At a Leave No Trace event like ours, the focus is usually on very visible issues like camps leaving a pile of trash behind on their location, or people dropping cigarette butts in spaces where much dancing has taken place – and of course the thoughtless dumping of trash on desert roads (which is a massive HELL NO, and pisses off local farmers, and justifiably so).
However, as our event has grown, and with it the size and number of personal camps and also registered Theme Camps and Support Camps (which are where crews bringing Artworks, Mutant Vehicles and other creative projects live for the duration of their stay in Tankwa Town), so the issue of managing camp water has become a topical discussion. As our event takes place in a private nature reserve and we’d like to see as little trace as possible left after our city of dust vanishes again for another year, we’re sharing tips and tricks that will help you manage your camp’s greywater, whether you’re a 5-person camp, or a 50-person camp.
Q: What is greywater?
A: Greywater is the term used to describe water that’s been flushed out of a washing system – so, in a camp scenario, this would include the dishwater from your camp kitchen, and the water that’s generated by you washing your body or hair in a shower or bath situation.
Q: Is it OK to flush greywater into watercourses and throw it onto the ground?
A: No. It’s not – and even if you’re using biodegradeable washing-up liquid and/or soap and shampoo, it’s still not OK. MOOP (ie: Matter Out Of Place) rules still apply: if it didn’t come from the Tankwa Karoo, then it’s out of place, and has to be managed to leave as little trace as possible. Importantly, in the desert it’s monkey-see-monkey-do, in the sense that if someone sees you dumping liquid of any kind into watercourses or onto the ground, they’ll assume that it’s fine, but this can and has led to people dumping blackwater (ie: chemically-treated toilet effluent) from motorhomes and campervans onto the ground, which is clearly not OK. If you, or a campmate, use a chemical toilet, be aware that no pumping facility is offered at our event – all chemically-treated toilets must be pumped out at a municipal sewage pump station (or by the company they were rented from).
Q: Can’t I just dump my water on the roads, or into one of the toilets on site?
A: Nope, you can’t. Greywater contains food particles, oils, and/or biodegradeable soap and shampoo (yes, you should only be using biodegradeable in the desert) – and none of those came from or belong in the desert. Unless it’s excess fresh water you’re looking to damp down the dust on roads, all other water (ie: greywater) should be managed by you, because after all, like everything else, you brought it with you, so you need to remove it.
Q: So, what do I do about my camp greywater?
A: You’ve got many options, and none of them involve anything expensive or complicated – though the larger your camp and greywater volume, the more robust your systems will need to be to evaporate, and manage, your greywater. Here are some tips & tricks that you and your campmates can employ to get rid of greywater, and leave the desert floor in the state you found it:
1) Create an Evaporation Pond
An evaporation pond is simply a shallow pool that traps the water from your camp kitchen or shower, and can be made out of very simple and easy-to-find materials. This is what you’ll need:
– vinyl, tarp or plastic sheeting
– a few planks (or plastic tubes)
– some duct tape, or thumb tacks / drawing pins
– (alternatively, you could just use an inflatable kid’s paddling pool)
Put your plastic sheeting on the ground, insert the planks or plastic (PVC) piping under the edges in a rectangular or circular shape, and use duct tape or drawing pins fasten the plastic to the raised edges. Now you have a shallow pond, into which you can pour the greywater from your kitchen – or you can use another plastic sheet to allow the run-off from your shower to drain into the evaporation pond. The heat and wind of the day will do its job, and the water will evaporate each day.
NOTE: This is NOT a solution for large camps, or large volumes of greywater.
This setup can only manage greywater evaporation effectively for a small-to-medium size camp with between 5 and 15 people, providing you build the pond well, and place it in an exposed position where the sunlight can get to it for a good few hours a day. Be sure to weight it down – if the Tankwa wind gets at it and lifts it up, you’ll have messy greywater all over the place. If you’re dealing with a lot of kitchen wash, consider using hessian sacking / burlap fabric to filter the greywater before it drains into the pond – the hessian / burlap will trap most of the fatty solids and food particles, and at the end of your week in the desert you can dry the hessian in the sun, and pack it away & transport home, or, if you have a fireplace or burn barrel, you could simply burn the filter cloth.
Top tip: create a drying wall by placing a drying rack with fabric (hessian/burlap, towels or other loosely-woven fabric) hanging off it into the pond so that the fabric touches the bottom of your pond. The wicking action of the fabric will multiply your surface area, and thus your evaporation rate, massively. As with your pond, weight your drying rack down, or use guy ropes & rebar, so it can’t be blown over when the wind gets crazy.
Here’s a good example of a drying wall system (this one is named the Wikiwickatron) created by Jim Gasperini:
As you can see, the fabric hangs directly into the pond, and through wicking action will draw greywater up to continuously be evaporated. (for more info on this system, check out Jim’s Wikiwickatron blog)
For larger camps (from 15 to 50 people) you’ll need more effective ways of evaporation – and that’s where evapotrons or other methods come into play.
2) Create an Evapotron!
For large volumes of greywater from both showers and kitchens, you’ll need to create a system that can handle larger amounts in a more efficient manner. To tackle this challenge, there are some nifty setups that burners in Black Rock City and other Regionals have developed over time, and all can be easily built from readily-available materials & items. These systems are known as Evapotrons, and they use either wind power or pumps to draw up greywater and run them over a mesh that, when exposed to wind and sun, can evaporate much greater volumes of greywater.
Here’s an example of the Gray-B-Gon system, developed by burners in the USA that consists of a simple rotating drum evapotron that uses bicycle wheels, fan blades, mesh fabric and wood & plastic elements:
(for more info on this model, check out this page)
Obviously, this system relies on wind power – and that means ‘no wind, less evaporation’. To overcome that obstacle, there are other ways that greywater can be drawn over a mesh, and these would involve a simple pump system that uses 12-volt power. For info on these systems, which would accommodate the needs of very large camps and evaporate large volumes no matter the wind conditions, take a look at Playa Pauls’ systems and suggestions over on his website.
Lastly: if you can’t or don’t want to build an evaporation pond, or an evapotron, then you should simply use the empty water containers you brought your water in, to decant greywater into and take it all home, where it can be responsibly disposed of.
For even more advanced greywater tech examples, check out Camp IMU (It’s All Made Up)’s video of solutions that they use for a very large camp in Black Rock City.
Thanks to all the inventors of evapotrons that have helped camps manage their greywater!
If you’ve got a solution that you’d like to share with our community so that we can leave no trace of our camps, let us know by emailing your tips & tricks to [email protected]