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  • Writer's pictureLeorah Gavidor

Are Eco-Fairs Eco-Friendly?

A Closer Look at Two of San Diego’s Popular Environmental-Themed Events

Eco-fairs and sustainability events are a popular way to show support for environmental causes and learn about ways to live a more sustainable life. But the impacts of these large gatherings can be unintentionally harmful to the very ecosystems they aim to preserve. Thousands of people driving to the events creates carbon emissions (not to mention hundreds of exhibitors bringing equipment). Thousands of people eating on disposable plates and drinking out of disposable cups creates mounds of trash and recycling. Musicians plug in amplifiers and speakers, and beer gardens plug in refrigeration units or use gas-powered generators to keep beverages cold. Vendors print banners on plastic or vinyl. It all adds up. Here are a few ways Encinitas EcoFest and Balboa Park EarthFair events work to mitigate the impacts.

First held in 2007, organizers say Encinitas’s EcoFest is the longest running environmental fair in north San Diego County. Before the term was popular it was an almost “zero waste” event—and this year local waste company and event sponsor EDCO will collect all organics and compostables for recycling in its new anaerobic digester.

Attendees are encouraged to ride their bikes to EcoFest, which features a bike valet, a free raffle for bike riders, and free bicycle safety lessons. It’s close enough to the Coaster station to take public transit, too. In conjunction with National Drive Electric Week, EcoFest registered attendees reported a collective 222,290 miles driven in electric cars (up to the date of their registration). Taking electricity production into account, EcoFest attendees who reported driving electric cars represent carbon emissions that are three times lower than the average gasoline powered car.

“Encinitas, like most coastal communities, sees a direct link between our actions and the harm they can do, especially to the ocean,” said organizer John Gjata. “Encinitas has a very high percentage of electric car ownership, solar panel installation, etc. Encinitas also has traditionally had a close relationship with spiritual environmentalism with a focus on healthy mind and body as well as the planet, through yoga, Self-Realization Fellowship, and various outdoor activities.”

From its founding, Encinitas EcoFest was envisioned as an alternative to the huge EarthFair in Balboa Park. EcoFest organizers expect a crowd of about 1500 in 2021, scaled down somewhat due to the pandemic. The venue, Cottonwood Creek Park, is located on a parcel of land once proposed to be developed as a car dealership or multiplex theater. The City of Encinitas opted to invest in a park on the site, and restoration of the creek that runs through it. Hosting EcoFest there showcases one way in which the city prioritizes solutions that conserve natural resources.

Balboa Park’s EarthFair is the largest free annual environmental gathering in the world, according to organizer EarthWorks. In 2019 around 60,000 people attended. But organizers reported that 90% of the waste was diverted from the landfill through reusing, recycling, and composting. New to the fair in 2022 (2020 and 2021 were cancelled) will be 25 Zero Waste Stations with black, blue, and green containers. “Trash talkers” will be positioned at each station to explain what waste goes where.

In the two food pavilions, instead of the usual hot dogs and sodas typically found at public events, EarthFair 2022 will feature vegetarian fare. One of the kids’ activities will be making cards out of recycled materials. Artists and craftsmen will display works made with reused and repurposed materials. But the fact remains: most attendees will drive there. And most won’t bring their own plates, cups, and utensils.

So why hold these eco-fairs, if we are aware of the negative impacts?

"What I was looking for in 1970, I was a kid at school, but in 1990, I was looking for how to volunteer for a local conservation group," she said. "That's the purpose of Earth Day, is to get people started because it's like one-stop shopping," Carolyn Chase, EarthFair organizer, told KPBS in a 2020 interview.

EcoFest gives attendees the chance to get up close and personal with local eco-leaders and share ideas with others who care about the planet. “It’s the only way to dig ourselves out of this mess we find ourselves in,” said John Gjata.

EcoFest 2021:

Sunday, September 26, 10am - 4pm

Cottonwood Creek Park, Encinitas


EarthFair 2022:

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Balboa Park

10am - 5pm

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