The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

August 26, 2008

Searching for plastic-free water at Outside Lands wears me out.

I love music more than ice cream. Even more than fudge sauce. And to me, the band Radiohead is like magic. I don’t understand how they make the exquisite and sometimes excruciating sounds that they do. I just know that as long as there are humans on this planet whose organized noise can move me to tears every single time I hear it, there must be hope for us.

So for a few months, I’ve been really looking forward to seeing my first Radiohead show live at the SF Outside Lands music festival in Golden Gate Park. And I was also pleased that this festival was being billed as a green event and planned to visit a section they called Ecolands, where there would be all kinds of “green” organizations and vendors measuring carbon footprints, collecting recycling (including old cell phones), and serving up organic food.

So I wasn’t really worried when I got to the festival entrance on Friday and was asked (after my bag was searched) to empty the water out of my Klean Kanteen. This is standard practice for concerts, right? Organizers don’t want certain illicit substances being brought in in the guise of water. And the staffer assured me I’d be able to fill it up again once inside the festival grounds.

So after staking out a spot near the mainstage where Radiohead would be playing later that evening, I left my friend Laura and set out to find the watering spot to refill our bottles. This is the sign that was projected on the side of the stage:

And this is one of the many waste stations throughout the grounds for recycling, compost, and trash.

I thought I’d start by asking these guys, as they worked for Clean Vibes, a company “dedicated to the responsible waste management of outdoor festivals and events.” But they didn’t know where the water was. “Let us know when you find out,” they said.

So I walked and walked, and finally spotted this!

But a closer look revealed this is what they were selling:

The only water to be found were plastic bottles of Arrowhead water in the new “Eco-shape” bottle which according to Arrowhead’s site, “contains 30% less plastic than the average half liter bottle.” Turns out Arrowhead is one of the festival sponsors!

“Look,” I said, “I don’t want to buy a plastic bottle. I just want to fill my Klean Kanteen. Where can I fill it up?” The staff at the “water” booth didn’t know. So I asked at every booth in “EcoLands” where I could find regular tap water, and nearly every person gave the same answer, “Good question. Let us know when you find out!”

Someone suggested filling up from the hand washing station by the porta potties:

Um. I don’t think so.

And then I saw it. An actual drinking fountain right near an actual restroom!

Seriously, would it have killed the organizers to set up the fence AROUND the water fountain so festival goers could use it? I even tried sticking my Klean Kanteen through the fence, but alas, it would not fit.

After asking an official looking guy in a blue uniform where I could fill up my water bottle, he told me, “We have no intention of providing free water to everyone at this festival. I don’t know why you’d think that.” Um… you charge $85 a ticket and can’t afford to provide SF tap water? And um… if you weren’t going to let us refill our bottles, why’d you make us dump them out and promise we could refill when we got inside?

Someone manning the EcoLands info booth even tried to give me his own bottle of Arrowhead water, thinking maybe I just couldn’t afford to buy my own. You can believe I passed out a ton of Fake Plastic Fish cards during that hour-long water search and had quite a few discussions about the craziness of this whole “eco” scheme. And what we all realized was that when the organizers talked about diversion, they meant recycling plastic bottles. Diversion is not the same as zero waste, is it?

There’s nothing to divert if you don’t create a bunch of waste in the first place!

Okay, so I finally did find free water. Coming out of the bathroom behind the fence was a long hose with a nozzle. It was what the coffee vendors were using to make their beverages. Aha! And this nice guy (whose name I neglected to get) happily filled up both Laura’s and my bottles for us.

It took an hour of wandering around in the chilly Golden Gate Park fog (which, to be honest, was actually kind of fun in a challenging, albeit surreal, sort of way. Almost like playing a game and finally winning!) to get our bottles filled up. But that wasn’t the end of my quest. Oh no! Laura and I wanted wine, too!

