Exploring the Environmental and Sustainability Practices of Electric Forest Festival 
Additional editing by Sarah DeHaan
In 2018, I had the opportunity to attend the first weekend of Electric Forest with the responsibility of covering the festival. Unsure of what I was going to write about, the story turned into a piece profiling three different non-profit organizations that had posted up for the weekend.
I found the experience to be very enriching. My biggest takeaway from the weekend was that the magic of Electric Forest wasn’t just in the camping, the music, or the people, it was also working in ways that were previously unknown to me through the missions of these nonprofits.
Later on that year, I began my final semester at Western Michigan University, which involved taking Environmental Journalism, a category that I was completely unfamiliar with. Following the class, new ideas and inspirations came to me in regards to pieces that covered festivals.
I had the idea long before I applied for a media pass this year that I wanted to write an environmental piece about Electric Forest, specifically about its sustainability practices. I had questions as to what those practices might be, as well as how I could help create more awareness on how the festival cleans up during and after the weekend.
I was able to see another side of the magic that happens throughout the weekend that I was largely unaware of. The bottom line is that even simple word-of-mouth information truly can help make a difference in the cleanliness at any type of festival and, by extension, the real world.
Electricology - Origins, Purpose, and the Preliminary Interview
Educational sign of waste streams inside the Forest
The biggest player in the environmental practices of the festival is Electricology, the sustainability program of Electric Forest. Electricology is a division of the High Five Program, which was founded by Rachel Wells-Norton and her husband. In a nutshell, Electricology provides rewards to festival goers for picking up and handing in trash, recycling, and compostable waste while trying to spark inspiration to do better every day.
“Our goal is to place responsibility back on the festival patrons to take a stake in beautifying our events,” Wells-Norton said. “We are desperate to transform our crowds into custodians, and we feel that everybody has a stake in the sustainability of events, so we want to do everything we can to make that process as fun as possible for people to participate.”
The origins of Electricology lie in the High Five Program, which was created by Wells-Norton and her spouse after seeing piles of trash left behind at other festivals and musical events.
“Throughout college, my husband and I were working with some local bands who were starting to tour around and make some of the national festival scene,” Wells-Norton said. “As we worked in merch and promotions for them, we were continuously disillusioned with how messy these festivals were. We saw people with programs and sorting streams, and it was impressive to us that people were making that effort, but we were really disillusioned with the fact that people weren’t complying with it, so we wanted to get to the root of that behavior.”
Thus, the High Five Program was created and debuted at the Hoxeyville Music Festival in 2010.
“We had a long-standing relationship with the promoters as patrons and employees, and also an emotional stake in the well-being of the property,” Wells-Norton said in regards to choosing Hoxeyville Music Festival to debut their new program.
Rather than berate litterers, the program addresses the issue a little differently.
“We approached these problems with two strategies,” Wells-Norton said. “One, that we believe that every piece of litter we find is an accident. We want to give you the benefit of the doubt that you are either trying to send us a message that we aren’t providing enough resources for you to do a better job, or we need to educate you more.”
The second strategy is to reward those that do their part in keeping the grounds of a festival clean.
“We never want to be negative and tell somebody that they suck because they litter, but we definitely want to tell their friends that they’re awesome for not littering,” Wells-Norton said. “If we give that person a prize, then maybe the person that sucks a little bit will at least do the work that we need them to do to win the prize, and maybe in the process they’ll learn that it’s a very rewarding thing to dance barefoot at your favorite festival with reckless abandon and the trust that the ground is clean.”
When the program was a success at Hoxeyville Music Festival, the Wells-Norton decided to branch out.
“We brought [the program] to [Electric Forest] in 2012 as Electricology in partnership with a number of other sustainability business from around the country. Now, Gemini Production Solutions and High Five continue that tradition today.”
There are many opportunities and prizes that Electric Forest patrons can earn through cleaning up and they begin when a patron arrives to the festival grounds. Trash bags are handed out from the get-go, but carpoolers have a better shot at earning an impressive prize right away.
“When you arrive, if you are in a car with three or more people, if you ride a bike or if you are on a shuttle, you’re gonna get a chance to win a VIP package for four next year, and an aerial tour of the forest this year,” Wells-Norton said. “We are really trying to get people to carpool, to consolidate their campsites, and be smart about the wastes that they’re bringing, the packing and all that. It’s the easiest first way to win something huge from the forest.”
After arriving, patrons can participate in the Electricology “Ecopoints” program throughout the weekend. Ecopoints are handed out on cards when a patron brings waste to an Electricology booth or awarded by Electricology workers in the venue. The card is filled out, dropped into a raffle jar for a specific prize, and drawn from periodically. Participants who go the extra mile have a chance to win the holy grail of Electricology prizes through an Ecopoint leaderboard.
