They Love Trash – The New York Times

JOSHUA TREE, Calif. — Soph Nielsen was stitching rubbish onto her black T-shirt (a rooster wing, a crushed Bud Light can, a plastic fork) and struggling to connect a snarl of crusty pad thai.

“This is to get people to see the trash,” she mentioned, her fingers slick with grease. “We don’t want to be the invisible janitors.” With her distinctive appliqués, that was unlikely.

It was the final day of the Joshua Tree Music Festival, a household-pleasant occasion of didgeridoo sound baths, yoga, crafts, electronica and different acquainted fare held at a dusty desert campground for 3 days in October. Ms. Nielsen, a 25-year-outdated artist whose medium is trash, was one in every of 20-odd Trash Pirates working the occasion.

The Pirates are a free collective of waste administration specialists, to borrow a phrase from Tony Soprano, who be certain occasions are as sustainable as attainable by means of recycling and composting. They additionally educate attendees about easy methods to do each correctly.

Garbage has lengthy been the uncomfortable fallout of the competition world, and as these gatherings multiply like glow sticks at a Phish live performance, stretching the season right into a 12 months-spherical get together (hola, Costa Rica), its impact has roused young artists and activists like Ms. Nielsen.

Most Pirates start out as volunteers, helping with trash or performing other tasks so as to attend for free. Then they have their “trash moment,” as the Pirates put it, the epiphany that turns volunteer work into a career, and trash into a calling.

The events themselves — both community-minded and escapist — are morphing into trash camps: days-long immersions into the politics of waste, with lectures and workshops on developing your garbage-handling skills along with your yoga practice.

Some trash stats are in order. In 2017, according to an environmental impact report, Coachella, in Indio, Calif., was generating over 100 tons of trash each day. Many events are now committed to becoming zero-waste endeavors, or as close to it as possible. High “diversion” rates (the percentage of waste not sent to the landfill) are badges of honor. Last spring, the Trash Pirates brought the Joshua Tree Music Festival’s rate up to 77 percent.

In 2017, Coachella’s diversion rate was just 20 percent, apparently because attendees weren’t using the recycling bins. Veterans of Burning Man and other festivals learn acronyms like MOOP, for “Matter Out of Place,” an umbrella term for trash and anything else that doesn’t occur naturally on a site; cigarette butts, broken tents and human waste are some common examples.

Burning Man has a “Leave No Trace” ethos, but the messy camps of bad Burners are called out each year on the festival’s MOOP Map in the hope that public shaming will be a deterrent next time around.

While there are many waste organizations dedicated to mitigating the environmental impact of such gatherings, the Trash Pirates are distinguished by their zeal and their punk aplomb.

Take Moon Mandel, 24, a filmmaker and Trash Pirate who was managing the operations that weekend at Joshua Tree. Mx. Mandel is nonbinary, and with their bright orange jumpsuit emblazoned with patches stitched with trash graphics (the recycling whorl and other insignia) they looked like an indie Eagle Scout.

As Oscar the Grouch sang his gruff-voiced hymn “I Love Trash,” one of many trash-friendly songs on the Pirates’ playlist, Mx. Mandel said: “It’s very important for people to see the work we do and understand the human scope of it. We are trying to alter the cultural norms of a throwaway society. We teach them that there’s no ‘away.’ We are the shepherds of the ‘away’ and it’s being buried inside the earth forever.”

And so Mx. Mandel performed trash collections, dancing with colleagues as Oscar warbled under a festive tent with gaily painted bins, and sorting garbage (earning $5 a bag) for those campers too busy or negligent to do it themselves.

To attendees who had dutifully separated their food scraps and recyclables and were tipping them into the appropriate bins, Mx. Mandel called out a hearty, “Yarg!” their preferred Pirate cheer.

“Thank you for composting!” Mx. Mandel praised a young woman scraping scrambled eggs out of a frying pan, and then recited some recycling basics: “You can’t compost paper with too much printing on it, or recycle greasy paper. Single-use bags can be taken to supermarkets in California for recycling, so we are collecting them. Make sure everything is clean. You don’t need to rinse your soda or beer cans. But if your stuff is covered in yogurt, it’s not going to be recycled.”

Mx. Mandel has a policy about not working festivals where organizers are charging for water. “The decommodification of water is one of my core beliefs,” they said.

The Trash Pirates formed six years ago when two friends, Caleb Robertson, now 26, and Kirk Kunihiro, 29, then living in the San Francisco Bay Area, wanted to go to festivals for free.

While volunteering for the green teams, as they are called, of these gatherings, Mr. Robertson said, “We came to realize that there was a way to express our zero-waste passions within the event industry.”

They learned their craft at Green Mary, a two-decades-old company dedicated to making events sustainable that was founded by Mary Munat, an environmental activist and former Army reservist.

“They are fast, hard-working, green-hearted people,” she said of the Pirates. “I love their energy and greenness, and I am so glad my age-old eco-passions gave birth to so many little green pirates.”

The Trash Pirates was a nickname they gave each other early on, when festivals were more haphazard, and it stuck. In the beginning, Mr. Robertson, said “It was more seat-of-the-pants. Many of us were living out of our vehicles. That’s the thing: Trash can attract people who don’t feel like they have a place to go, giving people purpose in a space where they had none. Kind of like the Lost Boys. People are interested in the party, but it becomes empty if you don’t have a purpose.”

Next year, they hope to work upward of 30 events. “The work isn’t going to stop, I’m almost scared of it,” Mr. Robertson said, adding that he and many of his colleagues are looking to expand beyond the festivals and tackle community projects in Los Angeles, where he now lives, and beyond.

Mx. Mandel is devoted to filmmaking; Ms. Nielsen to art and activism. “But we are all still united by trash,” Mr. Robertson said. “We recognize that festivals are a stage and a platform to reach people, but we also know that it’s just a Band-Aid and the best thing we can do is to concentrate on government policies and community work.”

“You can take any piece of trash as an object in the world and track it from its raw materials though its journey into the marketplace as a commodity,” she said. “At any of those points it will connect not just to the proliferation of garbage as a form of pollution but a host of any other environmental crises including the big megillah that is climate change.”

Of the Trash Pirates she said, “They are pushing boundaries in wonderful ways. I would be curious to see what they’re doing in 20 years. Do they bounce from this ebullient, youthful thing to something more settled? And will the planet be even closer to the brink of destruction?”

We shall see, but in the meantime, as is their practice, the Pirates swept the Joshua Tree Music Festival campgrounds clean by forming a MOOP line, as it’s known, with each Pirate three to four feet apart and armed with a MOOP stick and a bucket, and moving from the perimeter to the center.

Mx. Mandel said, “Like one amoeba we slowly devour the MOOP.”

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