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Trash And Burn: The Mess After Burning Man

A large pile of rubbish sits only a stone's throw away from a sign that says "No Dumping Allowed."

Love it or hate it, Burning Man has become an institution in Northern Nevada. The annual counter-culture festival in the Black Rock Desert draws tens of thousands of tourists every year, bolstering the area's economy and arts scene. However, critics are concerned about the amount of trash and refuse left behind. KUNR's Paul Boger took a look around town to see the trash post-burn.

If you've driven through Northern Nevada over the past week, you've seen the steady stream of dust-covered cars and RVs making their trek back home after Burning Man. The event draws more than 80,000 attendees every year, and every year locals flood social media with the same complaints.

To give you a sense of what's being said, check out these excerpts from Twitter and Reddit.

Trash left in the parking lot of the Grand Sierra Resort after the 2019 burn.
Credit Reddit User Teck-Know
Trash left in the parking lot of the Grand Sierra Resort after the 2019 burn.

Taken at face value, it would seem Reno, Sparks and the rest of Northern Nevada are inundated with the trash left behind by Burners, but I reached out to several agencies including the Cities of Reno and Sparks, Washoe County and the State Department of Transportation. They all say reports of increased illegal dumping tied to Burning Man are inconclusive.

Even Kendra Kostelecky with Waste Management cannot say how much trash from Burning Man ends up on the street, but many of her clients have dealt with it on some level.

"Most of the businesses that we work with have experienced this before," said Kostelecky, "so they may call us for additional dumpsters. There are some businesses in town that order dumpsters to use when they stop at their property."

One of those businesses was Whole Foods, where Burner Joel Remland brought the trash from his campsite. Off-loading 20 large bags of garbage and recycling, the New York resident says littering goes against the Burning Man ethos.

Joel Remland (left) and a friend throw away their trash in the Whole Foods parking lot in Reno after they left the playa.
Credit Paul Boger / KUNR Public Radio
Joel Remland (left) and a friend throw away their trash in the Whole Foods parking lot in Reno after they left the playa.

"We spent maybe a half-hour, 4o minutes, with a rake scraping every square inch of the space we were camping on," Remland said, "pulling up hair fibers [and] the smallest imaginable piece of junk, to make sure we've done our part. So, while the Burning Man community, at large, takes it very seriously, when you get 80,000 people, there's bound to be some stray things falling off here and there, but my sense is that everyone takes it quite seriously."

But, as Remland mentioned, it's not uncommon for unsecured trash to be left on the side of the road.

On Highway 447, which runs between I-80 at Wadsworth and Gerlach, right off the playa, there was some form of trash every mile or so just after the event ended. Most of it appeared to have blown off of people's vehicles. Many of the garbage bags were intact, but several had been run over, scattering cans and plastic bottles everywhere.

Another few miles down the road, there was an electric message sign that flashed, "No Dumping Allowed," but mere feet away sat a big ol' pile of trash.

This trash along the highway has become such an issue for some that, in recent years, people have begun setting up dumpsters on the side of the road.

Burners throw away their trash at Athena Lamebull's stop along NV 447.
Credit Paul Boger / KUNR Public Radio
Burners throw away their trash at Athena Lamebull's stop along NV 447.

Athena Lamebull and her husband Gordon, run one of the sites. They have nine, 40-foot dumpsters, and for five bucks a bag, Burners can leave their trash with them. But, she said a lot of trash is left behind.

"I still see a lot of trash going through, even when we're done, I still see a lot of it," Lamebull said. "Some people, even when they leave here, they just throw it off the road. They don't want to pay, so they just throw if off the road."

Case in point, a large RV sits in front of several of Lamebull's dumpsters. She says it was abandoned a few days earlier, and she's likely going to have to call someone to tow it away.

Larger items, like vehicles and RVs, are picked up by private towing companies that are allowed to recoup the costs from the owner, sell them at auction or scrap them.

Other trash is picked up by volunteers, something Burning Man is required to do to get their permit. Event spokesman Dominique Debucquoy-Dodley says it's a responsibility the organization does not take lightly.

"The majority of their work is on the playa, but they also have the highway clean-up division," said Debucquoy-Dodley. "We're not going to stand there and try to determine, 'Is this trash caused by Burning Man participants or someone else?' If it's on the highway during and immediately after the event, we're going to do our best to clean it up."

It's not just Burning Man's handling of trash along roadways and in town that's under scrutiny. Despite the organization's "Leave No Trace" policies, officials with the Bureau of Land Management informed the event's organizers last yearthat they left too much trash behind after the 2018 Burn, saying that one of the areas inspected had seven-times more litter than allowed by land managers. That didn't include the fuselage of a Boeing 747 that was left on the playa for weeks after last year’s event. To address the issue, BLM suggested placing more dumpsters on the playa, an idea that drew the ire of attendees.

Debucquoy-Dodley says the issue underlines the need for Burners to step-up and do more to ensure trash is disposed of properly.

"Leaving no trace is one of the ten principles," Debucquoy-Dodley continued. "It's a core piece of our culture and our event. I think people do a pretty amazing job every year leaving their campsite cleaner than when they got there, but, you know, the thing that we try to address more and more now is the trash that gets, I would say almost always unintentionally, dropped on the sides of the roads on the way home."

In the future, if the Burning Man organization does not hold up its end of trash mitigation efforts along public highways, officials have all but guaranteed that they will require the event to take further action, like having more dumpsters on the playa.

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