If you ask most Burning Man attendees what the annual MDMA and enlightenment mecca is about, they'll probably reference one of the Ten Principles laid out a decade ago by cofounder Larry Harvey: "Communal Effort," maybe. "Radical Self-reliance." The vow to "Leave No Trace" in the Nevada desert.
If you ask RobbiDobbs, who introduced herself to me as "the Shit Queen of Burning Man"—a throne she ascended to after almost 14 years on the job—she'll tell you something a little different: "Fuck the man, Burning Man is about shit."
It's hard to argue with her. This year's event had 70,000 attendees. To service their basest bodily functions, Black Rock City was home to 1,400 porta-potties for the "general population" as well as 200 porta-potties for what Robbi called "Entitlement Camp," or festival-goers who rent their own private unit.
And once Burners enter a porta-potty, their radical ideals tend to go down the chute—along with Gatorade bottles, travel-sized hand sanitizer, and those pre-moistened flags of surrender to convenience. Much like sewage systems in the "default world," the bowels of Burning Man are clogged with baby wipes.
On the open playa, Burners tend to be on their best environmental behavior. Attendees bring their own cup to take advantage of all the free drinks "gifted" to them. Shirtcocking, when men only clothe themselves above the waist, is fine, but: no cup, no service. Camps have to deal with their own greywater. Veterans are also always on the hunt for MOOP (short for "matter out of place"). Learn the word and you'll start hearing it everywhere. Even while doing lines of coke off a blow-up doll last week, one member of a fetish camp admonished another for leaving MOOP on the carpet of astroturf beneath our feet.
Porta-potties, however, represent "a gap in our 'Leave no trace' education, because people think shit and garbage. It's a public space, so what happens is you get the broken windows effect," Robbi explained.
It's not surprising. Unless you have the keys to a luxury camp on K Street, most Burners have had to hammer in some rebar or contemplate the efficacy of a shade structure. But when they're high or rolling or tripping or drunk in the midst of an upright shit coffin lit only by a headlamp, who wants to put used baby wipes in a plastic baggie and carry that with you to go see Skrillex? It's much easier to fling it down the hole and run.
"If our shit does not flow, we are so fucked. Plug up the asshole and the body dies!"
Robbi's volunteer role as Chief Poopervisor began around 2000 when "the Org" (Burning Man management) got written notice that their contract would not be renewed if the festival did not reduce the amount of garbage in the porta-potties. Before that, Robbi used to come to Burning Man as an "artists' enabler."
That year, the population of Black Rock City jumped significantly. "People were throwing all manner of shit, like kitchen garbage and then the baby wipes, and diapers, and engine parts and goats heads, and all kind of shit," said Robbi. It went beyond the usual festival filth. "We were egregiously horrible."
"All the big brains in the LLC and their minions could not come up with an idea—a switch to flip—okay?" Robbi said. (This year, the Org transitioned into a nonprofit). "Because they do not want to think about shit. It is absolutely the last thing that anybody wants to think about."
She was at a San Francisco Town Hall meeting about the festival when she "had a vision thing." Two words appeared in her mind: Advertising. Campaign. "I launched the Pottie Project at that moment and ever since then I have been on fire."
Evidence of her efforts are all over the loos. "Humor is very adhesive," Robbi said, "because these monkeys are stoned a lot. Limericks especially."
Robbi served up some of those gut-clenching details during our talk. Her boss, whose Playa name is Hazmat, is the purchasing manager for Burning Man. He negotiates with United Site Services, formerly known as Johnny on the Spot, giving them a map of where the porta-potties should be placed.
Her job is to make sure "the monkeys" are behaving and that the United Site Services workers are in good spirits.
"They've been pulling miracles out of their ass all week. With Mudpocalypse on Monday and losing three days pre-event because of mud—it's just been an ongoing shit storm. They are balls to the walls. They have been balls to the walls all week trying to catch up and they are still happy. They are working very very hard."
Here's what needs to happen in order for Burners leave no excrement trace behind. United Site Services comes in with a vacuum truck with a flexible pipe. If something solid gets stuck in the valve, the truck has to go offline and be dissembled by hand in order to dislodge the debris.
"There are exactly two things that are the perfect size to get caught in the flow. Gatorade caps and watermelon rinds," said Robbi. In the seven days I spent in the desert, I saw plenty of both. "The first shifting occurs when they suck the shit out of the tanks. And they have a method to catch the bottles and beer cans at the end of the hose so it doesn't get sucked in." Then the truck goes to a facility where the waste is "dumped basically across a cyclone fence screen into a tank—a huge box—and then that screen is raked by Jose and his crew," said Robbi.
