Turning Crowds into Custodians: The Magic of Electricology

Why do I love music festivals? Obviously it starts with the music. But if all I wanted was music I’d never have to leave my couch (or Spotify account). What really gets me going at fests is being part of a community greater than just myself. And Electric Forest holds a special place in my heart for that reason. That sense of community isn’t a coincidence. It’s curated. It’s designed to foster such feelings. Be it with Electric Forces, or Her Forest, or the Jellyfish, the fest organizer’s go out of their way to help these communities thrive. And this year I learned about a group that exemplifies the spirit of the festival, the Electricology team rewarding fans for keeping the grounds clean.

Electricology is a program that incentivizes festival-goers to pick up trash, clean the grounds and make sure that as much waste is diverted into recycling and compost as possible.

Rachel Wells, the founder of Electricology, humbly describes the program as a “marketing campaign for trash cans,” but the incentive program goes far beyond that. Wells explains, “instead of shaming people for littering we use positive encouragement, prizing. We tell people ‘you are awesome’ and their awesomeness could be worth so much more.” From a slice of pizza all the way to free tickets for life, Electricology makes being awesome worth your while.

Wells also mentioned to me, “there are lots of incentive programs at festivals around the country. Electric Forest is different. [Our booths and signs] are saturating festival-goers from every angle.” And she was right, you couldn’t look up without seeing signs for Electricology stations or a video board with an ad for the program.

Electricology has so many facets and is so far-reaching it’s hard to figure out where to start when explaining the nitty-gritty of how they keep Electric Forest spotless. Many folks learn about their work through the Prize Cart, and the ubiquitous Prize Cart theme song. After the final performer graces each stage the PA’s blasts out said theme song (composed by String Cheese Incident’s Kyle Hollingsworth) while a cart drives around giving out prizes to folks filling up bags with garbage on the floor.

You get a bunch of garbage? You get a prize! And these prizes aren’t bullshit Happy Meal toys. They are ENO hammocks, flat bills from Grassroots California or water packs from Vibedration (just to name a few of the vendors who make this all possible, full list can be found below). People want to win them. And that’s how 15 minutes after Bassnectar’s set ends, the area around the Ranch Arena stage is cleaner than any national park I’ve ever been to. Not even a single piece of confetti in sight. This is why Ms. Wells is so excited to report that Electricology turns “crowds into custodians.”

Beyond the Prize Cart there are various other incentives organized by Electricology. They have 8 eco-zones through the festival, and when you go there with a bottle full of cigarette butts, or a bag of garbage, or a lonely lost show, they give you a point. Now there are two things you can do with said points.

One is to try to be the overall garbage champion. A single person who collects the most garbage at the festival. Said champion will win free tickets to Electric Forest for life (8 people in total received tickets for life this year, two champions and 6 other lucky folks rewarded for carpooling to the fest). That champion likely will have earned close to 2,000 points. Rachel explained, “it takes most champions two to three years of skipping almost all the music and picking up garbage before they’ve perfected a winning strategy.”

But what if you want to see music while also picking up garbage here and there? You can use the points not for a cumulative tally, but to enter a variety of raffles. There are close to a dozen different raffles, and winners are drawn all throughout the day. They were kind enough to let me draw a winner or two while I chatted with them, which is as close as I’ll ever come to feeling like NBA Commissioner David Stern on lottery night.

This year, for the first time ever, there were two weekends of Electric Forest. Midway through weekend one’s heavy rains I thought to myself, “how the fuck can they possibly get the grounds ready for another weekend of this?” It turns out the secret is Electricology’s 67 staff members and hundreds of WET (Work Exchange Team) volunteers. By the time the gates opened for the second weekend the only evidence of the first weekend was trampled grass. No glowsticks on the ground, no plastic bags dancing in the wind, not even a single comically placed banana peel for a vaudevillian to slip on.

This started back at the Hoxeyville Music Festival. Rachel explained that she and her husband, “were working with some bands in the 2000s, we noticed festivals were filthy. And it didn’t have to be that way. We are different, festival people care. We started with a high five. An appropriate gesture to approach strangers with. Nobody refuses a high five.”

Wells and others who run Electricology, which is known as the “High Five Program” at other festivals, are local to western Michigan. So for them keeping Electric Forest clean, diverting pounds upon pounds of refuse from landfills into compost heaps, is personal. Obviously the future of the earth is a concern, but when you are a stakeholder in the community like Ms. Wells is, there is an added desire to manage and minimize waste created.

As a New York City native I’ve become accustomed to the scent of hot garbage stinking up a summer day. But after seeing the grounds be returned to their immaculate state every night by the Electricology team, I’m tempted to start a campaign to make Rachel Wells the Big Apple’s sanitation commissioner.

Vendors who made this all possible: Bell’s Brewery (hosts of the eco-points party), ENO, Vibedration, Grassroots California, Sloth Steady, Bud Light (sponsored the recycling bags), Aurora Vizion and REPREVE.