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Exploring the Environmental and Sustainability Practices of Electric Forest Festival [2019]

September 2, 2019

Additional editing by Sarah DeHaan

 

 

Background

 

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.”

 

It’s also worth noting that the efforts and practices of Electricology earned them an award from the EPA last year, which Wells-Norton and the organization are delighted about.

 

“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