On a beautiful summer evening several weeks ago, Red Rocks went green. Under a full moon, the socially righteous artist Michael Franti and his band, Spearhead, took to the arena's stage in what was billed as "the most energy efficient and environmentally responsible event in the history of Red Rocks." Presented by etown, the "Green Rocks" concert even had Governor Bill Ritter there to commemorate the earth-friendly occasion. The show was the first step toward "making Red Rocks the first totally green concert venue in the world," boasts Red Rocks marketing director Erik Dyce.
So what did they do to live up to that billing? The concert featured an official recycling program.
"There have not been many shows in the past that have done a concentrated recycling effort," says Red Rocks director of operations Tad Bowman. "I really don't remember any of the shows coming in and doing a recycling effort."
News that a natural gem like Red Rocks didn't start recycling way back when the Dead and Phish still came through may come as a shock, but equally surprising was how Red Rocks chose to become environmentally conscious. Instead of providing hundreds of purple bins, officials asked concert-goers to simply dump their recyclable waste where they sat.
"We're thinking one of the best things we can do is to tell people to leave their recyclables on the ground," says Bowman. "It's sort of counterintuitive, but we think we can do a better job sorting it out with our cleaning crews."
And those crews provided Eco-Cycle, the Boulder-based recycling operation that ran the recycling program at Green Rocks, with 1,600 pounds of commingled containers, filling two-thirds of the forty-yard roll-off container that was on site. Still, the dump-and-sort proposal was surprising even to Caroline Mitchell, community outreach coordinator for Eco-Cycle. "It's not a common practice with the events we work with," she says. "I've never heard of any events doing that."
"It's not what we recommend for most events," she adds. "One of Eco-Cycle's focuses is public education. It's much preferred from our perspective to ask people to sort out their own materials. It lets people feel empowered by what they are doing and think about what they are doing. The downside of leaving trash behind is you don't have that public-education opportunity."
Friends of Red Rocks, a volunteer organization that assists with cleanup and maintenance of the park, was also shocked. "It doesn't seem very efficient," says FoRR head of trail cleanup Cindy Bell. "If I am going to be a responsible global citizen and I am being told to leave my trash on the ground, it doesn't sit well with me. My mama raised a clean girl. And the wind is a huge factor. What will keep the trash from blowing around and getting caught in the bushes where [Friends of Red Rocks] ends up cleaning it up anyway? And it may rain on the trash. Ick."
But the method has worked well at other large arenas. "There are some venues that have been running such a program for years, and it really has proven to be effective," says Charlotte Pitt, recycling program manager at Denver Recycles and Solid Waste Management. Coors Field utilizes the system, and Invesco Field at Mile High will implement a similar plan in its seating bowl this season, according to Andy Gorchov, director of stadium operations.
One of the reasons the anti-pack-in-pack-out method has been embraced is because Red Rocks, like most major concert arenas, isn't suited for recycling. The narrow walkways don't exactly lend themselves to bins being left about, and it's not easy to encourage recycling among a crowd of tens of thousands, all of whom are out of their natural environments and distracted by what's happening on stage — not to mention by, well, other substances. "You have a concert-goer at ten at night who has had a couple of cocktails and is enjoying the music, and they are not thinking about where to put their trash," says Pitt.
Even the recent Al Gore-backed Live Earth concerts, held worldwide to raise awareness about global warming, were criticized for the amounts of trash they generated and gas and electricity they consumed.
But implementing recycling at Red Rocks doesn't just involve sorting out the post-show mess in the arena; it's also sorting out the bureaucratic mess behind the scenes. Denver's Division of Theatres and Arenas is responsible for the Red Rocks amphitheater and parking lot; Denver Mountain Parks, a division of Denver Parks and Recreation, oversees upkeep of the park and trails; and recycling efforts undertaken by either agency have to be handled through Denver Recycles, a division of Solid Waste Management at Denver Public Works, which uses Waste Management, a private contractor, to sort and recycle the materials. "You have multiple governmental entities involved in the cleanup of the park," says Bell. "They give us the impression that they are not in communication with each other. I'd say the [recycling] effort has been slightly disjointed."
That may be changing: The Environmental Protection Agency recently awarded Denver Recycles and Solid Waste Management a $40,000 grant to tackle the issue. Pitt says the city is putting the finishing touches on the program and hopes to roll it out in the next few weeks, in time for the venue's next big environmentally themed show: the Starbucks "Carved in Stone" concert on August 3. Red Rocks will be the second Division of Theatres and Arenas venue to implement a Denver Recycles program, after the Colorado Convention Center; the division's other venues, such as the Denver Performing Arts Complex and the Denver Coliseum, are earmarked for future efforts.
Red Rocks' ongoing recycling system, says Pitt, will probably look similar to what happened at Green Rocks: Along with placing some recycling bins in the plaza above the arena and at the bottom of the seating bowl, Red Rocks will encourage audience members to leave their commingled containers at their seats. Cleaning crews will then collect and sort it all. It requires 200 man hours to clean up a typical Red Rocks show, says Bowman; cleaning crews' training runs at sorting the waste from recent shows suggest the recycling system will require an additional twenty man hours, at an average cost of $22 per hour.
Then there's the conundrum of what to do with the recyclables after they're collected. "The challenge isn't getting a clean supply of recyclable materials; it's getting it out of Red Rocks in a reasonably priced way," Pitt says. "Red Rocks is a good twenty-minute drive from Denver in good traffic. Based on our estimates, it generates roughly 500 tons of recyclable materials a year. When you look at the city as a whole, that's a small amount. We've been thinking that to pick up a [recyclable materials] container, haul it to Red Rocks and haul it back to the sorting facility, it would be at least an hour round trip - or, more realistically, an hour and a half. That's a lot of time for one container of material," she explains, estimating that such a trip, which will likely be handled by a private contractor until Denver Recycles brings it in-house next season, would cost $205 per show.
While they're figuring out those details, Red Rocks is working on several other fronts to become more earth-friendly. The venue is exploring ways to implement renewable energy, utilize post-consumer materials at its concession areas and provide additional mass transportation to shows. "But recycling, I think, is one of the biggest things we can do for the greening of Red Rocks at this time," Bowman says. "We are at the precipice of recycling at Red Rocks. It's an avalanche coming toward us."
Hopefully, housekeeping won't mind the cleanup.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.