The National: Green Clubbing

(orginally published in The National in June 2009)

On first glance it looks like a squatter’s home; the bathtub is a sofa, there are melted CDs used as tabletops and large construction drums double as tables and chairs. But Bar Surya, located in London’s King’s Cross neighborhood, is actually an environmental oasis amid one of the busiest and most polluted intersections in the British capital. Almost everything in the club—named after the Hindu sun god—has been recycled, reclaimed or made from sustainable material; hemp curtains cover the ground floor windows while newspapers, postcards and CDs are used as wallpaper and discarded paint has been re-mixed to create nature-themed murals. The bar chairs, found in rubbish heaps, have been repainted and recovered with a black and white jungle fabric. Part of the club’s electricity comes from the two wind turbines and solar panels fitted on the roof while the state-of-the-art dance floor uses crystals to generate light; the club owners hope one day soon the dance floor will be able to generate more than half of the club’s electricity. And the eco-friendliness doesn’t end with the party space; waterless urinals in the men’s room and low-flush toilets in the ladies help save on water. So far most clubbers—ranging from young hipsters to post-35 revelers—seem more attracted to the Bar Surya’s house and funk soul nights than by its eco-friendly theme. But says the bar’s director Paul Edwards, they hope that by drawing people in with the great music they can then show guests how easy it is to be green. “We just want people to come in and have a good time and go away with the idea that even if they change their lives by 10 percent they can still make a difference,” he says. “If they aren’t aware of their individual impact on the environment we make sure they know in a positive way by the time they leave.”

Bar Surya is just one of a growing number of clubs across the globe that are sustainable; dubbed green clubbing, promoters and investors with a conscience have developed locales where groovers can still sway to the trance and drum and base music they love with it not being detrimental to the environment. Though it may seem counter-intuitive (clubs are known more for their loud music, their boozing and drug culture than for recycling and saving on energy consumption) clubs like New York City’s Greenhouse, Rotterdam’s WATT and San Francisco’s Temple have gone completely green and are hoping to get other clubs to follow suit. The average medium-sized club (think Pacha in Ibiza) uses, according to British clubbing magazine MixMag, 150 times the energy of a typical household and produces about 12,000 liters of glass for recycling each weekend. So companies like Rotterdam’s Sustainable Dance Club (SDC) have not only developed a dance floor that is powered entirely by clubbers stomping (their movement is converted into electricity by an electro-magnetic generator that provides five watts of power per 1m dance floor tile) but they are also consulting with clubs and festivals in places like India, China, Brazil and the US to help them become more environmentally friendly. “Just because something is sustainable does not mean it cannot be fun and so that is why we focused on dance clubs,” says the SDC’s Vera Verkooijen. “You do not stop doing the things that you like but you can do them in another way.”

