30 Ways to Reduce Your Plastic Footprint at Burning Man

Among the principles of Burning Man is “radical self-reliance” and “leave no trace,” but each year more than 70,000 people use hundreds of thousands of plastic water bottles, food packaging, and other “disposable” plastic that will ultimately end up in the environment.

What can you do to make a difference?

The most important concept is to “pre-cycle” meaning reduce the amount of disposable products and packaging that you bring in the first place. This way you’re not just packing it out of the playa and dumping it somewhere else.

Often, Burning Man recycling ends up at a waste management facility in Reno, Nevada. Even though you may not be leaving a trace on the playa, you will be leaving a trace elsewhere on the planet. Plastic is a material that never goes away, and less than 8 percent of plastic is recycled in the U.S. The items you bring to Burning Man will stay behind you for the generations to come, even if you collect them for recycling. 

Radical self-reliance means that you have the power to impact our planet with your purchasing choices. 

Three main areas are the greatest contributors to plastic pollution at Burning Man:

  • Water Storage
  • Food
  • Costuming and Gifts

Plastic-Free Playa Tips:

  1. Bring water in stainless steel containers. Fill your containers in Gerlach or nearby to avoid transporting heavy water. Keep any plastic that contains water in the shade, as the sunlight expedites the chemicals leaching into your water like phthalates and Bisphenol A. 
  2. Request that everyone in your camp BYO cup, plate, and reusable utensils.
  3. Buy food from bulk bins in your own containers. Dried soups, hummus, beans, nuts, dried fruit, etc. work well. Use jars, cloth bags, and stainless steel containers to avoid plastic packaging. 
  4. Borrow or buy things like flashlights and googles secondhand instead of buying new. Unless you go to Burning Man every year or camp a lot, there might be quite a few things that you don’t actually need to own.
  5. Bring stainless steel water bottles / a travel mug to carry with you at all times so you never have to take disposables.
  6. Carry reusable utensils and a food container with you since wherever you go on the playa, someone seems to always be offering food. 
  7. Buy a mineral sunscreen in a recyclable container. 
  8. Make your own “wet wipes.” If buying wet wipes, purchase the type with flexible exteriors instead of the hard plastic boxes.
  9. Avoid tents, costumes, and other products with vinyl/PVC. PVC is one of the most toxic plastics, PVC contains hormone-disrupting phthalates and produces dioxin when manufactured.
  10. Consider purchasing a vintage canvas and wood camping cot. Many tents contain fire retardants and other harmful chemicals. 
  11. Ask visitors to bring their own reusables to your site. Look into certified compostable plates if needed. 
  12. Choose lip balm in compostable cardboard tubes instead of plastic. 
  13. Bring a bamboo toothbrush.
  14. Skip the single-use plastic glow sticks.
  15. Make your own ice. Instead of buying ice in plastic bags, fill up metal containers with water and freeze for your ice chest. 
  16. Collect your compost. Hanging compost to dry reduces the weight of your compost. 
  17. Avoid bringing plastic bags to the playa. Plastic grocery bags and trash bags blow away easily. Use paper or reusable bags. 

Even More Food Tips:

  • TetraPaks are not recyclable.
  • Choose packaged foods in paper or glass containers when possible.
  • If buying canned foods, choose those that come in BPA-free cans, such as Amy’s, Nijiya Market Brand, Muir Glen, Whole Foods Markets 365 brands, Wild Planet, Eden Organics, Native Forest, Vital Choice Mackrel and Sardines, Bionaturae canned tomatoes, and some Trader Joe’s. 
  • Raw coconut water has electrolytes and potassium; purchase in recyclable cans instead of TetraPaks.
  • Snack ideas for your day pack: Chia seeds, dried fruit, sunflower seeds, nuts, or homemade beef jerky
  • Foods that do not require plastic packaging, and will last till later in the week: Potatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, avocado, coconuts, carrots, onions, squash, cabbage, banana, lemons, limes, garlic, watermelon, pineapple, apples, and oranges.
  • Storing vegetables and fruit in damp burlap bags ensure good ventilation and reduce the need for refrigeration. 
  • Condiments that don’t require plastic packaging: Soy Sauce/Tamari, wasabi, balsamic vinegar, rice vinegar, salt, pepper, sesame oil, sesame seeds, coconut oil, other cooking oils, raw honey in a tin or glass, hot sauce, horseradish, pickles, olives, bulk falafel mix, bulk tahini and hummus mix nutritional yeast (available in bulk), bulk popcorn, and bulk granola.
  • Bulk dried beans means you will have less trash.
  • Bring your own Sodastream for carbonated water and beverages
  • Purchase cans of beer or growlers, wine bottles without corks, and alcohol in glass.
  • Purchase juices in glass containers or make your own.
  • Aluminum trays for lasagna or meatloaf/veggie loaf frozen at home and placed at the bottom of your cooler will keep the rest of your food without wasting space for ice. 

This article includes tips from Beth Terry of My Plastic Free Life, Plastic Pollution Coalition, and Earth Guardians.

Art installation ‘Love’ by Alexander Milov. Photo by Gerome Viavant.