• Will Kriss

Exploring the Environmental and Sustainability Practices of Electric Forest Festival [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 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.

“The prize is the cherry on top,” Katerburg said. “When we first turned in the trash, we grabbed a couple [bags] on the way, and then we found out about the program and thought, ‘Woah, why not? Let’s just keep doing it!’”

“We would see our neighboring campsites, just grab from them, and then just kind of spiral out from that area,” Dickerman added. “We realized that it wasn’t a bad way to spend the morning and help out this wonderful event that we love so much.”

Most importantly, these two participants were leading by example and inspired others to pick up their own garbage in the process.

“It’s nice after you grab six bags of trash hearing behind you, ‘Oh yeah, we should take our trash, too,’” Katerburg said. “Other people started to pick up their stuff and that’s just a nice reminder.”

To wrap up things with these superstars, I asked them what they would say to someone if they were actively trying to get them to participate.

“We’ve only got one planet,” Katerburg answered. “You’ve gotta try and keep it clean. If you’re doing it just for the prizes, there are plenty of prizes beyond having a green earth and a clean walkway.”

Applying Electricology Principles to My Own Campsite

Although I did not interview the winners from last year until Saturday, my interviews on Friday had already inspired me to do better.

Early on, we had been doing mostly well with sorting our garbage. Obviously, mistakes were made, such as putting plastic in the wrong bag, but some were laughable, such as a half-eaten sandwich shoved into a bag full of plastic bottles.

Regardless, I remembered what Wells had told me in our preliminary interview and assumed it to be a mistake.

I started hauling bags to the booth and earning Ecopoints, mostly dropping them into jars at random. My conversations with the workers and participants of Electricology had simply made me want to haul trash to the booth because it was the right thing to do and if I won anything while I was at it, that was a bonus.

There were two prizes I had my eye on, however they were not for me. The first was an official Electric Forest hat, which I was intending to give to a friend in my camp who brought me to my first Electric Forest back in 2014, and the second was a pair of Blue Gecko-brand “elephant” pants for a woman searching for new clothes over the weekend.

I gave the Electric Forest hat I won in the raffle to my campmate Aren Milligan.

I gave the Blue Gecko-brand pants I won in the raffle to my campmate Emily Sabourin.

Turns out, I won them both.

Keep in mind, my camp friends knew that I was writing an “environmental and sustainability” piece about Electric Forest, but hadn’t really asked me any questions about it.

Imagine their surprise when I walked into the campsite and started handing out these prizes.

Immediately, questions were raised about how I earned them and what they needed to do to get a shot themselves.

This is where I feel I was able to make the most impact over the weekend. It wasn’t the fact that I was hauling trash and sorting waste, it was the fact that I was able to catch the attention of everyone when I walked back with prizes. Regardless of whether they were in it for just the prizes or not, I now had my friends helping me haul garbage to the Electricology booth.

I had inspired my crew to do better about their own waste and, in turn, was leading by example before I even realized it.

I think this is the biggest takeaway for the weekend on my end. In terms of spreading awareness for a program like Electricology, word-of-mouth information goes a long way and leading by example goes an even longer way. It made me wonder how many other people were unaware of it, as well.

Starting that Friday afternoon, we were now hauling loads of trash and recycling with us anytime we headed up to Main Street or the venue entrance.

I had now successfully inspired my friends to be more sustainable, which was a goal I was trying to achieve over the weekend anyway. So much so, in fact, that it would take one of them all the way to the Prize Cart, which was one of the best moments of the weekend for me.

Sunday Night Prize Cart - Where Sustainable Leadership Comes Full Circle

The original plan was for me to do the ridealong Saturday night after Bassnectar, but it ended up being switched to Sunday night after The Floozies at the Sherwood Court stage. I was able to meet up with Rachel Wells-Norton and talk about the weekend so far.