“We’re gonna give you a chance to win another VIP package, as well as attend a super exclusive party with Bell’s at a secret location in the Forest,” Wells said. “Those are just for top leaderboarders that pick up thousands of Ecopoints micromanaging litter, hauling people’s trash for them, doing what it takes to fill in the gaps we need to keep the forest looking beautiful.”
Arguably, the most infamous aspect of Electricology is the Prize Cart, which makes appearances at the end of headlining sets each night. When the Prize Cart theme song starts blasting through the speakers and the logo pops up on screen, the Prize Cart rolls out from backstage surrounded by workers. The workers hand out trash bags to people still in the crowd and prizes are distributed according to how much trash someone can haul in a short amount of time.
“You could be walking away from Bassnectar with a hammock just for picking up some cups,” Wells-Norton said. “It’s going to keep the festival clean and it’s going to be a whole lot of fun while we do it.”
To clarify for those that may be wondering, Electricology accepts all bags for trash and recycling and also encourages everyone to bring their own.
“We welcome everybody to bring the resources they need from home to do the best job they can to leave no trace at this festival and to maintain a clean site while they’re living here, but we are also doing everything we can to get those resources to you if that’s not something that you planned for, or you just need more,” Wells-Norton said.
The organization also asks that everyone sort their bags and waste as much as possible before handing them in. Various signs are posted through the venues to help people learn about what is and is not recyclable. Electricology workers are also happy to answer questions on the subject.
“If you bring a bag of recycling with a banana in it, we’ll throw that out, but we’re really hoping people can be smart about keeping clean,” Wells-Norton said. “Glass is not allowed in the campground, but occasionally it does leak through and that is also recyclable. Your cardboard, if it’s nice, dry, and clean, we’ll take that and recycle that. We are composting wet, soiled cardboard as well.”
One aspect of the sustainability practices that I was not aware of was the compostable goods. I had no idea that all food waste from the vendors, down to the utensils, is made from biodegradable plant-based material.
“Everything that you buy from our food vendors is gonna be a compostable plant plastic,” Wells-Norton said. “Feel free to check the bottom of your cups and it should say number 7 PLA or a Zero [...]that means it’s compostable and its got plant-based plastics to help it break down super fast. In six months, it turns into soil for Michigan Farmers. We’ve got compostable straws, paper plates, napkins, [and] bamboo.”
Wells-Norton also provided some tips on how to make connections on whether something is compostable or not.
“Some things, like popsicle sticks and gum are compostable too,” Wells-Norton said. “They come from trees, trees come from the ground, compost goes in the ground. If it came from a living thing, it’s compostable. A lot of what we’re producing inside the venue is more compost than it is recycling or trash.”
“We’re really proud of how far this program has come in terms of generating that kind of clean strength,” Wells-Norton said. “Since some of the producers of this festival have made investments over the last few years to take this commitment seriously, we’ve just been so thankful and impressed that the forest family has complied in the ways that we need them to, because we are producing really wonderful content, and once we get the systems down, it allows us to explore other really exciting avenues of places we could be offsetting our carbon footprint outside of just the waste management.”
Part of reducing the carbon footprint manifested into bringing the festival back to a single-weekend format, which also resulted in some changes in the festival. Previously, in 2017 and 2018, Electric Forest was hosted over two weekends. 2019 saw it return to its original single-weekend production.
“I was impressed and thankful that they made that decision, because they have taken what would otherwise be spent on the production for a second weekend and reinvested it into the property,” Wells-Norton said. “There are going to be some changes that our forest family are gonna see for the better when they arrive onsite. Some of the areas in the Forest are routed differently so that we can maintain the sustainability of those trees and not overwork them, so it was the responsible thing to do as a promoter to reevaluate how much thousands of people are eroding this site that we care a lot about. They're making this Forest a place where we can continue to come back a lot longer than we thought.”
Early expectations for how long it would take to clean up the property were set at about 48 hours, but Wells-Norton noted the importance of finding and disposing of every last piece of micro trash on the site, and it was for a reason that I was previously unaware of.
“Many people may not be aware, but it’s a horse field year-round,” Wells-Norton said. “They live on the Tripolee stage [area] and the GA campgrounds. They have their babies out there, they eat the grass, they sleep there, they are raised there, so it’s really important to us that we are getting every tiny little piece of glitter out there in the campgrounds, and the more that our Forest family does on their own to pick that up, the easier on us it’ll be afterwards.”
