning.
After a forty-five minute drive, we reach the general location. Scavenger A calls his contact at the festival - the Director of Scavenging - to ask how we should get to the campsite. Apparently, we need to look for an entrance marked by a sign saying “Cado D” (Which is a Dutch abbreviation for Emergency Passage D). You might think that would be easy enough, but we start to get worried when we see a municipal truck collecting all the temporary road signs, put there to direct festival traffic. We wondered if Cado D might be on the move already.
We go into pursuit, following the truck off the next exit and ending up slap bang in the middle of the visitor parking areas. What a disaster! I’ve rarely felt as much of an intruder as I did there between Visitor Parking B & C. The youths standing there are still packing stuff into cars and preparing themselves for the journey home - exhausted and defeated as they are. They had given everything, but now their pleasure was drained. And there, in that most vulnerable moment, we had decided to come barging in, in our van - relatively fresh and rested and ready to profit off of their weariness. “Let’s get out of here,” we thought.
Some U-turns later, we arrive at our destination, where we’re greeted by a giant sign: “Construction Site - Enter at your own risk’. Which really isn’t too strange, because as soon as the visitors leave a festival - and in many cases, while they're having their last nights rest - a legion of production people crawl out of the woodwork and start taking everything apart. These are the unsung heroes of every festival, and we were about to go and casually get in their way.
A snoring security guard lets us through, but we’re not sure what we’re supposed to do. Luckily the Director of Scavenging comes cycling along with a mountain of keychains in his hands. He hangs one around each of our necks. It’s nothing too fancy, just a laminated piece of paper that says ‘SCAVENGER’ on both sides.
Besides the keychains, the Director of Scavenging comes bearing very bad news; as soon as the campsite was opened, a group with a box truck had collected all the beer that was still lying around in eyesight and had left again. A box truck full of beer! That means there would be a lot less for us... the horror! I wonder who those people are and hope they enjoy their loot. No, really I hope their engine block will drop out on the way home. It feels like the Battle of the Scavengers has already started and we’ve lost the first skirmish.
We hurry onto the campsite.
Such havoc! At first glance, a couple of things catch your eye. As far as you can see there are carcasses of deceased party tents. It’s clear that visitors treat party tents as if they are disposable. They are generally of such poor quality that by the end of a festival they have almost all collapsed and been left behind. You also see a lot of camping tents in all shapes and sizes; pop-up tents, canvas tents and those very low single-person tents for which I don’t know the technical term. In addition, lots of garbage bags, inflatable mattresses and other plastic rubbish. Here and there you see a lost soul walking through the mess, poking around for something useful. The whole scene reminds me a bit of the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, but with fewer bullets flying past your head.
It’s quite shocking. I mean, it’s one thing to roll out of your tent in the morning, pack everything up and walk away from the mess you and all the other visitors have slowly been accumulating all weekend. It’s a completely different story when you end up in that same scene as an outsider. The first thought to go through your mind is that this kind of waste would not be accepted in any other aspect of our lives. I always had the feeling there was a problematic underlying mentality among visitors at a festival, which I probably shared at some point. One of "I paid, so someone else has to clean it up". But it’s really confronting when you’re actually standing in the middle of the desolation, especially when you see how many useful things are left for the taking.
Not everything is of the highest quality. There are loads of those dirt-cheap tents that you might buy at a supermarket, but there are some branded tents too, such as the king of the pop-ups; Quechua. That was our dream as newbies in the world of scavengers; to load a car full of real Quechua Fresh&Black tents, drive home and retire…
Sadly there are relatively few of those quality tents lying about, it seems to be mainly the smaller and cheaper models. But, if you filter critically and adopt a marching stride you can actually collect quite a few of them. Which makes the whole thing even crazier! How could you stomach the idea of leaving all these valuables behind at a festival camping?
As soon as we get started we realise how ill-prepared we are. There’s simply too much useful stuff. We start folding up some pop-up tents from a budget chain. They’re the first tents we see and they’re in perfect condition too. Judging by the way they’re set up, they likely belonged to a group of friends who obviously collectively decided to leave them behind after all the fun and dancing. The tent bags are on the floor next to them, ready to be packed up. After a couple of minutes, we’ve folded up a few of the tents and we realise that if this is just the beginning we’ll have to make quite a few runs to the car before the day is out. Luckily we find a hand cart pretty soon after, to which we attach the tents. We also find a couple of coolers which we pile onto the cart. Now we can really get down to business.