I was also able to meet several other Prize Cart volunteers, who eagerly explained the process to me. Basically, all you have to do is run out alongside the prize cart in unison, yell “prize cart,” and hand out trash bags to the people still standing at the stage.

Electricology Manager Devyn Miller handing out bags during Prize Cart

Prize Cart participants lining up after The Floozies Sunday night

Sounds simple, right? It is, but actually participating in the Prize Cart routine is very exciting. As soon as the Prize Cart theme song kicked on over the speakers, I cannot deny that I was hit with an adrenaline rush the likes of which I had yet to experience at Electric Forest; a rush that could only be felt when you know you are doing something to make the Forest a better place.

Participants piling up trash behind the Prize Cart

This would lead to one of the biggest highlights of my weekend.

After all my efforts in getting my friends to be more sustainable, the big moment came right out of the gate. My friend Austin from camp was right at the front of the stage, ready and willing to participate in the Prize Cart shenanigans. As soon as I saw him, I knew that all of my efforts had paid off; I knew that I did, in fact, make a difference.

My campmate Austin Himmelein won a poster and a case of Red Bull from the Prize Cart

As for the rest of the participants, I ran out of bags to hand out very quickly and decided to stand back and observe. Quite frankly, I was astonished. In the span of 10 minutes or less, the Sherwood Court area was, for all intents and purposes, spotless. I couldn’t believe it. In all my years of attending Electric Forest, I had never seen that area so clean.

The patrons were eager to pile up the trash behind the Cart and one lucky winner walked off with a new ENO Hammock. My friend Austin ended up leaving with an Electric Forest poster and a case of Red Bull.

Sherwood Court was practically spotless after being cleaned by Prize Cart participants

At this point, it didn’t matter why the people were picking up the trash. What mattered is that it was getting done.

I left the Sherwood Court stage that night feeling elated, knowing that I made a difference in the Forest myself and had helped other people make a difference themselves.

It goes without saying that this elation was mixed with the bittersweet feelings that come on Sunday night knowing that my time in the Forest was almost up for the year. But now I had several new ideas of how I could be even more sustainable in the years to come.

Post-Festival Interview - Rachel Wells-Norton

A few days after the festival ended, I had the opportunity to catch up with Rachel Wells-Norton to discuss the events of the past weekend. I had a few more questions, but I also wanted to collect her thoughts on the overall experience.

“We are thrilled at the level of participation from our forest family at EF2019,” Wells-Norton said. “We feel like people came to our stores right out of the gate, ready to sign up for a leaderboard, ready to compete for prizes. We are thrilled with the level of participation we got from the carpool contest, as well. We were able to keep a manageable size on our campgrounds, as well as give away a really banging prize of an aerial tour on a balloon lift to a group of kids.”

I was unable to meet with the winner of the Leaderboard this year, but whoever it was put in a massive effort to keep the Forest clean.

“Our leaderboard winner this year brought in just shy of 4000 Ecopoints, and he brought half of them to the Ecopoints party in stacks of fifty with rubber bands,” Wells-Norton said.

But of course, it isn’t about who won the most prizes or who collected the most Ecopoints. What matters is the end result.

“The most important part of all of this is the way the Forest family left this property,” Wells-Norton said. “We have never seen such giant green open expanses between the piles. We feel like everybody really made an effort to bring their waste to the piles to tear down their campsites, to even bring donated gear or salvaged broken metal tent frames. It’s remarkable how the Forest family left this year.”

I had to tell Wells-Norton about my own experiences throughout the weekend. I explained how I encouraged my team to be more responsible about their waste, gave away prizes that I won myself, and how it all led up to at least one person participating in the Prize Cart.

“That’s literally what the program is about, the idea that one person does the right thing,” Wells responded. “You can show someone how we like our Forest family to treat this property when they’re there. The other element is that it’s so much fun to be involved than to not be. You build stronger relationships with your campsite, you win prizes, you’re able to use that experience to express gestures of gratitude to other people in your life for other unrelated things, and that makes us happy to hear that, because that’s truly what the message of this program is.”

