If You Go
What: Gear Closet annual Bonnaroo sale
When: Today, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Where: Gear Closet, 1510 Riverside Dr.
One man's trash is the Gear Closet's treasure.
Volunteers with the outdoors-focused resale and consignment shop on Riverside Drive drove onto the 700-acre Bonnaroo site near Manchester, Tennessee, Monday morning as its roughly 60,000 visitors left. The nearly 30-member cleanup team scoured fields full of more than 1 million pounds of waste. They were searching for used but intact gear to bring back to Chattanooga to sell at the annual Gear Closet yard sale taking place Wednesday.
"Bonnaroo is trying to become more sustainable. It's absolutely a win-win," said Mary Beth Sutton, who leads the nonprofit that oversees the Gear Closet. "There's less stuff that goes to the land fill, the festival becomes more sustainable and people get stuff. We also take a bunch to the [Chattanooga] Community Kitchen, too. It's our biggest week of the year."
The group met shortly after 8:30 a.m. near a tower topped with a large disco ball in the heart of the pop-up city. Sutton stood outside an old U.S. Xpress tractor-trailer the group would be using to transport their roughly four tons of treasure back to the shop. She divided the members into small groups and gave an overview of the day.
"If it doesn't work, we don't want it," Sutton announced to the crew. "We're going to start in the far reaches and see what we can find."
From there, the teams headed out, and out, and out. They waited on traffic heading the opposite direction as tens of thousands left the site after a weekend without running water or electricity. They went past tents and tarps they would pick up later and dispersed into the farthest fields lined with white trash bags and blue recycling bags.
The fields were sprinkled with abandoned campsites. Tents, tarps, grills and other camping and outdoor gear in all conditions had been left behind. The team loaded the gear that was still in good condition into trailers, trucks and vans until they couldn't be filled anymore. They dropped that gear off at the old U.S. Xpress truck to sort before heading back to the fields for more finds. On the journey back, they waited on outgoing traffic. A nearby man packed up the last of his gear into a friend's car, lit a bong in full view of a group of sheriff's deputies, smoked, walked the used bong to a pile of trash and was on his way.
"That's Bonnaroo," crew leader Randy Hale said with a laugh.
Hale met Sutton about a decade ago and has been working with the group for several years at the festival.
"It's a fascinating look at festival life. It's not something you get to see every day," he said. "Where else can you find a pink unicorn, a grill, oh what all did we find? It was a lot."
When they returned to the fields, they found more. There were popup camping showers, a tent with a pile of used toilet paper inside (which was left behind), the giant stuffed pink unicorn, a couch, air mattresses, card tables, chairs, a taco pinata, an inflatable alien and two inflatable life-size dolls.
Outside groups scouring the Bonnaroo site aren't common. When the festival ends, with the exception of the Gear Closet, there aren't lines of people waiting to sort through the rubbish.
Sutton reached out to the festival about five years ago and struck a partnership. Clean Vibes — a waste management service used by Bonnaroo and other events — has put an emphasis on sustainable waste and welcomed the Chattanooga team. The company's goal is to help create a more sustainable future and focuses on waste diversion. Clean Vibes takes as much waste from the events as possible and diverts it toward reusable purposes.
Of the more than 500 tons of waste at Bonnaroo in 2017, 111 tons went to WestRock Recycling in Chattanooga, 18 tons of scrap metal was hauled to an iron and metal company, 4 tons was processed and turned into biodiesel, 4 tons went to Gear Closet and 23 tons of leftover food was donated to the Grundy County Food Bank.
"[Gear Closet] is independent. They are efficient. It's post-show Bonnaroo. You can't be wearing your new white sneakers out here walking around," Clean Vibes administration and asset recovery manager Mollie Herman said. "Everyone else has left. These people choose to come."
Wednesday's yard sale is the biggest day of the year for the Gear Closet, Sutton said. The outdoors store is backed by the nonprofit TenneSEA Kids 4 Clean Water and uses its profits to help the organization protect and preserve water internationally with a focus in the Chattanooga region. Anything not sold at the yard sale will go to the Gear Closet to help stock the store.