After that second sifting, "it goes into what I call the gloppita-gloppita machine," she said.
"—A cylindrical rotating screen," James corrected.
"It's like a huge dryer," Robbi clarified. "Sometimes the real entertainment occurs when they have to go in with needle-nosed pliers and dislodge the debris."
Next, the contents are pumped into a tanker truck, which goes to alfalfa farms in Lovelock, Nevada, which have a fine spinning centrifuge. "Then it goes onto the dirt, which makes happy alfalfa, which the cattle eat and the humans eat that and the cycle continues," she finished.
Besides the baby wipes, another pain in the ass for "Turd Burglar" (Mike, the operations manager for North Reno United Site Services Division) and "Golden Showers," aka Jeremy, is dealing with those Entitlement Camps. "Golden Showers would be so much less tense if he didn't have to do the fucking customer service thing. These people, they are so fucking labor intensive. It's a nightmare for Golden Showers and Turd Burglar is fucking grinning and shaking his head, 'Better you than me!'"
The reason there are so many contract trucks going the 5 mile per hour speed limit through Black Rock City, she said, is because the trucks have to individually stop at each Entitlement Camp.
"I went out of my way this year to learn about the RV scheduling and logistics because I have to know my shit. I don't give a fuck about Entitlement Camp, piss on 'em, but people keep coming up to me [asking] 'When can I have my shit sucked?' and I would like to have an answer for them," Robbi said.
General population porta-potties are supposed to be cleared every four hours. The camps at Burning Man are arranged like the hands of a clock. "They have one truck that goes from hour to hour, 2 o'clock to 3 o'clock and just does this," she said, making square motions with her hands. "They have that many trucks that just do every hour to hour so when one comes around, you just flag them down and they'll suck your shit."
Robbi said the Entitlement Camps are "paying for it out the ass, by the way."
"Good," said James.
"Yup," said Robbi.
I contacted United Site Services multiple times to confirm the details and cost and will update this post if I hear back. But even in a billionaire's playground, money has its limits.
One Entitlement Camp member had such poor luck flagging down a truck—some of which started placing signs in the front that said "Contract Work Only"—that he went all the way to the United Sites Services' facility. It's "a hell of a commute, but I think that was a good learning opportunity and he got there."
When the man complained to Robbi, she said, "'You know what my best advice is? Shut down your RV toilet until a miracle occurs and use general population like the rest of us monkeys.'"
"People need to think about shit. Our society depends on it."
Robbi stopped herself mid-sentence to call out to a middle-aged woman coming out of the porta-potties across from us clutching something in her hand.
"Hey, sweetheart, could you come here just for one minute? One minute. Me me me, you you you. Me me me, you you you," Robbi sang.
The woman walked over.
"Whatchu got in your hand?" she cooed.
"A pee funnel," the woman said in heavy German accent. (Along with "tons of baby wipes," every female heading to Black Rock City is strongly encouraged to purchase a funnel that lets you pee upright.)
Robbi started clapping. "Oh, yay you! Yay you! Yay you! Yay you!"
"I loff it. In Germany I didn't found it, but in here—You are doing the toilets? I recognize your voice. Thank you so much," she said, bending down to hug Robbi.
"That was the best possible outcome," I said after the woman walked away, relieved it didn't turn into a confrontation.
"I was gonna gift her a ziplock bag if it was baby wipes," said Robbi. "I stopped saying 'no' to baby wipes and 'yes' to ziplock bags."
James, a kindly soul, had a benevolent outlook on wet wipes. "It's not a matter of people trying to get away with something, they just think this is a great new product. They've always wiped their ass and thrown it in the toilet before, now suddenly you've got something you can't do that with."
"That's right," said Robbi, "I remember when flushable wipes hit the Playa and all of a sudden my job became an order of magnitude harder."
In countries like Greece, he said, sewage systems can't even handle toilet paper, so all the used bits go into a little waste basket. "But here in North American if you have a garbage container with shitty stuff in it, people won't—
"That's horrifying," said Robbi.
"So suddenly it's a whole different type of human behavior people have to be taught," he said."
"Yup," Robbi concurred. "People need to think about shit. Our society depends on it."
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[Illustration by the wonderful Jim Cooke, photos by me]