So I checked out the much-touted Winehaven wine tasting tent, only to find that 1) a “glass” of wine started around $10 for the cheap-ass stuff and 2) the “glasses” were, of course, plastic. “Oh, but they are fully recyclable!” I was told. Feh. We know about plastic recycling. Not doing it. And thankfully Laura wasn’t into paying that kinda cash for cheap wine.

But on the way back to the main stage, I spotted the tell-tale green label indicating a compostable cup. “Where did you get that?” I asked the woman holding it, probably a bit wild-eyed at this point. I think I freaked her out, but she was nice enough to point me to another tent. Yes! At this point, I didn’t care if I was drinking rotgut. It came in a compostable cup and it cost less than what they were selling in the swanky Winehaven tent. I bought Laura and me a cup each and headed back to our blanket.

Yes, the cup is made from corn, and I should have been more prepared and brought my own reusable cup for wine. Didn’t think of it. And I’m actually not sure I have something that would have been legal. No glass was allowed in the park. But you know what? I saved those compostable cups, and I’ll bring them with me next time!

Just before the show, Laura went off and found us an awesome organic veggie curry dish from Bombay Kitchen (all fully compostable, although as before, I should have brought my own bamboo cutlery) and our tummies were happy.

And then the music started. And for a few hours, I didn’t care about anything else.

First, a set by Steel Pulse:

And then Manu Chao:

And when it finally got dark… RADIOHEAD…

A beautiful set list. And yes, the encore was Fake Plastic Fish Trees.

Then, trudging out of the park, the crunch of plastic underfoot…

…it wears me out, it wears me out.
It wears me out, it wears me out.

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Beth Terry
14 years ago

Anonymous — so sorry! I didn't see your comment until today. Too late to photograph the spot you were talking about.

14 years ago

informative post! thx! pls pls pls … on the north side of the oval, at west side, the point where the curve is about to begin, near the west end of the concrete steps, could u film that area by those gnarly old bushes… i'd like to see how they are using that space …

John Costigane
15 years ago

Enjoyed the RadioHead song. What about a song for Fake Plastic Fish, a hit worldwide.

15 years ago

Ugh, the green washing at that event was horrible. As my friend and I crunched over the many plastic cups, i wept inwardly at the incredible waste of it all. Incidentally, my friend, M. was allowed in with her kleen kanteen of water. Not a problem with our body searchers, apparently.

And since I didn’t eat or drink at the festival, I was able to avoid the crap as well.

Radiohead was superb. Gawd, what a band they are.

Matt & Kari
15 years ago

I thought I was the only one who spent an hour searching for a water fountain. Thanks for the posting…Outside Lands wasn’t as eco as I thought but at least the music was great!

Cheap Like Me
15 years ago

Oh gosh … this post was beautiful and sad at the same time. Big public events are almost not worth going to because the waste is so depressing.

15 years ago

Beth, thanks so much for writing out the full frustration of trying to do the simple act of filling a water bottle at a big event. I’ve been attending events like that since I was a teenager (and I’m almost 30 now) and have always have been “eco” conscious — the water vessel of choice used to be the plastic nalgene (pre-kleen kanteen) before we new the horrors of BPA. Anyway, it’s always killed me to attend events that try to promote how much recycling and “zero” waste they have – but are selling water in plastic bottles, etc. AND it’s always extra frustrating to try to encourage others to make smart eco-choices when you are in a situation where you can’t even fill up a water bottle after trying and trying. You lucked out finding the hose the vendors are using (and a vendor nice enough to let you use it)…but we all know the thousands of people attending the event couldn’t do that if they wanted – of course if everyone demanded tap water and refused to buy bottled water then the event promoters would be forced to provide a way to get it. It’s extra frustrating to know that those putting on the event probably are applauded themselves for a job well done and for “diverting” lots of waste…it’s time things are brought to the next level.

