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Tina Casey headshot

Arts and Entertainment Venues Begin to Turn the Page on Plastic

By Tina Casey
Watch for the backlash against single-use plastics to continue, as large entertainment and cultural venues begin to align their values with the youthful audiences they seek to attract.

Watch for the backlash against single-use plastics to continue, as large entertainment and cultural venues begin to align their values with the youthful audiences they seek to attract.

Environmental activists may march in the morning, and this week they may be stepping up their efforts around World Water Day on Friday, but their evening’s entertainment may take place in a gallery, music festival or concert hall awash in plastic water bottles along with plastic straws, cups, plates, bags and cutlery.  That disconnect is beginning to change, as large entertainment and cultural venues start to align their values with the youthful audiences they seek to attract.

No more plastic bottles at The Midway

The first large-scale venue to take the no-plastic-bottle plunge in the U.S. is The Midway in San Francisco, California.

Last December, The Midway launched a commitment to remove single-use plastic water bottles from the premises, in partnership with the ocean health organization Lonely Whale. As part of this partnership, the new arts and culture venue in the city's Dogpatch neighborhood held a multidisciplinary art exhibit last week in collaboration with organizations including the Surfrider Foundation and the Oakland A's baseball team (we feature one of the exhibit's artworks in the photo above).

The task is a complicated one. The Midway is a relatively new complex that bills itself as a “sprawling 40,000 square-foot venue for the public to engage with a variety of exhibitions, workshops, performances and special events” with “art, food, music and emerging technologies under one synergistic and collaborative roof.”

Nevertheless, the complex is on track to eliminate plastic bottles by May, for all events. Single-use aluminum cans are still allowed as a more sustainable option, and The Midway is planning to introduce free filling stations for reusable bottles this year. In the meantime, bars at the complex are providing refills.

The scale of the venue provides for impactful action. For example, the The Midway Gallery and Artist Studios estimated that the venue would eliminate more than 25,000 plastic bottles on New Year’s Eve alone.

In an interesting coincidence of names, the Pacific island of Midway—the locus of a decisive World War II battle—has also become a focus for the fight against ocean plastic pollution.

No more plastic bottles at Glastonbury

Another plastic pollution prevention milestone arrived earlier this year, when the gigantic U.K. Glastonbury music festival announced that it is banning sales of single-use plastic bottles on its premises.

Attendees will be allowed to bring in their own plastic bottles, though festival promoters are encouraging them to bring reusable bottles and refill them onsite free of charge.

The move will make a considerable impact. According to the organizers, vendors at Glastonbury sold more than 1 million beverages in plastic bottles in 2017.

Partnering for an ocean plastic solution

One pattern that has already emerged from just these two examples is the importance of partnering with a knowledgeable organization.

The Midway’s partner, Lonely Whale, was organized in 2013 as a platform for “radical collaboration” to stop ocean plastic pollution. Fast Company named Lonely Whale among the “most innovative” organizations in the not-for-profit category for 2019, with this observation:

“Teaming up with Dell, General Motors, Trek Bicycles, Ikea and others, the organization launched an initiative called NextWave that calls on its member companies to do more to keep plastic out of the ocean by altering their packaging and supply chain. NextWave member companies are currently on track, in alignment with U.N. SDG 14.1, to have diverted a minimum of 25,000 [tons] of plastics, the equivalent to 1.2 billion single-use plastic water bottles, from entering the ocean by the end of the year 2025.”

Similarly, Glastonbury has engaged with the nonprofit organization WaterAid to provide 37 water refill kiosks at this year’s festival. Building on a long-running partnership with Glastonbury, WaterAid plans to arrive at the festival in force with 600 volunteers. In addition to refilling water bottles, the volunteers will work on tasks such as collecting recyclables and cleaning toilets.

WaterAid sees Glastonbury as a teaching opportunity:

“Without home comforts—whether queuing to get a drink, waiting to use the toilet or not being as clean as they’d like to be—festival-goers can start to understand what it’s like for more than 844 million people living without clean water and the 2.3 billion people with nowhere safe to go to the toilet. It therefore presents a great opportunity to show the difference our work is making across the world.”

Of whales and teachable moments

Speaking of whales and teachable opportunities, earlier this week images of a plastic-filled whale shocked the Internet. Researchers were horrified to find 88 pounds of plastic in the stomach of a young Cuvier’s beaked whale. The whale was found dying in Philippine waters, its stomach packed so tightly with plastic that it was “literally as hard as a baseball.”

As of press time, a complete list of the items in the whales’ stomach is not available. For the time being, the researchers did note that rice sacks were prevalent, along with plastic bags from local grocery chains.

Peak plastic: Over before it begins

The oil and gas industry has been banking on plastics and other petrochemicals to balance their bottom line as the transportation and building sectors begin to ease away from fossil sources. However, the recent actions by The Midway and Glastonbury are pointing to a fatal weakness in that strategy.

Interest in reducing ocean plastic pollution is already gathering steam, with recent bans on plastic straws functioning as conversation-starters for more action.

Among some of the notable moves taking place recently, AB InBev’s Corona brand is promoting its new non-plastic six-pack rings as part of an industrywide solution. Smaller brands like the high-end fashion company Mara Hoffman are also introducing recovered plastic fiber into their supply chains. In particular, plastic recovered from oceans and coastal communities has become a commodity. Another effort to monetize plastic waste is through new plastic-to-fuel technology.

Still another significant development in the area of monetization occurred last month, when the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) announced an new, energy-efficient method for upcycling PET plastic bottles and other plastic items in combination with bio-based compounds.

The new hybrid material, called fiber-reinforced plastic, is stronger than its virgin petroleum-based counterparts. According to NREL, the new material is sturdy enough for use in snowboards, wind turbines and vehicles.

On the heels of the aforementioned whale's death, look for the anti-plastic activity to accelerate as corporations seek more sustainable alternatives in their supply chains.

If stakeholders in the oil and gas sector are depending on plastics and petrochemicals for a lifeline, they may want start thinking about the next move after that.

Image credit: The Midway SF/Facebook

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey