The Origin Story of the BRC Trash Fence

Of those who come to Black Rock City each year, who doesn’t make an annual pilgrimage north to the otherworldly deep playa to touch the trash fence? Or at least stand in the city and look north toward the great immensity of Black Rock Desert as it stretches a thousand square miles away, and see the tiny ribbon of orange like a mirage?

The prevailing winds blow across the playa toward the north as well, plucking debris from even the most well-intentioned Burners, instantly creating matter-out-of-place that skitters along the playa surface. The MOOP would be carried across many long miles of deep desert if it weren’t for 20-year veteran Larry Breed’s early ingenuity and initiative.

Chris and Debi Cunningham celebrate the trash fence's first capture.
Chris and Debi Cunningham celebrate the trash fence’s first capture. (Photo by Larry Breed)

From his first Burn in 1995, Larry (a.k.a. Ember) was impressed by Burning Man’s leave-no-trace ethic. But he noticed a procession of lightweight trash escaping downwind throughout the event.

Early Burners camped every autumn along the northern edge of the playa for days each year, picking up windblown trash from the festival. Larry thought it would be easier to capture the trash before it blew into the chaparral on the far playa shores.

Larry proposed a trash fence downwind of Black Rock City, and Burning Man organizers pitched in to buy the materials. In 1996, he built a mile-long fence of bamboo poles and black plastic netting, only 24 inches tall. The fence did the trick, plucking everything from confetti to beach balls back out of the wind’s relentless hands.

Larry’s favorite captures were two one-dollar bills, a counterfeit dollar bill (photocopied, one side only), and the dustcover from a hardbound Gray’s Anatomy. He visited the fence daily to empty out the trash and light evening lanterns. Often, he found stretches of fence already cleared by appreciative participants.

Larry Breed building the first trash fence
Larry Breed building the first trash fence.

Larry’s early effort is one of a million that Burners have brought to the event to promote environmental stewardship and sustainability. Larry’s happens to be one of the most visible and effective. Others will be highlighted in Journal posts to come.

Today, the trash fence is taller — and construction-grade orange. It still collects trash. And it still beckons. With this winter’s El Nino rains flooding the playa and summer heat drying it out again, the playa surface will be covered with desiccated alligator cracking that crumbles deliciously under a bicycle tire. Go forth, go north, and touch the fence.

Lead photo by Dan Adams, other photos courtesy of Larry Breed

Longtime Burning Man chronicler Summer Burkes has also written an extensive history of the trash fence, and you should totally read it.

About the author: Sybil Hatch

Sybil Hatch

Proud citizen of Black Rock City and Glittercamp since 2005, Sybil Hatch is a lover of the desert, bicycles, and writing. She is particularly drawn to stories exploring the interstitial dynamics between humans, emotion, and the natural world. Best burn ever? When she brought her 16-year-old daughter to Burning Man. Daughter’s response when asked about her favorite part of Burning Man? “I couldn’t believe how friendly and open all the people were to me!” That’s Sybil’s kind of town!

13 Comments on “The Origin Story of the BRC Trash Fence

  • Kathe Jackson says:

    Love this! Great article!

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  • Divine Child says:

    How did people know where to stop in the deep playa before the fence?

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    • Ember says:

      That’s a question that with a fence is pointless, but without one is unavoidable. Some answers are:

      When the emptiness becomes too disturbing

      When the playa color darkens because you’re walking on top of the Quinn River

      Before you run out of water

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  • Jangles says:

    I love this story, and Ember (even though I haven’t met him yet)! He taught my boyfriend how to make our camp Evapotron!

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    • Gerflash says:

      Yeah, man! I learned about the Evapotron from Larry, too, and have met him. He came by our camp a time or two to check out our new Evapo. It’s now coming into its 7th year. This article added greatly to my already large feeling of appreciation to Larry Breed.

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  • Space Mom says:


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  • Ruckus Geronimo Katana says:

    The Trash Fence is one of my favorite places on earth. Now, it’s spiritual, a divider between the best place on earth, and what’s possible beyond the fence, the vast unknown…only one’s imagination is the limit. Every urban walk that comes across the trash-fence orange webbing in construction sites a knowing smile captures my face, ah yes!

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  • Igneouss says:

    Small world alert. I thought I recognized your name. Had think about it. Realized we went to HS together. Strange to run across someone from so far away… In so many ways.


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    • Sybil Hatch says:

      Wow. Was bound to happen, I suppose. Now we’ll just have to run into each other, totally unbeknownst, on the playa and through a serendipitous conversation, learn who each other are!

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  • Rhubarb says:

    Amber, thanks for the trash fence!!! Making a trip to the fence with a trash bag to fill up is always a rewarding time and can only hope more Burners make the trip out this year .You never know who you will see or what you will find.

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  • eggchairsteve says:

    One of my fondest memories from 1996 was my campmate returning from a midnight-naked-motorcycle-ride; upon pulling up to our fire, he yelled “Nobody told me there was a fence!” Some of the fence was still trailing from his bike. We laughed uncontrollably.
    Those were the days…

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  • Hellga says:

    The truth is, Larry was long time friends with Daft Punk and had a vision they’d one day visit the playa and needed the appropriate space to perform!

    We all hold a flame to Mr. Breed’a unrelenting energy & enthusiasm. His steadfastness & focus is unparalleled. Kudos to the BMORG for profiling a sliver of his contributions!

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  • Justine Farley says:

    Hi Sybil, I am currently researching trash at Burning Man for a project in my Master’s of Sustainable Tourism program. Would you be able to give me more information on the trash fence and other MOOP related topics? My goal with this project to analyze BM’s current impact on the Black Rock Desert and make recommendations for the future. I appreciate any insight you (or others) may have!

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