I’ll cite one example to prove it’s possible. Last November I attended the Net Impact conference at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
Brita was a sponsor so they gave everyone a “Filter for Good” Nalgene (in our giftbags-which i know concerts don’t give out but there is still a way) and provided filtered water all over the conference to fill up your bottles with. NO plastic water bottles. Now we know (as stated above) why plastic Nalgenes are not the best choice, but they definitely saved thousands of disposable bottles over that 3 day event. Obviously every event has room for improvement and I didn’t like that they were providing juices, etc. (from other companies sponsoring the conference) in plastic bottles, but at least it was a step in the right direction. Also – while I try not to drink out of bottles that can leach BPA – I still use this one Nalgene sometimes when I’m in a bind (I just make sure I don’t put it in the dishwasher to reduce potential BPA leaching) so at least it’s STILL being used.

….Anyway, I truly applaud you for your efforts and continued persistence!

15 years ago

Hi Beth-

Speaking of “green washing” I’ve been witness to scandle at Rainbow Grocery over the weekend… I saw one of the workers dumping individualy plastic wrapped bags of cherries into the “bulk” bin of cherries. And then the ironic thing is that people then take another plastic bag to fill up the quantity of cherries that they want. Seriously it would just be better for them to just leave them in the original plastic bags in the first place! I was so horrified I couldn’t speak… And here I was thinking I was being a good citizen by filling up my re-usable chico bag with cherries from the “bulk” bin. It’s a constant battle… It wears me out. It wears me out. :(

15 years ago

Beth, I just want to say that your efforts and your observations, along with your fortitude and your politeness (in your letters) are inspiring to me. I am making changes, one by one, many of them inspired by you. Thanks. Maya

15 years ago

As I read this post I felt as if I was at the festival with you because you are such a good writer. But that means I was pissed before I even got through the imaginary gate because I had to pour out my Berkeley tap water, from my own kitchen, which I brought with me so I wouldn’t have to pay big bucks for it at the show, because some dipstick told me I had to do it or else I couldn’t go thru the imaginary gate. That just gives me cramps! Do you think Radiohead knows how its fans are being treated? Do you think Radiohead would care if it knew? Do you think entertainers would boycott playing live shows that ripped off their fans who already paid big bucks just to get thru a silly gate?
I am so pissed! and I don’t even care about Radiohead.

15 years ago

One thing that really burns my toast is when they make you dump out a water bottle to go into a concert or sports event and when you get in they want to charde upwards of $4 for a bottle of water- I think it is asinine for public officials to charge for water and at $4 I should say “gouge the public” for water
Way to go Beth

15 years ago

I’m pretty sure that (on this side of the pond), anywhere that sells food is legally obliged to provide tap water free of charge. It’s a fact I have put to use many a time when I go to restaurants (student!)

Fr. Peter Doodes
15 years ago

I can’t wait to read your letter either Beth, be sure to post it. The problem of recycling plastic is what it gets ‘recycled’ into.

Usually it is a lesser quality product, toothbrushes, clothing etc and so it eventually ends up in landfill.

Abstinence from plastic is the only answer!

15 years ago

Interesting story for all fishies…

“Prices for high quality plastics such as high-density polyethelenes (HDP) have more than doubled to between 200 and 300 pounds ($370-560) per tonne, from just above 100 pounds a year ago, according to experts in the waste industry.

With this in mind, leaders of the world’s waste management industry are planning to come together in London in October for what is being billed as the first ‘global landfill mining’ conference”

Full story at

15 years ago

With the hose water…I’ve heard we should never drink water from a hose because of the lead from hoses. Is that totally fake, or is it something you don’t know/don’t worry about?

15 years ago

Oy! As I was looking at the concert pictures I thought “Sweet, I hope that totally made up for the hour search for water” then you just had to go and end on that plastic note :( What a bummer.

I’ve been volunteering at the DNC and their goal is 85% “resource recovery”. They got vendors to go with corn based containers and utensils, we recycled our asses off, picked through half eaten food and just when we were feeling good….the volunteers were served their lunches in huge #7 containers which are not recyclable here. Son of a….

Thanks for doing what you do. I literally think of you every time I see a piece of plastic.