I had always assumed that the grounds were used for general camping and vacationing when it wasn’t time for the festival. I figured that if I wasn’t aware of it, there are probably a lot of people that don’t know as well.
Speaking of things that I hadn’t thought of, I asked Wells-Norton if there were sustainability tricks patrons could pick up during the weekend that may not be completely obvious.
“In a world of direct-to-home delivery, we are all swimming in Amazon boxes these days,” Wells-Norton said. “We say every year, ‘ditch your packaging,’ because you’re not gonna wanna take it home with you and, quite frankly, you’re robbing yourself of a lot of valuable space in your car.”
Before speaking with Wells-Norton, I had already been making plans on how to make my own campsite more sustainable, despite never interacting with Electricology before. As the leader of a collective 60+ person interstate squad, I had already begun encouraging my camp members to be more mindful of their waste. I bought two different colored biodegradable bags for us to sort our trash and recycling.
I informed Wells-Norton of my efforts to lead by example, and she said that my actions were exactly what Electricology is all about.
“That’s the whole point of the program, we’re leading by example,” Wells-Norton said. “Instead of spending time chastising people who don’t have the effort or the resources to do any better, we’re gonna celebrate the people that are already going out of their way. It makes me feel really good that we have, over the years, indoctrinated a generation of festival-goers to be more mindful.”
As a personal annotation, I can say that I have seen people be better about picking up trash over the years, generally speaking. I asked Wells-Norton if she had seen improvement in trash pickup herself.
“Considerably,” Wells-Norton said. “ The first two years, my husband and I used to run the cleanup crew and walk those grounds with everybody. I think the first year, it took a couple weeks to get the grounds clear. When we started the program and incentivizing everyone, that got cut down to seven days, and then five days, and then we really got it down short enough to where the Forest was able to do double weekends.”
If you’ve made it this far into the story and are thinking that this is a lot of information to take in, you aren’t alone.
With all of this in mind, I prepared for the weekend ahead with new knowledge of how I could better help keep things clean.
Engaging with Electricology
Educational sign of waste streams inside vendor area
Once I was onsite for the weekend, I was able to survey the field and see the program at work. For starters, there were tons of barrels for sorting waste strewn all throughout the festival. In the campground areas, there are double-stream sorting barrels for both trash and recycling, while in the vendor areas there are three, with the third barrel designated for composting. Different signs are posted at most of the barrels to help educate attendees on how to sort their waste.
Posted up elsewhere in the campgrounds and other spots are strategically placed “Ecozone” hubs, where campers can easily pick up more trash bags or other supplies to help stay clean. Campers can also donate unwanted, used clothing, camping gear, and other goods to charity, which is then sent out to non-profits like the Crystal Valley Care Fund.
I was able to secure a ride-along with the Prize Cart for Saturday night, which was later rescheduled to Sunday night. In the meantime, I decided to hang out at the Electricology booth in front of the main entrance to meet some of the workers for the weekend. I also had the opportunity to speak with several attendees who were participating in the program. Many of their individual motivations were surprisingly altruistic.
My first interview of the weekend was with Elena Ybarra, who was working at one of the booths. Although I had plenty of background information already, I wanted to get another perspective on Electricology and its mission for the weekend.
Interviewing the People of Electricology - Elena Ybarra
Elena Ybarra was working at one of the Electricology booths all weekend
“Electricology is our sustainability program at Electric Forest,” Ybarra told me in an interview. “What we do is incentivize people to pick up trash, do their part, hopefully learn more about compost, [recycling], and landfill, so they know where their waste is actually going. We try to keep the forest clean so that it’s healthy enough to continue, and we just try to educate people all day long and give them cool prizes.”
This is also where I was able to get a first-hand look at what some of these cool prizes were. Several vendors had donated items to the cause, everything from free food vouchers to Electric Forest merchandise. Since I hadn’t seen it in action yet, I wasn’t sure how the Ecopoint system worked.
“Every Ecopoint card is worth one point,” Ybarra said. “There are different amounts of points you can get for whatever you bring in. You get the points, fill out your name and number on the card, and enter it into our raffle system. We pick winners all throughout the day, we have to get rid of all of our prizes by the end of the festival. [If we don’t get rid of them], we give them out at Prize Cart. Everything is donated by vendors at the festival, so it’s a really good community experience.”
Possible prizes for big Electricology winners
Participants can drop individual Ecopoint cards into one prize raffle or they can save 50 points to enter the Leaderboard.
“With the leaderboards, [participants] get to win four good life passes, a hot air balloon ride over the Forest, and they get invited to a special party,” Ybarra said. “It’s a really good incentive to get people to go, and it’s a good healthy competition."
