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Meow Wolf’s Vortex Blazed a Trail for Sustainable Music Festivals

by Nadia Khan
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Last weekend in Denver, Meow Wolf hosted a psychedelic wonderland of sound and art. Vortex’s lineup featured a carefully curated selection of musical acts spanning various genres, ensuring there was something for everyone. From electronic indie to funk & folk, the eclectic mix of artists kept the sonic landscape vibrant and ever-changing. Beyond the well-known headliners such as GRiZ, Remi Wolf and TOKiMONSTA, Vortex also spotlighted emerging talent, providing a platform for up-and-coming artists to share their craft with a passionate and receptive audience. Attendees may have even stumbled upon a hidden gem while wandering through the festival grounds.


Festival Review

Meow Wolf is known for their artistic landscape. Having attended the original Meow Wolf in Santa Fe myself, I thought there would be more interactive art at Vortex for attendees to engage with. The highly respected museums are an immersive experience, and I was hoping there would be more of this at Vortex. They did have some multi-sensory sculptures by the entrance, though. In comparison to other music festivals, I think Vortex lacked photo opportunities (no backdrop, no 360 photo booth, no light up tunnels, etc). I enjoyed relaxing by the “chill zone” under a vibrant canopy on colored steps. Other than the canopy though, there was hardly any shade. 

The food venders had savory dishes to fill you up and the alcoholic beverages were fun and unique. However, I was disappointed they weren’t selling energy drinks. The community was great, especially with the swarm of GRiZ fans attending one of his last two sets before his hiatus. Denver really showed up (the most well attended Vortex to date!) and despite some hazardous weather and rain during night three, resulting in the cancellation of TOKiMONSTA’s performance, the event was a beautiful blend of sound and imagination.

Meow Wolf’s Vortex Blazed a Trail for Sustainable Music Festivals

Creds: Alive Coverage


Sustainability Initiatives

Vortex worked with an outside consultant, Ascendance Sustainable Events, to identify ways the festival can reduce waste and lessen their environmental footprint. Exciting stats will be shared in the near future, but in the meantime, see how Vortex helped protect our climate and engaged with the Denver community to make a positive impact:

Waste Reduction

Plastic-Free Bar ServiceThrough a combination of a reusable cup program, canned beverage service, and access to water refills, the quantity of disposable beverage service wares onsite will be significantly reduced and single-use plastics will be completely eliminated. 

Reusable Cup ProgramReusables are far more environmentally-friendly than any type of disposable and can serve as a platform for sustainability education. Cocktails and non-alcoholic beverages will be sold in reusable cups and returned to designated bins. 

Canned Water ServiceAluminum is more efficiently recycled and less environmentally impactful than plastic. Canned water will be sold at bars and by food vendors.

‍Paper Disposables (Upon Request) – Implementing a disposables upon-request only initiative for napkins, straws, cutlery and bags reduces waste and saves money on supplies. 

Plastic-Free Artist HospitalityArtist lounge and green room spaces will provide canned beverage service, following the same guidelines as attendee-facing bar service. In addition to reducing waste, this serves as an opportunity to increase environmental awareness which artists may choose to share with their fans!

BYO Bottles + Hydration PacksAttendees will be allowed to bring their own water bottles and hydration packs in order to reduce waste. This includes empty reusable water bottles: Hard plastic, aluminum, metal, or steel bottles/containers (no single-use plastic bottles or glass).

Reusable Water Bottle SalesSelling branded reusable water bottles at Vortex helps to reduce waste and serves as a way to increase awareness of the event’s sustainability program both on and off festival grounds. 

Water Refill Stations for AttendeesReusing and refilling is the most sustainable hydration option, reducing thousands of single-use items from entering the waste stream or polluting the environment. Attendees will be made aware of the refill stations in advance of the event, and stations will include elevated signage to encourage use. 

Water Refill Stations for Staff and ArtistsStaff and all onsite teams will be encouraged to bring their own cups/bottles to stay hydrated while onsite by using water stations and BOH bubblers. Artists will also have access to bubblers and be encouraged to utilize reusable or backyard compostable cups. 

Food RescueFood waste is both an environmental and social justice issue. Staff catering and food vendors will have the opportunity to donate uneaten or unsold food to support local food-insecure communities through Denver Food Rescue. Community partners will be identified to pick up and distribute donations daily.

Assessing Opportunities for CompostingComposting mitigates emissions from food waste and returns nutrients to local soil. Vegetarian food scraps and food service wares may be collected for composting in local facilities; this year, we will assess the volume of food scraps that vendors are prepping onsite, as well as if vendors would benefit from food scrap collection bins and education.

Plastic-Free Food ServiceSingle-use plastics are harmful to our environment and health at every stage of their long life cycle and put stress on local waste management systems. Single-use plastics onsite will be reduced by working with vendors to ensure only natural, backyard compostable materials are distributed to attendees to achieve plastic-free foodservice. 

Shifting Towards Plastic-Free Staff CateringRestaurants/caterers that serve plastic-free boxed meals or self-serve aluminum trays will be prioritized as preferred vendors for staff meals. Restaurants will be asked to provide only sustainable foodservice wares and/or to not include certain materials: i.e. condiment packets and boxed meals will eliminate the need for many servicewares.

Supply Reuse StrategyReusing and repurposing supplies and materials keeps these items out of landfills and limits unnecessary resource consumption. Meow Wolf already has an impressive reuse strategy in place for furniture, art, decor, and staging. 

Exploring Supply Rescue OpportunitiesWaste audits will be conducted to explore any opportunities for rescue and community partners are in the process of being identified for possible donations. All onsite teams will be made aware of the opportunity to reuse/ rescue supplies and be instructed to discuss before discarding. 

