Coachella Turned Me Into a Garbage Man

Doing my part
Doing my part
Photo by Daniel Kohn

Coachella is always thinking of clever ways to make us pick up our damn trash. Their bright-colored, well-labeled trash and recycle bins are everywhere. And in the past, any do-gooder or broke festival-goer could pick up a standard amount of 10 water bottles to trade for a new one to sip on.

But this year, the eco-minded folks at Coachella figured out how to play on our sense of capitalism and test our physical endurance. And, in my case, it tested the desire to walk away with a $25 Coachella T-shirt without paying a dime. This year, a few days before I arrived in Indio, I noticed that there was this new challenge where if you recycled loose bottles and cans, you could take home prizes — including said T-shirt.

It seemed like a good idea to meander throughout the grounds and do everyone a public service by literally picking up their recyclable garbage. Others, though, had their eyes on bigger prizes, like a Coachella sweatshirt (800 water bottles) or even VIP upgrades (1,800 water bottles!), and entry into a raffle to win wristbands to next year's extravaganza.

As Walter Sobchak so eloquently put it in The Big Lebowski, "This isn't 'Nam, there are rules." That held true for this competition as well. There was a no dumpster diving, which on top of being gross, was a grounds for disqualification. Only items on the field were fair game. The same goes for the separation between garbage collected in the campgrounds versus the venue. No crossing the streams.

No cheating!
No cheating!
Photo by Daniel Kohn

Once I decided to take on this mental and physical challenge, I had a sharp focus on earning a vintage Coachella T-shirt. However, the cost was far higher than initially anticipated: an absurd 250 bottles. Fair enough, I initially thought, and went right to work.

Early in the afternoon, bottles were few and far between. Even as the unforgiving desert sun pounded early arrivals and tested their will, festival attendees made my life difficult by actually abiding by society's mandate to put the appropriate garbage in the correct bin.

As the afternoon wore on, the battles for the bottles grew more competitive. I noticed more people with recyclables in their hands, and whenever there would be a bottle or can in clear view, there was a race to snare it.

While grabbing the first batch of bottles and cans early in the day seemed like a friendly competition between attendees, the official cleaning crew — sporting the purple recycle symbol shirts — weren't feeling us. These are the people who you'd see with a stick picking up the trash, and as one awkward incident with one of these guys demonstrated, if you try to get near one of their recyclables in plain sight, they'll suddenly turn into Walter White in season 5 of Breaking Bad. But once the code of respect to yield to these people was understood, suddenly, it seemed like the bottles were plentiful.

By the time 6 p.m. rolled around, water bottles and beer/Red Bull cans started popping up all over the grounds. On one hand, it really accelerated the recycling process and even destroyed my first bag due to the all the fluid and residue left in the bag. It didn't phase me at the time — after all, I did really want that T-shirt. But as the afternoon turned into early evening, it dawned on me how gross the field became, as the more fucked-up people were getting. Bottles that seemed difficult to uncover a few hours earlier, all of a sudden were in plain sight.

The prizes for picking up after your fellow festival-goers
The prizes for picking up after your fellow festival-goers
Photo by Daniel Kohn

After 65 bottles, I started to lose steam and focus. It would have been easy to be patient and wait until darkness to pick up scraps off the field. But diving down to pick up trash around the main stage during peak hours while potentially being stepped on wasn't worth the risk.

Instead, I took home one free ferris wheel ticket, which was the reward for 100 bottles. Once all accounts were settled, it was difficult not to notice the sheer volume of recyclable garbage spread throughout the venue. As much as I'd sweated over these plastic containers today, I realized I'd barely made a dent. As Earth Day rolls around on April 22, Coachella definitely made bottle-plucking capitalists like me see just how much of a mess a festival like this can leave behind. Maybe next time, I will actually go for that T-shirt — for the good of the planet.


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