In regards to further questions that I still had, one thing that people I spoke with over the weekend kept bringing up was a lack of compost bins and fewer informational signs in the GA campground areas as there were in the vendor and Forest areas. The simple answer is that more barrels and signs take up resources that could be better allocated elsewhere.

“A lot of the recycling that you’re seeing in the campgrounds is not a controlled situation, so wherever you see signage, it’s because that’s a controlled situation for us,” Wells-Norton said. “We are serving compostable utensils in [the vendor] area, we are in charge of a majority of the waste that’s being produced. That’s why we choose to run a three-stream system there, that’s why we choose to sign it to ensure that people understand how to sort it.”

Places in the GA grounds, such as Camp Blueberry, are very far away from where compostable materials are being used. In short, compostable barrels are placed where staff know that compostable materials are being used, I.E., the vendor areas.

“In that way, we can put our eyes on what we can help and what we can control and in that way we can ensure that the product we’re generating for our composter in Zeeland, [Mich.] is as clean as it gets,” Wells-Norton said. “It’s more advantageous for us to focus on the areas that we know we can help than to waste too much time out there. That’s why we have the ecozones in the campgrounds. Up in the venue, we really want to focus on the compost.”

As for the barrels, it takes a lot more work than one might expect to place them throughout the venue.

“There are thousands of barrels and it takes quite a bit of time for us to pound a fence post into every single one of those trash cans,” Wells-Norton said. “Not to mention we have to zip tie multiple signs and print special signs for that. From a sustainability perspective, it’s a different waste of resources, so there’s a balance there.”

All of this information was very enlightening, and caused me to think about sustainability in new ways.

Of course, there was one last order of business to discuss, and that was how people can get involved with the program.

How to Get Involved with Electricology

The first thing that interested participants should know is that Electricology receives workers through the program FanStaff. Through this program, employees earn an hourly wage that offsets the price of a wristband.

Gemini Production Solutions, the waste management division of Electricology, manages the workers over the weekend while they’re at the festival.

As for the type of people who can apply, Electricology accepts all kinds.

“We want anybody from any kind of background that’s interested in participating in the Forest to join our team,” Wells-Norton said. “Anybody can come into our team with a skill set they want to learn or bring to us. We have a place for you.”

Many people join the Electricology program not knowing exactly what they want to do, but then find they have interests in other areas as a result of participating.

“We help people find what they’re into,” Wells-Norton said. “We’ve had people move on from our program and go into artist relations or site ops or move into marketing.”

Whatever your experience may be, joining Electricology can be an excellent learning opportunity to educate yourself about how to sort waste better, among other related topics.

“We’d love to teach you how to sort properly and how to bring positive messaging to positive situations that can motivate crowds to be a positive force in their communities,” Wells-Norton added.

Before one can even think about volunteering, however, there are several ways to keep an eye out for when the opportunities come up.

“The first thing we invite everyone to do is to follow us or like our pages on our social channels because that’s where we put on announcements in the off-season for places to sign up and more detailed positions,” Wells-Norton said.

From there, it really depends on how you want to participate. If you want to participate in the programs beyond Electric Forest, there are several opportunities available.

“If you’re interested in working on the waste management team as a local, you should definitely follow Gemini Production Solutions,” Wells-Norton said. “If you’re interested in working in the prizing elements of what High Five is doing here in Michigan, you should go to https://www.thehighfiveprogram.com/ and check out the internship program that we’re running. This is year-round outside of Electric Forest, our top interns come and work in our stores for us as part of our team.”

If you just want to join in over the weekend, keep an eye on the FanStaff program.

“That’s a great way for you to get a deposit on a ticket and then work a really cool variety of jobs all over the site that will allow a paycheck that offsets the cost of your ticket and still gives you exclusive camping options. Any one of those things are gonna get you to somebody that would love to talk to you about joining our team” Wells-Norton added.

