How Does a Theme Camp Leave No Trace?

[This is the third and final post in our series about Theme Camps for the Metropol Blog Series.]

Theme Camps are arguably the cultural lifeblood of [BM]. Participants gather their friends to camp together, establishing a common theme on which to base the interaction they hope to engender with the citizens of Black Rock City.  As free form and wide-ranging as they can be, from the sublime to the ridiculous, Theme Camps create an ambience, a visual presence, and in some way provide a communal space or provide interactivity. As such, they are very much the cultural engine of Black Rock City.

So we went to the source and did some interviews with a (wildly broad) representative sampling of camp organizers, including Bad Idea Theater (an entertainment camp), Kidsville (for families and children), Root Society (a dance camp), Suspended Animation (a BDSM bondage camp), and the Golden Cafe (an exotic bar). We asked them a whole bunch of questions, as you have read in our prior posts, and for this final post we ask them: “How do you Leave No Trace?“.

Before we start, a little lexicon.  MOOP is Matter Out Of Place, or things that don’t belong where they currently are.  LNT is Leave No Trace, and Burning Man is the largest Leave No Trace event in the world.

To read more about each camp click on the link that is the name of their camp. Here are the results of that interview:

Kidsville: Kidsvillains understand the village’s responsibility to uphold the larger Black Rock City community’s commitment to Leave No Trace.

photo: Susan Becker

As articulated within Burning Man’s 10 Principles, LNT exists out of respect for the environment.  The phases of incorporating LNT principles into Kidsville’s planning include education, participation, and follow-up.  Bridging all of these is communication.

Education: Each year Kidsville’s Master or Mistress of MOOP, a volunteer, prepares Kidsville’s LNT Plan.  A couple of months prior to the event the LNT Plan is emailed out to all of us and is also posted on the internet. It is required reading for all Kidsville families.

Participation: Each Kidsville family is expected to keep their own camp area clean of MOOP, and each Kidsville citizem is expected to take person responsibility for keeping ALL of Kidsville clean.  We share ideas for ways to keep individual camping areas clean. During the event, it is not unusual to see parents organizing groups of children to participate in “walking the grid” to clean up MOOP in community areas.

Follow-up: After the event, the Kidsville Mayor and/or the M. of MOOP emails out a report to our community regarding the condition of the Kidsville area after most families have left Black Rock City. If specific camps left behind MOOP, that is reported out to the community (peer pressure is often effective!).  If the LNT violations of a specific camp are particularly egregious, the Mayor may inform that family that they are not welcome as part of the Kidsville community in future years.  Another part of  follow-up involves reviewing and discussing (online) the Burning Man Organization’s LNT map following the event.  And, as mentioned previously, we communicate, communicate, communicate regarding LNT.

Root Society: *Leave NO Trace” is one of our great challenges each year. We plan. We moop. Moop more.  And we’re still rarely free of “Red” map ridicule. But we have learned…a lot!

When you mix 1000’s of Burners with multiple structures (domes) you get the perfect recipe for moop. I often talk about our theme camp as the “ass-end” of the gift economy. People come and stay for long periods. Old water bottles, full cigarette containers, costume remnants, glow gear, general muck of the unidentifiable kind all gets left for our root team to pick up. This year after we recycled, gifted to lost and found and burned appropriate leave behinds we still filled 100 super size trash bags. We rent a 20 foot box truck just for trash. Burner trash fills 2/3’s of the truck.

Another challenge is the moop that gets ground into the playa as people dance. The moop is particularly difficult to mine out of the playa…”bits off Burners” we lovingly call BOB – feathers, buttons, clips, butts, sequins haunt us in the aftermath of the party.

We have a central force–we lovingly call him “oscar” who heads our LNT effort. He organizes the tools ahead of time:
10 white buckets with pick up tools. He organizes the trash bags and barrels (we put out 6 in high traffic areas for our guests) and he organizes our recycling station.

Starting spring BLM inspection - photo: Bubblegique
We select 4 moop managers that report to oscar. The camp is divided into 4 teams who become the moop brigade. We do 4 hours sweeps with these teams. We pull all the trash apart on 3 large tables and separate the aluminum, bottles, plastic, cardboard. We then rebag the trash and its goes to the aluminum camp, burn barrel or onto our trash truck for recycle in Reno or thrown out as trash.

MOOP out after the burn is our biggest challenge. Our camp goes from over 100 down to 20 by midday sunday and to 12 by monday morning. A weakness many of you can identify with. The partiers exit and leave the responsibles to clean up after them. My top 5 guys (captains) are all still there with a small handful of root survivors. Our dome crew is busy tearing down our largest structures. We break out the magnetic rakes and we literally sift the playa in teams for about 15 hours. We generally find the metal with the special rakes (must have!!) and a high percentage of the BOB. We have contests for the most moop found in a 4 hour period, most valuable object (often creates great debate) and we collect pills of various sorts which somehow disappear before the temple burn :).  The games tend to be informal but hugely important to the final push.

Zip Tie MOOP
Zip Tie MOOP

Here is where even a small group of the people that enjoy our gift to the playa all week could make such a big difference. First and foremost-take your moop with you. Don’t gift it to us. And if even a few people offered to help us mine the BOB on Sunday and Monday it could make the difference.