Contrary to my expectations, I begin to notice how few other scavengers are about. When Scavenger A explained what scavenging was, I had concocted an image of a fairly large group of people rattling at the gates, ready to trample over each other in an attempt to find any and all valuable items strewn across the abandoned field. You know, like Black Friday - but on a field. In reality, you can count the scavengers on two hands. I wonder if festival scavenging is as "popular" everywhere.
We spread out to increase our scavenging territory.
Scavenger A has been gone for a little while and I’m accosted by a young lady who spots my collection of tents and has the nerve to ask if she can have one. She’s pretty good looking and she knows it, so she’s not afraid to use her charm. She’s holding a half-folded green pop-up tent, one that Scavenger A and I had skipped since it didn’t have an inner tent. “I’m sorry,” I say, “but they’re not only mine”. She looks disappointed and says: “Yeah, I’m looking for one you can fold up smaller”. I decide to roll up my sleeves, figuratively speaking, and finish her folding work for her. She’s thankful, but would have preferred to have had one of my Quechua tents - you can tell because her eyes keep wandering over to my hand cart. “What a scrounger…” we each think of the other, and she moves on.
As the Scavenger Lady leaves my visual field, I miraculously stumble upon a couple of six-packs of beer. I nearly squeal from joy as I crack one open and take a sip. It’s as tepid as it can be, probably even warm, but my happiness knows no bounds! For the first time since we got here, I’ve gotten a bit of a taste of that festival feeling. I’m no longer an intruder - a profiteer - I’m just a little late to the party! Within minutes my unperturbed search for usable stuff turns into a full-blown afterparty with random accessories. I put on a broken pair of aviators, slip my feet into a pair of abandoned slippers, tear an unknown flag off a fence and drape it over my shoulders. As my pièce de la résistance I put on a cap. The big bold-lettered print on it says “Bad Girl”. I walk over to where Scavenger A is sticking to our plan. He laughs at me, and he’s right to, but at least I’ve had my adolescent moment.
Despite my frivolity, I start to get a bit concerned. How can all these things just be lying here? These things all belonged to someone. And the sad thing is that most of these supplies will probably be bought again for next years edition of the same festival.
It’s hard because a festival’s organisation can’t do very much about people shamelessly leaving their tents and other belongings behind. It’s very difficult to keep track of whose tent is whose and who left what rubbish where. Even if the organisations could, they wouldn’t be able to just go around hanging out fines to people. It’s hard to find one liable party, and it may even be undesirable to do so. People go to a festival to escape from reality, not to be subjected to some sort of fascist ‘festival-regime’ where you can be fined for all sorts of offences. Look, the fact that there are ‘economical drinkers’ like me who don’t mind walking over a festival after it’s done and looking for reusable stuff, helps a little, but it’s not enough.
So what can we do to make camping at a festival more sustainable? Well, there are good alternatives such as KarTent; a company which rents out cardboard tents at festivals. These waterproof tents are set up on the camping grounds before the visitors arrive, rented out once and are immediately recycled after the event. Basically, it’s a form of renting and maybe renting in itself is a good alternative. Scavenger A had a similar idea: What if you rent out quality tents for a good price, with a deposit on them? If they aren’t returned in good condition the deposit is withheld. How quickly would you leave a tent behind if you thought you would lose your deposit? It works with cars, hotel rooms or bungalows, so why not with tents?
We reflect on all this as we walk back to the van, and start piling our spoils into the back. Despite our poor preparation and my burned face - we had forgotten essential things such as water and suncream - I’m quite proud of our little adventure. We met some pleasant people, found some nice things and drank free lukewarm beer. The dehydration and the sirens didn’t stop us from collecting a nice booty after only a few hours of scavenging: a dozen or more tents, a few decent air mattresses, quality drinking bottles and couple cool boxes. Almost everything we eventually took with us was from the brand Quechua and in good condition. It was as if someone had walked into a Decathlon, had bought up the entire Quechua department, and had scattered the contents all over a campsite in North Limburg.
Oh yeah, I also found a pair of Vans in my size which were as good as new after a few rotations in the washing machine. Awesome.