Glastonbury, was a gas but no laughing matter ...

Published on Mon Sep 12, 2022 by

Hippy crack - most of us will have seen these cannisters at music festivals or discarded in the park. But there is something weirdly juvenile and a bit skanky, watching a bunch of grown-ups breathing in and out of balloons - trust me. I visited a few events over the summer and thought this drug fad had disappeared - sadly not.

I first saw these about 15 years ago at music festivals and raves in the UK, alongside the familiar tell-tale sound of HSSSSSS, as the balloons are filled up. At one Big Chill festival, the HSSSSSS was happening literally metres away from my tent and it basically continued all night. As the weekend advanced, we christened the chief whipper, "Little Pete Doherty" and marveled at his merry men's almost non-stop consumption of balloons. And they seemed to be everywhere, those small little silver cannisters littering the place. While hidden away, in the darker corners of the festival, were bigger medical grade sized cylinders, half-inched from hospitals no doubt. Dished out to the late night wastrels and those chasing the latest high.

laughing gas cannisters discarded at a music festival

Let me introduce, if you didn't already know, nitrous oxide. It’s a relatively harmless drug that is also known as “laughing gas” amongst many other monikers - Balloons, Chargers, Hippy Crack, Nos, Noz, Whippits, Nang etc. And when I say relatively safe, it is because dentists and hospitals employ nitrous oxide as an anesthetic. It is the stuff midwives administer during labour. The gas has pain-relieving and anti-anxiety properties.

Also it is used in the food industry - sold in these little metal canisters to make whipped cream. The high it produces is mild - the person feels relaxed, giggly, and can create sound and visual distortions - almost immediately. But the high lasts just a couple of minutes. The downsides can be major headaches, it is pretty poor value for money and obviously the effects stop you thinking straight. Aficionados claim it is magical with LSD and mushrooms. Personally for me, it is rubbish, literally.

Nitrous oxide is a chemical compound, an oxide of nitrogen with the formula N2O. At room temperature, it is a colourless non-flammable gas, and has a slightly sweet scent and taste. Most of the smaller cannisters are filled under pressure and shipped half way around the world from manufacturers in Taiwan of all places. Of course it is illegal to sell it if you know that its being misused, and falls foul of one of those trading standards regulations. But in reality that has zero effect on availability. You can buy boxes of them in bulk direct from the factory or via the thousands of listings on EBay and Amazon. They get around any hassles by simply adding to their offer, a fairly simple terms and condition statement such as "That you are 18 years of age or older & are buying the product only for its intended catering purpose."

Beyond any health impacts are the environmental factors.

recycling centre

Each of the cannisters is made of steel and contains 8g of pure nitrous oxide. Most manufacturers anodise each N2O charger cannister to protect against corrosion. However, despite being made from steel they're not very recyclable. I didn't realise this until I was doing a little research for this article - just one unopened canister will actually cause an explosion powerful enough to break expensive crushing technology at a recycling centre. The amount of energy and raw materials used in creating the canisters, for only one purpose, totally breaks any idea of a circular economy. Also as well, its not just steel going to waste, they are also anodised or galvanised, which means they're coated in zinc to prevent them rusting. And that mineral often ends up in landfill as well. This galvanisation process means that it takes much longer for any cannisters lost in mud or trodden into the ground to rust away - the experts suggest perhaps as long as 60 years to disintegrate.

Of course the eight grams of CO2 in the cannisters return to the atmosphere. Which replace the original eight grams of CO2 that were captured in the production of the carbon dioxide. So it could be argued that the carbon foot is neutral, but that doesn't consider the manufacture, transport or disposal carbon costs. That calculation is beyond me, but I think it is obvious the use of these cannisters and gas isn't kind to the environment and creates more carbon greenhouse gas emissions, even if they are recycled.

Music festivals in particular have made efforts recently to reduce usage at events. Most ban them alongside a range of other items. However usage is still widespread - my images are from Glastonbury this year, 2022. Glastonbury Festival is proud of their environmental credentials. For example in 2019 they banned the sale of single-use plastic drinks bottles. The festival, which attracts around 200,000 people, sold more than a million plastic bottles in 2017. By stopping plastic from being purchased in any bars, shops, or backstage areas, the organisers reduced the numbers sold from more than a million plastic bottles in 2017 to zero in 2019. Which is great news. But as the images show, these cannisters are still being used and discarded is massive amounts.

metal waste at a recycling centre

While the canisters are cleaned up at most music festivals and hopefully recycled, in other locations they are usually thrown into bin bags, and ultimately end up in landfill. Not only is it littering of the canisters themselves, but also the balloons which can have a deadly impact on local wildlife. In particular birds have been known to ingest them and the chemicals in the plastic can be transferred into the blood stream. Reports also suggest that they can perforate the stomach wall in baby chicks and fill them up, rather than food - which is obviously pretty harmful.

So to me, after a little bit of reading, is clear that, not only is hippy crack bad for people, but also for the environment on a number of levels. Its no laughing matter.

And apparently supersize laughing gas cannisters are now a thing - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHS4kaIB_5s

Laughing gas cannisters at music festivals - litter, waste and environmental damage

Tags: environment, festivals, waste

Author: David J Colbran

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