Meow Wolf’s immersive festival in Denver, VORTEX, introduces sustainability initiatives

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It’s summer music festival season, which means sunshine, fantastic fest fashions, and hours of aural revelry as you revel in the presence of your favorite artists under the Denver sky. Music fests also allow you to bask in some of the less-fun aspects of large gatherings: sunburns, overflowing dumpsters, and a baffling sea of plastic trash. Festivals are fun, but sometimes they can be annoying for the city and produce a lot of waste. That’s why Meow Wolf is introducing 33 sustainability initiatives for Vortex, Denver’s multifaceted festival where the dance floor is the quintessential immersive (and low-impact) experience.

ICYMI, Vortex is female-run, and it is produced by one of your favorite arts and entertainment Certified B Corps, Meow Wolf (Hey, that’s us!). The revelry takes place August 25, 26, and 27 at The JunkYard, a venue that Meow Wolf dramatically transforms into a nostalgic multi-stage dreamland brimming with offbeat performers, accessible chill zones, experiential art, and an eclectic lineup of the hottest multigenre lineup, courtesy of Vortex partners LiveNation. GRiZ, Remi Wolf, and TOKiMONSTA headline this year. Imagine that Meow Wolf’s psychedelic art exhibitions became sentient and oozed out the door and into the music festival sphere. After its first year in Denver, called Vortex "a surrealist escape." 303 Magazine called it "a living, breathing embodiment of Denver’s artistic community." 

Vortex is dedicated to sparking joy and transformation as well as making a positive impact through hiring locally, supporting sustainability initiatives, and uplifting historically marginalized groups. From art installations made from upcycled items to our commitment to supporting our local communities, sustainability has always been a key pillar of who we are at Meow Wolf. Our festivals and events should be no different, so we are proud to introduce our first event sustainability program at Vortex Festival this year! 

Vortex worked with an outside consultant, Ascendance Sustainable Events, to identify 33 ways Meow Wolf can reduce waste and lessen our environmental footprint at Vortex. This program helps protect our climate and engages our community, while applying less pressure to City of Denver waste management systems and building a foundation for sustainability and positive impact. Here are the initiatives below:


1. Plastic-Free Bar Service 

Through 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. 

2. Reusable Cup Program

Reusables 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. 

3. Canned Water Service

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

4. Paper Disposables Upon-Request Only

Implementing a disposables upon-request only initiative for napkins, straws, cutlery and bags reduces waste and saves money on supplies. 

5. Plastic-Free Artist Hospitality

Artist 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!

6. BYO Bottles + Hydration Packs

Attendees 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).

7. Reusable Water Bottle Sales

Selling 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. 

8. Water Refill Stations for Attendees

Reusing 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. 

9. Water Refill Stations for Staff and Artists

Staff 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. 

10. Food Rescue 

Food 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.

11. Assessing Opportunities for Composting

Composting 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.

12. Plastic-Free Food Service 

Single-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. 

13. Shifting Towards Plastic-Free Staff Catering

Restaurants/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.

14. Supply Reuse Strategy

Reusing 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. 

15. Exploring Supply Rescue Opportunities

Waste 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. 

16. Art Circularity

Circularity 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.

17. Recycling

After 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. 


18. Energy Assessment to Shift Towards Efficient Energy Use Strategy

Energy 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.

19. Carbon Emission Assessment 

Carbon 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.

20. Carbon Reduction Accounting

Waste 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. 

21. Exploring Emissions Reduction Opportunities

In 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.

22. Providing Vegetarian + Vegan Entree Options

Animal 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.

23. Promoting Sustainable Transportation Options

Public 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.

24. Exploring Existing & Future Circularity Opportunities

Circularity 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. 


25. External Communications

We 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!

26. Onsite Signage Campaign

Physical 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.

27. Dance Floor Clean-ups

Sustainability 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! 

28. Exploring Opportunities for Artist Engagement

A 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. 

29. Internal Communications

All 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.

30. Trainings for Employees, Staff, Vendors and Partners

We 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!

31. Utilizing Only Local Vendors

All 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. 

32. Encouraging Local Sources and Crew Selection

Transport 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!

33. Reporting

We 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!