on_the_playa sectional graphic

LIGHTER, BETTER SMELLING TRASH

Modern Science Yields Space-Age Miracle:
Lighter, Better-Smelling Trash

by mangrum(at)lvl(dot)com

Are you familiar with the Wayback Funk? It's when you're driving home from the playa with a stinking bag of trash in your car, and you're reeking all the way back to civilization.

The funk begins to rise as soon as you start to drive and it gets worse the further you go, even when the funk is in the trunk. After all, there's really nothing but a piece of cardboard between your trunk and the rest of your car, and it can get mighty hot back there.

Some people cannot abide the Wayback Funk. Last night they may have been wild primal beings, fearless and carefree and jumping over fires, but this morning they are deeply offended by the Funk. The odor of their own rotting history consumes them, enrages them, makes them mad. Where is my garbage disposal, my trash compactor, my sweet pine cleaner? Desperate, not thinking clearly, they jettison their bags in all the wrong places: in portajohns, at neighbor's camps, near overflowing dumpsters and rumors of dumpsters, even along the side of the road; anything to be free of the Funk.

If this sounds like you, then roll down your windows and DEAL with it. With a little knowledge, and a little motivation, you too can limit your solid waste to a few compact, well-sealed bags that smell no worse than you do.

Gnostic Grocery Shopping

A successful garbage-reduction campaign begins in the supermarket. I mean your local store, not the one in Reno. While it may make sense to stock up on water and other heavy freight after you've cleared the mountains, there are a lot of good reasons to buy the bulk of your groceries at home, the day before you depart.

First, you'll be able to do all your trimming and prep work at home, which not only simplifies cooking on the playa but also frees you from a particularly harsh source of Funk: animal bones and fat. Let's face it: if you're going to cut something off and throw it away, it makes sense to do it before you leave home, instead of buying that chicken bone a round-trip ticket to the Black Rock Desert. Moreover, it gives you a chance to jettison excess packaging and repack some of your perishable goods.

The fine line between food and garbage gets particularly thin on the playa. If Food plus Heat times Time equals Funk, then the only way you're going to prevent excess stinkiness is to eat all your perishables before they head south.

When selecting menu items for playa dining, it's important to keep the "long view" toward any particular food. Are you sure everyone in your party will like it? Are the portions appropriately sized? When dealing with foods with high Funk quotients, like meat and cheese, risk assessment is crucial. Before you put an item in your shopping cart, perform this simple exercise: briefly imagine what it's going to smell like when it's been out in the sun too long. Fill your mind with that smell. If it makes you gag, put it back. It's that simple.

Also, don't make the mistake of bringing too much food; excess always equals garbage. If you're like most people, your appetite will dry up after a day or two in the sun. It's a natural consequence of putting your body in such an arid, inhospitable environment. Based on an informal survey of many playa-goers over the years, the average appetite loss seems to be on the order of 35 to 50 percent.

For planning purposes, that means you only need 2/3 of the food that you think you'll need, and everything else is dumb waste. If you wind up with an excess of canned or dried food, no big deal; you can just haul it home, dust it off, and pull it out again next year. But when it comes to perishables, excess really bites.

Bottom line: don't bother taking more than two days' worth of fresh bread, fresh fruit, or fresh produce to the playa; they won't last any longer than that no matter what you do. There's no way you can win on this one: if you pack them in plastic, the greenhouse effect will steam them into mush. If you pack them in paper, they'll be croutons in no time. In the high desert, perishables truly live up to their name.

When it comes to packaging, choose aluminum over plastic, and plastic over glass. Aluminum can be recycled in camp, plastic can be crushed flat, and glass is just a big pain in the butt. My only exception here is in the realm of alcoholic beverages, where glass seems to redeem itself despite a tendency to split the seams of cheap trash bags and slice up the occasional foot.While beer is available in cans, good beer is not. Likewise, wine-in-the-box may be an efficient use of packaging, but it also reminds us of how very easy it is to take this whole trash-reduction thing too seriously.

