Burning Man participants refreshed themselves in 100 more portable toilets in 2004 than in the previous year. This increase and the addition of urinal units at most banks cut down the average time that most folks had to wait in line to answer nature’s call. By adding the new potties and shuffling layouts around a bit, we put additional banks next to the Man, behind the keyhole plazas, at walk in camping, and along the 2:00 and 10:00 streets. Also this year, we doubled the number of hand-sanitizer stations. Each major bank had two dispensers, and all banks bigger than five units had at least one station. This year we also placed blinking lights on top of the hand-sanitizer stations in an attempt to better light the banks. Unfortunately, the blinkers were not as effective as we had hoped, although they were a definite improvement over the previous light source, which was nothing. The intention for 2005 is to also use flashing lights or neon to designate playa-based toilets at night.
Early in the event, our portable toilet vendor complained about excessive trash being dumped into the potties. Workers servicing the units found cups, clothing, crushed beer cans, and glass as well as any number of other things that DO NOT BELONG in the crapper. Each time the pump-hose clogs, the workers on the sanitation crew have to manually unplug it. Manually means that they stick an arm into the hose and pull out the obstruction by hand. Not only is this a really nasty thing to have to do, but it can also take a long time, and the problem was recurring several times per bank. These delays threatened our vendor’s ability to adequately service all of the banks in Black Rock City.
Many staff members and volunteers came together to tackle this major problem in several ways. We enlisted “town criers” who set out throughout the city to spread the word via megaphone that no one may throw trash in the potties. We also created new signage for the potties using clear language and bold print in addition to the regular “Pooetry” messages that had already been posted. We published articles with major media outlets such as the Spock Monitor. Folks got up on stage at the Cafe and reminded everyone about proper potty etiquette.
This effort resulted in a dramatic improvement in the state of the potties by Wednesday, and clogged hoses became a much less frequent problem. Our vendor was pleased, servicing efficiency improved, and excremental disaster was narrowly averted. Support mobilized from all parts of the Burning Man community. While we regret that such action was even necessary, the success of this communication effort illustrates what can be accomplished when people act together (and especially when they’re aware of a truly gruesome alternative).
The RV servicing process will have to be changed for 2005. In 2004 and previously, people signed up at Playa Info for servicing, or they flagged down pump-trucks themselves. The people signing up at Playa Info camp all over the city, so even if the pump-trucks only went to those folks who had signed up, they would spend a long time covering the distances involved. Then add the delays as they stop for participants who flag them down, and prompt service becomes an impossibility. People become frustrated waiting for RV service crews to arrive when they’d rather be out enjoying themselves. We’re not sure what the solution will be, but we’re working on it. We expect that RV owners will need to have reasonable expectations for this service.
All things considered, 2004 was a pretty clean year on the sanitation front. Waste elimination is an area that affects us all, and we all must contribute to make a difference. If you’ve got suggestions, post them to firstname.lastname@example.org or subscribe to the list email@example.com and join the discussion.
Matt “HazMatt Morgan” and Ada Lee Chester