A Rock Festival, as Seen for Its Trash

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Observing the refuse habits of tens of thousands of concertgoers at Kanrocksas

hampton trash 3.jpg

Hampton Stevens

On a sweltering night five days ago, the thick, newly-trampled grass of the Kansas Speedway was glazed by multicolored confetti, fallen steamers, shards of popped balloons, and luminous, half-spent glow-sticks. The white stage lights were glinting off the hundreds of aluminum cans and plastic bottles that once held water, soda, sports drinks, liquor and beer.

This was the waste of the inaugural Kanrocksas Music Festival, which boasted an impressive lineup that included Eminem, Muse, Flogging Molly, Primus, Kid Cudi, A Perfect Circle, D12, OK Go, Cage the Elephant, and Ween. There's no question of which performances left behind the prettiest trash. Flaming Lips, who played just before Eminem's headlining set on Friday night, won that high honor—a victory made even more impressive by the presence on the bill of Bassnectar and Girl Talk, whose audiences also know a thing or two about popped balloons and glow sticks.

The Lips' trash was so pretty, in fact, it was almost a shame to see the janitorial teams from City Wide Maintenance come to clean it up. But come they did, just as their crews in red tunics did after every one of the almost three-dozen performances at the two-day event.

If you watched, there was a kind of poetry to the cleanups. Immediately after the Black Keys' played on the alternate stage on Saturday night, the crowd vamoosed, heading to the main stage for Muse, the world’s greatest U2 tribute band, or to the electronica tent for Sound Tribe Sector 9. Even before the event security team, augmented by a few uniformed police, could shoo off the stragglers, a crew of City Wide workers swooped in with empty trash bags. Fanning out from the stage like benevolent locusts, they picked the field clean of every used cup, bottle, can, napkin, lost flip-flop, or stray cigarette pack, tossing their now-stuffed trash bags on to a flatbed trailer hauled by an ATV, and vanishing just as quickly as they came.

For a rare few, discarding trash was a grave business. If the can was overfull, they would often place their contribution beside it, or gingerly on top, like the cherry on top of a sundae.

The human waste removal process was even more elegant, especially by music festival standards. Kanrocksas fans were blessed with 441 state-of-the-art “Johnny On The Spot” portable toilets, or JOTS, delivered and serviced by a 10-worker team from Deffenbaugh Industries. That number, determined by taking into account not only the event's expected attendance, but also factors like the weather, the male-to-female ratio, and whether food and alcohol were being served, turned out to be overkill. The underwhelming attendance—which peaked at around 35,000 fans for Slim Shady's set—meant that anyone who did go to the festival experienced luxurious bathroom conditions. The entire weekend, in fact, the crowd produced a mere 40,000 gallons of human waste, using only 2,900 rolls of toilet paper (along with, reassuringly, 420 bags of hand-sanitizer). That low volume made keeping the toilets clean a breeze

Karissa Totten, 20, a tattooed blonde and veteran of festivals like Bonnaroo and Wakarusa, was absolutely ecstatic about Deffenbaugh's work at Kanrocksas.

“These bathrooms are so ridiculously clean, it's awesome! I even sat down!” she gushed. “Girls never get to do that! We always have to, like, straddle.”

Alan, her boyfriend agreed: “I walked into one and could actually breathe.”

They weren’t the only ones thrilled with the port-a-potty conditions.

Deffenbaugh's Brian Clawson drives one of dark green septic service tankers used to vacuum out the toilets and haul the waste to treatment. Ruddy, quick-to-laugh, and experienced with large-scale events, he describes the unusually intense love for the festival's toilets shown by one Kanrocksas fan.

“This was at 5:30 a.m.”, Clawson said. “The guy was talking to a toilet. He kept telling the toilet what a great time he was having. He kept saying how much he loves festivals. Then he hugged the toilet.”

Of those 441 units on site, as the law mandates, 5 percent were double-wide, ADA compliant models, and it's heartening to report that very few non-handicapped Kanrocksas fans could be seen illicitly using the handicapped units. Fans did, however, throw stuff into toilets better left un-thrown, like the occasional beer can or koozie. They also dropped valuables: several cellphones that Deffenbaugh crews pulled from the Kanrocksas waste—not to mention some heroin.
A Kansas City, Kansas police officer helping to chase stragglers after Muse shared a rumor that someone had chucked a big plastic freezer bag full of weed, coke, psychedelic mushrooms, Oxycontin, and, yes, heroin into one of the portable john. In other words, someone either panicked and ditched their stash, or just picked the worst conceivable hiding place for it.

Hampton Stevens

Most of the trash tossed at the festival, though, wasn't so dangerous. It was just plain old plastic, aluminum, or paper. But in an age when environmentalism is practically a religion, the way people behave with any garbage is a serious matter, fraught with social, political, even spiritual implications.



Almost nobody drops litter wherever they happen to be any more. Except for the stupendously wasted, who can't be held responsible, plain old litterbugs were rare at Kanrocksas. Most fans I saw sought a trash can, or one of the reasonably plentiful recycling bins. Even when festival-goers did deliberately leave waste behind, they often put it into neat piles for easier pickup.

Of those who took the trouble to find a can, the majority simply tossed trash without fanfare—barely breaking stride to acknowledge the event. Some, though, would make a minor production around the act—like shooting a pretend jump-shot, or timing the last bite of whatever they happened to be eating for the moment they passed a can in order to discard the wrapper the instant their food is gone.

For a rare few, though, discarding trash was a grave business. You could spot them from 20 feet away, looking around purposefully, and holding their refuse higher than most. They carried trash pointedly and discarded it with an empathic gesture, as if in rebuke to anyone less conscientious. If the can was overfull, they would often place their contribution beside it, or gingerly on top, like the cherry on top of a sundae.

Chris was one of those guys. Barefoot and shirtless with shaggy blonde hair, he stopped twirling a hula-hoop when he spotted me taking pictures of trash at the Campground Stage, after a gig by the Beautiful Bodies, a local band.

He was very, very interested in talking about garbage, and proudly showed me the handful of cigarette butts he stuffed in his pocket rather than toss away.

“Nothing on the ground,” Chris beamed.

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Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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