Our only thank you for all the work is a MOOP Map that gets posted a few months after the burn each year. If our camp is red or redder than red (as it was 3 years ago) we get lots of comments about how we don’t get it, we’re spoiled, don’t care, don’t respect, don’t moop-generally suck. This personally hurts me in ways that are impossible to put into words. We were actually green 2 years ago and I don’t think anyone said anything.

The Golden Cafe: Leave No Trace is the one aspect of camp planning that is most holistic in nature, and most tied to human behavior – you have to look at every service your camp provides and figure out what’s going to be left behind – and then you need to figure out a system for handling what’s left behind – and then you need to figure out how everyone will know to follow that system despite the distractions of Burning Man – and then you need to figure out  what to do when your system fails.

For instance, we’re famous for serving cocktails in real glassware, which adds a nice touch to the bar, but requires us to handle dirty wash water from our three sink system, as well as broken glass.  So we might build evaporator ponds and special trash bins for broken glass…but with half our dishwashers and barbacks on playa being volunteers, we now need clear instructions for water rotation and glass disposal, laminated to survive spills, visible around the bar…and signs over all the trash bins screaming how broken glass goes somewhere else…and reliable staff dedicated to emptying the trash bins before they overflow and become useless…and signs over the evaporator ponds screaming to always fill the emptiest pond with excess water…and some means of pumping and shipping out whatever water is left over if dust storms or cold weather defeat the evaporators…and…and…

Collecting MOOP
Collecting MOOP

We have separate directors for Trash, Gray Water, and Leave No Trace.  Trash covers all the solid waste, such as empty bottles from the bar and leftover food from the kitchen. Gray Water covers all liquid waste, such as shower, kitchen, and bar water.  Leave No Trace covers absolutely everything, including every sprinkle of cinnamon or loose grommet that may find its way onto our plot of the playa after the Trash and Gray Water directors have done their work. Each of these directors establish the complete system for ensuring that we leave our space spotless – this includes where waste bins are positioned, the rules for sorting refuse, how often during the event we do sweeps through the camp for MOOP, what technology we use for evaporating gray water, what parts of the camp have flooring to keep loose items from being ground into the playa by foot traffic, what sort of food to serve in our meal plan to minimize waste, etc – in essence, your Leave No Trace plan encompasses your ENTIRE camp plan.

Suspended Animation: Why leave no trace? Because it’s just plain neighborly — to the camp next door, to the hard working crews who volunteer their time to clean up the city, to the people who make use of the playa after we’re gone. And to put it more pragmatically, because the Bureau of Land Management requires it of us if we’re going to go play in the desert. We love the open, pristine playa and the only way it’s going to be there again next year is if we maintain it.

We’d much rather prevent then correct MOOP, so we do a fair amount of work up front. We do our drilling and cutting before we leave, encourage camp members to reduce packaging, and choose materials that won’t shatter or produce stray material. Two materials that have proven particularly hardy are industrial shade cloth, and Amsteel Blue marine rigging line.

Driving stakes produces a surprising amount of shavings, so we use a magnetic broom several times during the week and when we pack up. We leave a last-pass cleanup crew but honestly, careful work during the week has always left us with a clean site by the time most of our crew drags its collective exhausted blissful ass off the playa.

MOOP Map 2008
MOOP Map 2008

Bad Idea Theater:  This would be an easy one to get up on a high horse about. It would be swell to say that “Yes, we’re LNT’ers and that makes us morally superior and better human beings”, but we’ve found another way to look at it. We find that leave no trace makes sense from not only a stewardship position, but also from the standpoint of laziness (and we fully admit to being lazy,… at least Mike is). We’ve found that the leave no trace philosophy can simplify things. Taking less Trash (packaging, gifts that will be dropped on the ground, etc.) cuts down on the amount of things needing transport, unloading, setting up, picking up, finding room in a vehicle for, and transporting home for disposal. Not letting things drop in the first place, saves having to pick stuff up at the end of the event, when its hotter, you are tired, and you are looking forward to a very long drive home. Planning with leave no trace in mind, places a lot more thought on how are we going to do this efficiently and cost-effectively (read this as “lazy and cheap”).  We’ve found that there aren’t really any tasks that are easier or more comfortable to do on the playa as opposed to a living room or backyard, so we strip down packaging and try and put a critical eye to our gear and ask ourselves, “do we really need to take this? Is that likely to fall apart out there? Is that going to blow away?”  A lot of LNT is really stuff we learned in kindergarten.  Don’t throw things on the ground, don’t make a mess and if you do, clean it up.  On a more selfish note, we kind of like attending Burning Man, we like being a theme camp, and the only way that will continue is if we all pick up after ourselves… and others.

About the author: Affinity


Affinity, a Burner since 2000, was legally married on the Playa in 2001, was wedding coordinator and then training coordinator at Burning Man, before becoming the Black Rock Arts Foundation (BRAF) Social Media Coordinator and an Advisory Board Member. An attorney, she served on the Board of Directors of the Western Pension and Benefits Conference. She interned with the Human Awareness Institute for 10 years. She writes about how art is envisioned, produced, created, installed and its afterlife.

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