Burning Man is said to be a one-month city, with “residents” often cycling around — until they leave their possessions for others to deal with.
This year, between 3,000-4,000 wobbly-looking bikes were left at the playa, Burning Man spokesperson Jim Graham says. The organization often finds 1,000-2,000 bicycles each year, despite telling participants that it’s their responsibility, but this year set a new record.
Images showing the sea of dusty, abandoned bikes caused social media chatter that made the bikes seem destined for the landfill, but Graham says they put a call out to local nonprofits who stepped in to make use of them. Usually, groups like the Reno Bike Project and the Kiwanis Club take on the task.
For the past 11 years, the Reno Bike Project has shipped them out from the playa, fixed them up, and sold them to Burners the following year. The group sold about 920 bikes this year and collected 600 of the leftovers, manager Kurstin Graham says.
One challenge with fixing up these desert-ridden bicycles, Kurstin says, is the dust increasingly erodes bikes that were already low in quality and hastily bought, typically from the local Wal-Mart or Target. The bikes — about 20 percent of which the Reno Bike Project scraps for metal — often have missing pieces and bent bars from being stacked on top of one another.
“[Customers] love the philosophy that we’re recycling and reusing the bicycles,” Kurstin says. “Some people just want the ease.”
Burning Man’s Yellow Bike Program, which is basically a free bike-sharing fleet, will also absorb some of the bikes for participants to use in the years to come. After being contacted by several groups in the past day, Kurstin says they will discuss possibilities to help the issue in the future.
Still, Kurstin considers the recycling efforts and bike sharing program “a drop in the bucket for what’s needed.” There were just under 70,000 participants this year, Graham says.
“This is an event that really a big part of it is on a bicycle,” Kurstin says. “Personally, I don’t want these bikes ending up in the Nevada landfill.”
The Reno Bike Project had another shipment of 250 more bikes scheduled for Wednesday, but had to cancel it when told there weren’t enough bikes to fill their transportation vehicle, Kurstin says.
Meg Kiihne, whose biography states that she co-founded the first bike shop in Turks & Caicos, started a GoFundMe to get the Burning Man bikes to Hurricane Irma victims in affected Caribbean islands and Florida. The goal is for more than $12,000 to store, clean and ship the bikes.
But it is unclear if Kiihne, who did not respond to SF Weeklyin time for publication, was able to get a hold of some bikes before other nonprofits snapped them up. An update on the GoFundMe stated that Kiihne was on her way to the site and had a scheduled meeting with a Burning Man bike worker.
Despite the action to salvage leftover bikes, locals and those on social media pointed out that not all Burners likely know that items they leave will definitely find a place outside of a landfill, and that they still leave the work to others after the party they enjoyed is over.
One Nevada resident near the Burning Man venue, who goes by Ricki M., says the problem gets worse each year — and not just with bikes. Random piles of trash pile up by the freeway from festival goers who ditch items before they head home, she adds.
“It’s such an extreme example of throwaway consumerism that it breaks my heart,” Ricki says in a Facebook message. “We love the visitors and the majority are kind, but these are the types of things done to our beautiful area that can get under the skin of those who call it home on a daily basis.”