15 years ago

PS – I reaaaaaaaaaaally would have liked to see Manu Chao and Ben Harper but the prohibitive cost of the tickets (I anticipated the bullshit about water from the website), the no re-entry policy — just made it not worth it for me. If I can’t bring my picnic and a bottle of water to an all day concert of 80K people in a park – not worth it.

15 years ago

First, I would like to challenge you to all give up the idea that “water could contain LSD or ecstasy” — those are far more easily carried in tablet or pill form.

A business card in your wallet could have enough acide for you and all your friends for the entire weekend — they don’t make you pull paper out of your wallet, do they?

Water is a commodity — it is now something that airports and concert venues have realized can earn a HUGE overhead. Hence the response from the official-looking guy — “We have no intention of providing free water to everyone at this festival. I don’t know why you’d think that.”

To me – that is bullshit. New Orleans JazzFest provides city water in taps and fountains all around the grounds to 100K and more people for every day of the 7 days of festival. You know what? That doesn’t cut into the vendors’ take at all. They are still making a LOT of money.

Airports and concerts need to give up the asinine and transparent pretexts about possible contaminants in water. All they have to do is say “can you drink for 5 seconds without stopping?” — take a big swig of what you have in your bottle or throw it out. If it has drugs or explosives, you clearly won’t drink it.

People, please stand up to these stupid regulations that have nothing to do with public safety and everything to do with making a buck.

Providing free tap water is a basic right and only civil. ARRRGH!

The Green Cat
15 years ago

I’m SO jealous that you got to see Radiohead! I love them!! Please do write a letter to the organizers about eh water issue. I’d love to see what they have to say for themselves.

Lisa Sharp
15 years ago

Oh and forgot to say I just finished reading some back e-mails from Ideal Bites and was reading the one about water filters and was thinking “this sounds like Beth Terry” and then at the bottom “tip submitted by Beth Terry.” :)

Lisa Sharp
15 years ago

I think it’s so cool that Radiohead is making there concerts greener. My brother loves them and went to a concert and he got a organic cotton and recycled plastic shirt while he was there.

I think recyclable plastic is of course better than something that will go to the landfill but it is of course best to have neither. It’s sad how hard it is to do that. I envy you! lol

15 years ago

That picture of the public fountain fenced off says it all. In letter-writing mode, I would check with the city and see if it is legal for a private party to deliberately prevent public assess to public water in a public park.

15 years ago

It’s amazing how the concept of “free water” is so outrageous to some people (i.e. the uniformed dude). Everything is about making money. Ugh.

15 years ago

Beany: You clearly don’t go to that many shows. They never let water in. It’s just how things are. It’s more than alcohol: water could have LSD or ecstasy or any number of things other than water or cocktail in it. If I were a guard, I would never drink somebody elses water or vice versa. Who knows what kind of germs they have (herpes, anybody)

15 years ago

Oh, look at that ecodreamboat filling up his water bottle. I go to Bonnaroo in TN every year. It too bills itself as green. I don’t get all the plastic crap they constantly hand out: plastic ponchos, plastic buttons, things in plastic bags, CDs nobody wants, the list goes on and on.

15 years ago

The organizers’ attitude really ticked me off. Of course I’m against being searched on principle, but then emptying water? Why don’t the guard just drink it to see for themselves? Afterall you forked over $85 to get in. I’m so impressed you stuck to your values.

15 years ago

I had a similar problem at the Pitchfork music festival in Chicago… The issue then, though, was that they were serving beer in those compostable cups, but it wasn’t clear where one could actually compost them.

Green Bean
15 years ago

Uggg! I’m always amazed by things being billed “eco” and then stuffed with disposables and worse yet, “recyclable plastic.”

Ellen Halloran
15 years ago

You are right on target when you call this an “‘eco’ scheme.’ I am so sick of the word “green” and so frustrated with people who think that recycling plastic is the answer.

greeen sheeep
15 years ago

Alas, people just don’t get it.

15 years ago

I can’t wait to read the letter. You’re going to send a letter right?!? And maybe even a letter to the editor.

15 years ago

Ah – the world we live in! I applaud you sticking to your principles. Beth Terry rules!