Clubbing in a different way was the focus of a seminar at the Winter Music Conference (WMC) held in Miami earlier this year. Though the majority of people who make the clubbers pilgrimage to the WMC come to sway at beach parties to the music that will be played in the clubs from Stockholm to Shanghai this summer, some have also come for the conference part to discuss the latest trends in technology, sound and social movements. One of the seminars, entitled “Green Initiatives in the Music Industry”, focused on green clubbing and conservation. Audience members from places like Venezuela, the Czech Republic and Canada asked how the industry could become more sustainable when the industry itself is dependent upon DJs and clubbers traveling across the globe for dance parties (including, of course, the WMC) and burning up millions of tons of carbon dioxide in flights. Part of the answer may be a new consortium—— set up earlier this year to help club promoters, owners, DJs and industry insiders work together to promote green practices at clubs and festivals around the world.’s immediate focus is to get this year’s WMC green while their overall aim is to give the worldwide clubbing community access to information and resources about going green; some of the things they recommend are no longer using flyers with UV sheens, getting DJs to offset their carbon footprint and recycling sound gear and vinyl. They also hope to set up some kind of industry standard certification for venues, printers and clubs that meet their still-to-be-determined sustainable requirements. “After many years in the music and nightlife industry, we saw there was a general prevalence of promoters, artists and clubbers wanting to do good things but often times not knowing how to get started,” says founder Dax Lee, who also sat on the WMC discussion panel. “There is a whole lot of confusion about what it takes to get green or to make an event environmentally friendly so we really wanted to create a resource site so that people in the industry, and the clubbers, could find out what they can do now that is practical.”
One of the more practical (and obvious) answers is for music lovers to go to clubs that are already green. In New York’s Nolita neighborhood, Greenhouse has been a success since it opened late last year with fans like Jay-Z, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kevin Spacey coming in to get down on the bamboo dance floor and drink organic cocktails. The bathrooms have low flow sink faucets and waterless urinals while the walls are covered in moss. In Rotterdam the SDC people (who are currently consulting on a new club being built in Shanghai) helped set up the 1,800 capacity club WATT. The green club, which opened last year, uses the patented Sustainable Dance Floor (which costs about 200,000 Euro to build), uses recycled cups for their organic drinks and wind turbines help the club avoid using fossil fuels. They claim that they use 50 percent less carbon emissions, 50 percent less water and waste and 30 percent less electricity than a club of similar size. At San Francisco’s Temple, where people lounge on sofas and drink from compostable cups made from corn starch, the 1,000 capacity club is lit with LED lights while the grease from the kitchen is donated to make alternative biodiesel fuels. “[Green clubbing] is a growing trend not a passing fad,” says Mike Zukerman, Temple’s director of sustainability. “The nightclub scene is culturally influential and [we can] really bring about behavioral change.”
One of the most pressing behavioral changes that is proving difficult to solve is that of DJs who have to fly in for shows. Some of the more high profile spindoctors like Steve Aoki, Paul Oakenfold and Paul Van Dyk could play Tokyo one weekend and then jet off to New York and then Berlin a few days later. “The impact of clubbing on the environment is unfortunately very big for the simple reason that international DJs clock up the air miles like nobody else in the world,” says Duncan Dick, the features editor for MixMag. “There is not another single group that burns more carbon and I always think that when I hear DJs talking about green issues, there is an hypocrisy there.” Some DJs like Richie Hawtin support the moves of and have called on other DJs to be greener. D:Fuse, a recently relocated to LA-based DJ who has performed with Oakenfold, uses electricity from renewable resources in his studio, has banned bottled water from the studio and has plans to do a charity bike ride across the US to raise awareness about climate change. “I was based in Austin and flying to LA to [do my] studio work,” he writes in an email. “I loved living in Austin and did not mind the monthly commute but it just seemed really wasteful.” Dax Lee thinks that if more DJs like D:Fuse forced the green issue, there could be quick industry-wide change. “If the Eric Morillos or the Pete Tongs told a nightclub they would not play til they came up with a recycling program, [the clubs] would respond almost immediately,” Lee says. “If one of their primary talents—who can fill up a club with 5000 people at 80 Euros a head—was calling for this, I think that could make a huge difference.”
While green clubbing has made inroads in places like London, New York, Rotterdam and Denver the Spanish island of Ibiza has a dearth of eco-clubs. On this mecca for club-goers mega-discos like Pacha, Amnesia and Space have not installed any eco-friendly technology nor do they have any immediate plans to do so. When asked if there were any plans to implement green technology into any of their clubs, a spokesperson for Pacha in Ibiza said there were not. “The waste at these clubs that can house three to four thousand people a night is unreal,” says Lee. “It’s a shame because in Ibiza, where there is a local movement talking about how the clubs are spoiling the islands, you would think would be the perfect opportunity for a market leader like Pacha –a global brand—to step forward and really make a statement of what it is they are doing and the longevity of the club movement on the island but we do not see anything like that.” So it’s left to people like Chris Dews, director the Ibiza-based environmental organization Greenheart, to provide an eco-friendly alternative to the bright lights and loud noise of the island’s bars and clubs.
During Greenheart’s Earth Celebration, which coincides with the summer solstice, festivities include a beach clean and after party, a sunset dinner on the Med and an all night eco-disco under the stars. While Greenheart doesn’t have the capability to transform their party into a human-powered discotheque, they do use available resources to keep energy consumption low and the fun level high. Using radio transmitters instead of cabled speakers and reclaimed wood, Greenheart plans to temporarily construct a dance floor near a local beach bar using less energy and causing less noise pollution. Additionally, all cups and dinnerware are biodegradable and recycled. While Greenheart’s events are admittedly more family-friendly than places like Bar Surya or WATT, all have the same goal: to promote an individual environmental awareness while simultaneously having a good time. Cheers—and untz untz— to that.

–with Sarah Goldsmith