Here are a few more tips for your shopping basket:

  • Bring water in 1-gallon jugs instead of those 2.5 gallon "suitcases" -- they're easier to use, and much easier to cram into a trash bag. They're also refillable, where suitcases are not.
  • Forget the watermelon; you're not going to eat it. Every year, people leave a mountain of watermelons behind, and they never get eaten. I will never understand this.
  • Ask any miner: canned food is good food!

Purposefully Packing Provisions

After you get all your food and beverages home, it's time to remove and discard all the excess packaging. For instance, your cereal's already in a bag -- why do you need a box as well? Buy a truckload of high-quality, "freezer strength" ziploc bags. Double-bag all your trimmed meats and freeze them solid -- that way they'll serve double duty as ice in your cooler (for style points, freeze in a marinade, then go straight to the grill when thawed). Bag everything you can bag, and freeze everything you can freeze, including fruit juices and plastic bottles of water. At our house, this strategy gives us an annual excuse to purge the freezer. We throw away all the year-old toaster waffles and fill it up with stuff we're going to take out to the desert.

Pre-cooked and partially-cooked meals are well-suited to the relaxed pace of playa living -- but only if you can find the time to cook before you leave (good luck!). One year I managed to smoke a bunch of game hens before I left, and that turned out to be a good move. We worked the birds into a variety of meals, or just gnawed on them cold when we were too lazy to light the campstove (which, come to think of it, was pretty often).

While you're packing, please don't forget to bring a flat-bladed shovel for scraping food accidents off the playa and two boxes of high-quality plastic trash bags. Be advised, a cheap bag can be worse than no bag at all. If it fails during a windstorm, or at 60 mph on the back of a Reno-bound truck, you've got an environmental catastrophe on your hands. Use a good quality bag, or better yet two, and make sure it's tied off at all times to something reasonably sturdy, like a car door handle or a main tent support. We buy drawstring-top bags in the "tall kitchen" size, which we've found to be a lot easier to work with than the larger, 30-gallon size. Drawstrings help keep the trash in the bag, and make it a cinch to tie down.

Don't air your grievances often; gravity does its job and keeps objects anchored to the playa in the expected fashion. But violent weather can arrive suddenly, at any time, and change that perception in an instant. Don't be lulled into a false sense of security by clear skies and limp flags; the wind and rain are always on their way.

I've heard it suggested that a good way to reduce the funk factor is to spread one's garbage out on plastic and let it dry in the sun before rebagging it and driving it out. While this can reduce the stench dramatically, a sudden storm could make you wish you'd left it in the bag. Better to separate the recyclables from the yuck as you go, and minimize the latter through good planning.

Waste Not, Rot Not

Camping leftovers are always nasty, and on the playa it's even worse. If you choose not to finish your plate, where's all that tasty organic goodness going to go? You might:

  • Persuade someone else to eat it
  • Scrape it into a trash bag
  • Fling it under a car and forget about it

The first approach is of course the best (after all, Burning Man is about giving, isn't it?), but if no one has the stomach to deal with your half-eaten bratwurst, it's going to have to go somewhere else. If you put it in the trash, someone is going to be mighty unhappy on the drive home -- hopefully you. Don't even think about ditching anything under my car (or anyone else's, for that matter). Are you sure you don't want to just take a few more bites and finish your plate? You can't hide your leftovers in the bushes, because there are no bushes. If you pour anything out onto the playa, it just sits there.

The simplest answer here is to only cook what you can eat, and to eat every scrap of what you cook. And if this sage advice fails? The only sensible way to deal with leftovers and kitchen slop is to bring a bucket with a tight-fitting lid and use that for all your wet garbage.

When it comes to the perishables in your ice chest, keep in mind that your only ally in that endless entropic race between "food" and "garbage" is our old friend Ice. If you let the ice melt, then your deli drawer is going to go septic faster than you can say "ham."

I May Be Trash But My Trash Don't Stink

Reducing your trash, sorting out the recyclables, keeping bags under control: these are all pretty simple tasks if you think about it. I guarantee it will make for a better camping experience, and help lighten our group footprint in the process.