As a child, the garbage truck would always terrify me. It was a huge metal brute with a yawning monster mouth in the back that could easily gobble any small boy. I could feel the rumble of the motor in my chest when the filthy behemoth would screech to a halt in front of the house.
All the broken filth and kitchen muck of our lives would be banged into the waiting jaw that would slowly come down on all things rotten and scrape it back into the belly of the beast.
Then the sooty garbage men would hop back on the tiny step on the side of the truck, slap the side twice, and the behemoth would lumber toward its next fetid meal. Before long, it would make its way to the end of the block, and the street would return to itself. Even as a kid, I would wonder where it all went.
“Where does it all go, Mom?” I would ask.
“To the dump,” was her simple reply.
That’s all the more anyone needed to know. It was out of our home, out of sight, and certainly out of mind.
Garbage removal has been attached to civic communities since the first cities. In Rome 200 AD, men were appointed to take trash out of the city in carts and toss it into a huge ditch far from the metropolis. In 1350, King Edward III started the ‘English Rakers’ to clear the trash from the streets of London due to the rise of disease. The list goes on as cities formed worldwide.
But throughout history, most of the trash problems were civic. The farm lands had little to no problems at all. Everything was either burned, composted back to the land, fed to the animals, or repaired. There was no plastics or packaging. There was no ‘garbage’. There were just things that were dealt with in respect to the materials they consisted of.
The very word “garbage” is really just a blanket term for a classification of things that are no longer any use to us. This modern disposable concept was created by having a mindset of waste, made convenient by a door-to-door system of removal. Garbage is a choice.
But we’ve been sold down the river long ago. There are even present-day companies that are going so far as to use municipal tap water to fill plastic bottles with their name on it for profit — plastic bottles that will quickly become ‘garbage’ and will remain so for centuries. Garbage is the unfortunate by-product of commerce and consumerism. It never had to be.
Having to cart your own garbage out of Black Rock City at the end of the event flips the waste management script and brings our attention back to what garbage is made of. It requires the participant to stop and actually think things through, knowing that there’s not going to be a place to dump it, or a truck to take the worries away.
The ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach gets replaced with a proactive problem-solving approach. It reboots the original ways of waste management, (composting, re-cycling, reusing, repairing, etc.) and brings the principle of Radical Self-Reliance back to the forefront. You have to make a plan. And if the first timer fails at this, they suffer the consequences and do it better next year. Burning Man takes practice.
When it comes to the suggestion of placing dumpsters within the limits of Black Rock City, there is one thing that my 23 years of being involved with Playa Restoration has shown me. Trash begets trash. One bag left behind quickly becomes a stack of bags, and then very quickly becomes a mountain of trash.
Dumpsters in the city and on Gate Road would do the same, and at a rate that would be neither cost effective nor logistically possible to keep up with as tens of thousands exit the city in a span of 48 hours.
In truth, the dumpsters would be exacerbating the very thing they were intending to eradicate. What you resist, you perpetuate. Having the participants of Black Rock City be responsible for their own trash has been a proven method of waste management with a 30-year track record to back it up.
Even when inexperienced participants sometimes fail to fully secure their trash loads, we have a crew that swiftly sweeps the roadsides post event, and the issue has been steadily decreasing as the participants continue to learn.
“Pack it in, pack it out,” has been the battle cry of BRC since the start. It makes us take a closer look at our own waste habits as we re-examine what the hell garbage is anyway. It’s a fresh look at something that we’ve been taking for granted ever since we first saw the garbage truck monster take out the trash as children. This is a healthy thing.
Is it the easiest thing? No. But the end solution is a real solution that remedies the cause instead of just sweeping away the symptom. There’s no better teacher than having convenience stripped away. It’s a ‘wake-up-and-smell-the-garbage’ moment that will ripple out through the rest of our world, as we apply these practices to everyday life.
We will become better Burners. We will become better citizens of the planet. We’ve flipped the script on civic behaviors before. I think most people inherently wish to do good, so good conduct will always go viral. Each one teach one!
Tony ‘Coyote’ Perez-Banuet
City Superintendent / Safety Lead
Department of Public Works
Black Rock City, NV
Top photo by John Curley