Art CircularityCircularity turns trash into treasure by diverting items from landfill and recycling streams, extending their lifecycle, reducing the need for virgin input and providing a platform for education through their use in art or other products. Meow Wolf already prioritizes visual artists who use diverted materials, and artists will be consulted pre-event to determine if there are items from the event’s waste stream that Diversion Designers can salvage for future installations.

RecyclingAfter reducing and reutilizing potential waste sources as much as possible, recycling is the next best step for keeping disposables out of the landfill. A recycling program for materials accepted at local facilities will be developed to include education through guidelines provided in advance and onsite signage, clearly-labeled restrictive-lid bins for aluminum placed both FOH and BOH, and training of all teams to minimize contamination. Additionally, bar staff will be trained and provided with clearly labeled bins behind bars. In order to ensure acceptance, materials will be sorted by DD before being taken to the recycling dumpster. 

Climate Action

Energy Assessment to Shift Towards Efficient Energy Use StrategyEnergy experts have identified a tendency to oversupply production power at events. We will employ a power logger to measure energy supply vs. actual use during the event to suggest a more sustainable energy use strategy and consider potential emission reductions and cost savings.

Carbon Emission AssessmentCarbon emissions are a major contributor to climate change, and assessing current emissions is the first step in building a carbon reduction strategy. We will assess the carbon footprint of power, production and transport for staging only. This assessment will be used internally to recommend strategies for us to shift toward a carbon neutral future.

Carbon Reduction AccountingWaste is a major contributor to climate change, with disposables–and specifically single-use plastics–contributing to climate change at every stage of their lifecycle. The reuse of wood, furniture, and staging of various materials may also account for significant reduction emissions. Carbon emissions saved due to waste source reduction efforts will be calculated and included in the baseline assessment. 

Exploring Emissions Reduction OpportunitiesIn addition to finding ways to be more environmentally friendly within Vortex, Meow Wolf will identify and explore opportunities in order to reduce carbon emissions. Vortex will undergo a  Carbon Emissions Assessment as a baseline, and then begin the process of determining and utilizing opportunities for lower carbon emissions for future years to come.

Providing Vegetarian + Vegan Entree OptionsAnimal agriculture and food sourcing/transport have major impacts on our climate. Food vendors are required to provide at least one vegan/vegetarian entree or more climate-friendly menu choices. Vendors are also asked to source locally where they can.

Promoting Sustainable Transportation OptionsPublic transit is often much more climate-friendly than personal vehicles. We will promote the use of public transit, by providing links to routes and hours for Denver’s light rail and bus systems. Attendees may also choose to utilize ride-share services, which are sometimes more climate-friendly than personal vehicles depending on number of passengers and distance, since there is no parking onsite.

Exploring Existing & Future Circularity OpportunitiesCircularity turns trash into treasure, utilizing materials from this year for a new purpose in the futures. Artists will be asked if there are materials they need or would like to incorporate in further installments, to identify desirable materials. Repurposing materials in this way also serves as an education and awareness platform. 

‍Community Engagement

External CommunicationsWe will message the sustainability program to attendees in advance of the event in online communications to educate attendees. All are encouraged to engage with sustainability posts on social media to support this program!

Onsite Signage CampaignPhysical and digital stage signage will message sustainability programming to attendees, including how they can participate throughout the event and awareness/actions they can take on–and off–the festival grounds.

Dance Floor Clean-upsSustainability and waste management teams will caravan onto the dance floors with trash bags and pickers in tow, to engage attendees to be accountable for their own waste while keeping the party going! 

Exploring Opportunities for Artist EngagementA tailored program summary highlighting a few key initiatives will be sent to artists’ teams in order to let them know about the program and how they can participate. If any artists are interested, they may choose to make an announcement in support of the program onsite or on socials, or work with our team to explore other opportunities to get involved. 

Internal CommunicationsAll employees and staff will receive this program summary as well as a Sustainability Quick Guide so that everyone understands their role in bringing this program to life! All onsite teams will also receive the Quick Guide and some will receive role-specific guidelines. Open communication between sustainability and all teams will be encouraged in order to answer questions, provide resources and best practices.

Trainings for Employees, Staff, Vendors and PartnersWe will host virtual and onsite training with appropriate employees, staff, vendors, and partners so that every person that steps foot on the event grounds understands their role in the program, increasing awareness and providing an opportunity for environmental education that they may take home with them!

Utilizing Only Local VendorsAll food and craft vendors are required to be Colorado-based, in order to reduce emissions from travel and transport, enhance community pride and support the local economy. 

Encouraging Local Sources and Crew SelectionTransport is a major contributor to carbon emissions, and we will encourage vendors to source locally when they can. Additionally onsite teams, such as Ops, will prioritize hiring Colorado-based crews to minimize transportation, support the local community and economy!

ReportingWe will audit all initiatives onsite and compile a final report to include gathered data, success stories and key learnings. Auditing these initiatives improves compliance, builds a standard for future progress and shows what’s possible for other events worldwide!


Meow Wolf’s Vortex Blazed a Trail for Sustainable Music Festivals

Creds: Alive Coverage


Connect with Meow Wolf

Venturing outside of the mid-west, Meow Wolf takes its creativity to Texas. This summer, Meow Wolf opened their fourth permanent exhibition, “The Real Unreal,” in Grapevine. The Denver and Santa Fe locations continue to organize music events. Browse their lineup and purchase tickets online to emerge yourself in a musical adventure at one of these unique venues.

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