Possible raffle jar prizes for Electricology winners
The individual prize raffles are divided up by small jars with the prize title written on them. At times, some of the more popular ones were stuffed full of cards bursting out the top, leading one to believe that the program was successful over the weekend.
I wanted to know how well the program was doing this year compared to previous years. Turns out, many people aren’t even in it for the prizes, they are in it because they genuinely want to help clean up the place.
“It’s definitely gotten a lot more success,” Ybarra said. “I have so many people coming up to me saying, ‘I love Electricology, I love what you do, I like to tell my friends about it.’ I had one girl [Thursday], we tried to give her a point, but she said, ‘I’m gonna keep it, but I’m gonna find people who are doing good stuff in the Forest and give them points,’ so people are really trying to spread the word. We have handfuls of people on the daily, they come in and say ‘I don’t really want the point,’ and I tell them to keep it, give it to someone else, maybe enter it in for someone else. It’s really great because they’re giving back to people, even though they don’t want to be rewarded for something that they just like doing.”
Ybarra had also set her own set goals for what she wanted to do with Electricology, which we were able to discuss.
“My goal for this year is trying to get more people to compost and hopefully learn more about composting, just because it’s better for our soil,” she said. “It puts all the good nutrients back into the earth instead of going to the landfill where it’s getting wasted.”
I then asked how those goals were going by that point in the weekend. Ybarra’s efforts to educate people in compost were paying off.
“I think it’s going really well,” she said. “Last year, we didn’t even have any composting bags at any of our locations and I’ve given out at least a couple rolls this year.”
On the subject of the Electricology workers, I asked for tips on what attendees could do to make things easier on people involved with the program.
“If there is a festival that has a program like Electricology, or even if they're just handing out bags, make sure you get enough and make sure it’s a clear plastic bag so they can see if it’s trash or recyclable inside the bag,” Ybarra said. “People use black bags, and if we can’t see through it, we’re just gonna throw it away and it could be a whole bag of recyclables that’s getting wasted.”
Ybarra believes these types of programs should be available at other festivals.
“I definitely think there should be something that’s implemented at any festival, whether it’s a day festival, cultural festival, or food festival,” Ybarra said. “We need stuff like this because we need to make our planet healthy for generations to come. And it helps keep the grounds clean and healthy that more festivals that happen, and we all want more festivals.”
Ybarra then told me that the grand prize winners of the Electricology Leaderboard were attending this weekend and were still actively participating. I left my contact information and camp location for her to give them whenever they were around next.
I decided to hang out for a bit longer and interview some of the people hauling in waste. My attention was caught immediately by a man who had hauled a box full of it.
Interviewing the Participants - Gavin Harkrider
Once I saw this man hauling in such a huge load, I knew he was someone that I needed to talk with. Gavin Harkrider of Dallas, TX was attending his second Electric Forest. He spoke with me about his motivations in participating with Electricology.
“I care about the environment,” Harkrider said. “We have a duty to clean up after ourselves. The fact that [Electricology] offer an incentive for us makes it even more worthwhile to all the people participating, even if they don’t care, which makes it all the better for the whole environment. That’s why I love it so much.”
Harkrider was more concerned with helping clean up, rather than winning prizes.
“I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do. I could enter the leaderboard if I really wanted to, and I’m sure I’d get high up in it, but I don’t really care, I let someone else win those tickets. Next year, I plan on volunteering for Electricology because I love the incentive. They’re really welcoming, so it makes it worthwhile.”
He then went into further detail on his impressions of the program as a whole.
“They help to better the area, which usually, after most other festivals, is trashed and destroyed. They offer all these rewards for you to do it. I’m not too crazy about the awards, but I like to gamble with some lotteries, so why not? I hauled my stuff at least a mile, but I don’t mind,” Harkrider said.
Interviewing the Participants - Regina Goncharenko and Tyler Kistner
Two participants noticed me talking to Harkrider and asked to be interviewed next. This is how I met Regina Goncharenko and Tyler Kistner of Minnesota. They had hauled carts full of waste to the Electricology booth with them.
“I just learned about this, I love the whole system,” Goncharenko said. “Of course there’s a reward, which is nice, but I think it also shows people that eventually, you won’t need a reward, you’ll just realize you’re helping the planet and that’s reward enough. But this system for right now is amazing to get people into helping. Even if they’re doing it for the prize, I think it’s an amazing program to get people to start caring about the earth. If we see someone doing something good, we’ll tell them about the program, and then maybe get more people interested in helping the earth.”
Like Harkrider, Goncharenko says her involvement is more for the earth than the prizes.
