Trash Talk: 4/20 Organizers Forced to Step Up Their Garbage Game

Early in the morning after the massive 4/20 rally in Toronto last month, organizer Chris Goodwin drove past the public square where the rally had taken place. He liked what he saw.

“The square looked like we had never been there,” he says. “That is what we wanted — clean in, clean out with no damage to anything.”

That’s not the rule in every city. Last week Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s administration declared that the organizers of this year’s 4/20 rally would not be issued permits for the event for at least three years. The reason? Trash, among other things.

Screen Shot 2017-05-26 at 10.05.02 AM(Denver Post)

After this year’s rally in Civic Center Park, which featured a concert by 2 Chainz, mounds of trash remained in the park the following morning. “Leaving the trash overnight in the park, even if bagged, is not effective or timely removal of trash from the park,” city officials wrote in an 11-page letter to event organizers.

Rob Corry, general counsel for the group organizing the event, told the Denver Post that the event permit allowed the group to continue the cleanup through the following day, and “we leave the park cleaner than we received it.”

It may be an issue of when that cleanup was done. Timeliness and public perception matter. On April 21, the Post ran a headline (“Who trashed Civic Center Park? Denver wakes up to a sea of garbage, but organizers say park was cleaned after 4/20 rally”) over a story that included photos of boxes, newspapers, packing peanuts, and discarded banners strewn about Civic Center Park.

Meanwhile, Up North…

In Toronto and Vancouver, there were few complaints about garbage removal after 4/20. What made the difference? In part, budgeting and planning.

The 4/20 rally in Toronto is a major event. Thousands jam the square to enjoy live performances, visit booths selling everything from T-shirts to paraphernalia or grab a bite to eat at one of the many food trucks nearby. Organizer Chris Goodwin tends to every detail of the event — and takes steps to ensure there is no messy fallout. He says he spent about $5,000, approximately 10 percent of the event’s total budget, on garbage cleanup.

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As required by the city, he paid a crew affiliated with the local Business Improvement Association (BIA) to circle the area surrounding the square, two or three blocks away from it, and pick up garbage left by people leaving the rally.

He also bought a hundred industrial-sized garbage bins and spread them out across the square. “But no matter how well you manage the situation, no matter how many times you empty the bins, there is still going to be trash on the ground,” he says, speaking from experience. So additional steps have to be taken.

At the end of the festivities this year, Goodwin cut the zip ties holding up a 30-foot banner and, with the help of five others, walked through the square with the banner fully extended, prodding stragglers to leave the area the way a cowcatcher at the front of a train clears the track of obstructions.

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When the square was empty, 20 employees of a private cleaning company Goodwin had hired sprang into action. They swept back and forth across the square with giant shovels, clearing the garbage like a snowplow clearing Toronto streets in winter. There was nary a complaint from city officials.

What’s the key to effective garbage management at 4/20 rallies? It’s simple, says Goodwin. “The key is to stop relying on volunteers because they’re not accountable. They just leave when they’re tired,” he says. “I notice that some rally organizers have been recruiting volunteers by offering incentives such as free marijuana or T-shirts. I don’t do that. I just hire professionals to do the job.”

Vancouver: 35,000 People, 5,000 lbs. of Trash

Vancouver 4/20 organizer Dana Larsen recruited volunteers to clean up the trash at this year’s event at Sunset Beach. “We had about a dozen people collecting garbage during the event but we were still cleaning up at 3 a.m. and many of the volunteers had gone home by then,” says Larsen, who was still in his official rally attire, a three-piece suit, at that point. “Those of us who were left had to drag the trash to the top of a hill for the sanitation trucks to collect it — and that was taxing.”

Larsen and his volunteers even made the trash cleanup a feature of their Twitter feeds that day.

In subsequent days, there was a public hue and cry about damage to grass; much of the park’s turf had turned to mud during the rain-drenched rally, and park officials said the area would have to be closed for five weeks to recover. Larsen offered to have his organization pay to have the area re-seeded, and park officials agreed.

Despite their anger over the turf, however, officials commended organizers on trash management. Howard Normann, director of parks, said he was pleased to find that most garbage — almost 5,000 lbs. of it — had been picked up by volunteers. “Generally, it’s looking pretty good this year compared to last year,” he told the CBC. “I’m quite pleased with the lack of garbage.”

Nonetheless, Larsen now believes there is a better way to get the job done. “It’s surprising how much garbage people can generate. We’re going to hire a professional crew to take care of it next year,” he says. “We’re learning more as we go.”

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