After learning about how to get involved behind the scenes, I only had one last question for Wells-Norton and that was to leave me with any closing thoughts.

Closing Thoughts - Wells

“We are just thrilled with the way the program ran this year,” Wells-Norton said. “We are thrilled with the way that Electric Forest ran. It is an absolute pleasure to work with Madison House and the folks over at Insomniac who provide this festival and this program for the festival. It’s an incredible group of professionals that really care deeply about doing a good job, about doing the right thing, about providing wellness and amenities for the entire population. We care about the community of Rothbury, Montague, New Era, White Hall, and we are honored that they let us come back every year. Most of all, the fans just crushed it this year. We’re so proud and thankful, and we cannot wait to come back and blow minds for a tenth anniversary in 2020.”

Final Thoughts - Personal Reflection

As I’ve written before, the magic of Electric Forest is all around and it works in ways that may not be completely obvious at first glance. But, if you decide to keep searching, you will be astonished at what you discover.

At Electric Forest last year, through my work with the non-profit organizations that had set up shop, I discovered a different kind of magic unto itself. Those three organizations were essentially setting out to help attendees become better and healthier people.

In the case of Electricology, I discovered very quickly that attendees can become creatures with better habits by helping to clean the grounds that we call home. By extension, if attendees can continue implementing these eco-friendly lessons beyond the Festival, then they are helping the entire planet that we call home.

In principle, this is what we should all be doing anyway. Not just cleaning up after ourselves and sorting our waste better, but applying the lessons we learn during a festival to our lives back home. If every single attendee does this in some way, I firmly believe that the world, in turn, becomes a better place, even if it's just a little bit at a time.

That’s what I find to be truly magical about programs like Electricology. They point out ways that you can help make a difference, both big and small, reward you for doing so in the process, and leave it up to you to decide how far you want to go with it,all in the name of the greater good.

It was a very educational experience and it made me wish I had interacted with the program years ago as opposed to starting now. But, as the saying goes, better late than never.

Just like last year, it made me wonder just how much was left at the Forest that I had yet to see.

It is my opinion that the prizes should be the least of our concerns when we are helping to clean up. We should simply do it because it’s the right thing to do. But, if the chance at winning a prize causes even one person over the weekend to change their habits for the better, that’s a victory in and of itself.

Since returning home, I’ve noticed that I’ve become even more self-conscious about my environmental habits. I now take much better care in sorting my waste, I’ve switched to a refillable water bottle, and I encourage others to be better about their own habits where applicable. I suppose this means that the goal behind Electricology has been met.

I would like to re-emphasize that leading by example in my own camp is where I was able to make the most impact over the weekend. Thanks to the pre-emptive measures I took in helping to make our campsite more sustainable, I do believe that we did better on our waste output this year. Once the prizes came into the picture, my camp got much better about hauling their waste to the Electricology booth.

Whether they were in it for the prizes or the environment is besides the point. What matters is that it got done.

More importantly, however, I was able to get at least one person to go all the way up to participating with the Prize Cart and I can’t begin to tell you how excited I was when I saw Austin out front at Sherwood Court.

Thanks to that level of participation, I absolutely relish the fact that I helped make a difference at Electric Forest.That’s my biggest takeaway from the weekend overall:it only takes one person to help others do better.

Word-of-mouth information is a very powerful means of communication and I believe that my friends choosing to participate because of me is a perfect example of that.

Which is exactly what I hope to achieve with this writing: not just to encourage patrons to participate with Electricology in the years to come, but to be all-around better about cleaning up in general to improve our lives.

In the words of Alex Katerburg, “We only have one planet.” Let us all do our part to make sure that the Forest stays healthy for us to enjoy it, and let’s do our part to make sure there’s even a planet for the Forest to take place.

As for me, I’ll see you out there next year on the Prize Cart frontlines, trash bag in hand.

Happy Forest, my friends.

Further Reading

Electricology:

Gemini Production Solutions:

The High Five Program:

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