“I just want to help the environment. Prizes are really cool to get people started, but I want to keep it clean. I personally get bothered when I see trash everywhere.”
Kistner also chimed in with his own motivations.
“We pick up things in general and take it to the closest trash can because just getting it to the place it needs to go is reward enough for us,” he said.
Kistner touched on some of the things being done back at their camp to be cleaner.
“We put up a trash can in the first 20 minutes [of setting up camp] and we’re like, ‘Hey everybody, there’s a trash bag right here,’” he said. “People ask if they can use our trash can, and we say, ‘Yes, that’s why it’s there!’”
Just one giant haul of garbage brought in by Electricology participants
Trash barrel containing improperly sorted waste. Note the biodegradable plates, glowsticks, and recyclable Starbucks can all in one bag. One of every type of waste.
The pair were very appreciative of the informational signs next to some of the trash cans.
“It’s really helpful,” Goncharenko said. “We all assume everyone knows what they’re doing when they recycle, but the truth of the matter is that a lot of people don’t know how to do this, so I think educating people through love instead of being mad at them is gonna help.”
“A little sign like that could teach someone for a lifetime,” Kistner added.
Interestingly, I was able to inform the two about something that they, like myself, had been previously unaware of, and that was the compostable food waste from the vendors. They did not know that the forks and plates were supposed to go in the compost bin. Just like that, I spread the Electricology knowledge; I can only assume that they did the same with their friends.
“I’d like to say there is still hope,” Goncharenko added. “Let’s remember that not everybody knows as much information about recycling as you, so let’s just try to educate people, because you can’t assume that everyone knows this. As long as you increase your own knowledge on how to become more environmentally-friendly, you can also help increase everybody else's, everywhere you go.”
Following my interviews with these individuals, I found myself swimming in new ideas. I decided right there that I was going to step up my game in handing in trash and recycling. Regardless of what everyone in my own campsite was doing, and whether or not I won any prizes, I was going to start hauling in our waste myself if I had to.
Bringing my own color-coded compostable trash bags and encouraging my camp was a good start, but I knew that I could do better and I was going to start immediately. Like Harkrider told me, it’s the right thing to do.
Meeting the Electricology Leaders of 2018
When I returned to the Electricology booth the next day, my timing couldn’t have been better. I was going for a basic check-in, but Ybarra excitedly told me that the Leaderboard winners from last year were at the booth.
This is how I met Rex Dickerman and Alexander Katerburg, both of Grand Rapids, MI, and attending their second-ever Electric Forest.
Being the big winners didn’t stop them from actively participating this year. In fact, when I met them, they were in the process of hauling the trash of other campers.
“At this moment, we’re trying to help some people out,” Katerburg informed me. “A lot of people just set trash beside their campsite and don’t quite make it to the receptacle, so it’s an easy way for us to roll some for these great points and prizes and rewards.”
Once proper introductions were out of the way, I got down to business. I asked them about their participation in the program and what it was like winning the score of a lifetime because of it.
“Last year was our first Electric Forest ever,” Katerburg said. “We didn't even hear about Electricology until day two, and that’s what started it, because there was nothing we wanted to do from 10 to 2. We didn’t even know about the leaderboard, and the top ten got a really cool private party. There, they announced the top score. We were at the top and won four free Goodlife passes just by picking up trash and going to see shows.”
By the time I interviewed the pair that Saturday, they already thought they were doing as well as they did last year.
“I’d say we probably got close to the amount of tickets last year,” Dickerman said. “We go around and we try to give out trash bags when we take their trash to keep things in the recycling bins and not all over the ground. We love the Forest, respect the Forest, we want to keep the Forest clean.”
The two responded with big grins when I asked them what it felt like to be the big prize winners last year.
“It was like none other,” Dickerman said. “We couldn’t believe our first year that we were able to win it just doing something that’s good for the environment, good for people going to the show, and to get rewarded with free passes next year, it couldn’t have gotten any better.”
Like many participants, Dickerman and Katerburg recognize the educational potential of a program like Electricology.
“There are too many people who will roll up, and [their waste] is three quarters recycling and one part trash, and it’s just kind of sad to see,” Katerburg said.
“We try to hit as many different campsites as possible and give them the correct bags,” Dickerman added. “You pick up white bags, and it’s like, ‘I’m sure you could have done this better,’ so when we come back the next day, they improve their environmental impact.”
That comment is exactly why people should try to be more mindful of what type of bags they use. If the bag isn’t transparent, recyclable goods may end up getting treated as garbage.
While other people are into the program for the sake of helping to clean up instead of the prizes, Dickerman and Katerburg are in it for both.