Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: How Movie Theaters Are Cutting Down on Waste

by Rebecca Pahle and Vassiliki Malouchou

Small theaters and large, dine-in theaters or traditional concessions—movie theaters generate a ton of waste. We’re talking popcorn buckets, soda cups, plastic straws, and candy boxes —front-of-house items, or those used by consumers—but also back-of-house detritus, like cardboard boxes and shipping material. The waste adds up. Shrinking the mountain of trash generated by the exhibition industry is a two-pronged affair: using recyclable products, and then getting people to actually recycle them. 

It’s a simple-sounding process that can actually be quite complicated—and requires the collaboration of exhibitors, vendors, and customers themselves.


“Some of the things that customers use are not currently recyclable, because they may have a plastic film on them,” explains Art Justice, director of utilities and energy management at Cinemark. Popcorn bags and soda cups typically (but not always—more on that later) fall under this category, while “aluminum cans, plastic bottles, candy boxes, hot dog boxes, kids meal boxes—all of those are recyclable.” Recyclable, but not always recycled—as anyone who’s walked past a trash bin filled with an indiscriminate mixture of post-screening waste can attest.

In part, this is an issue of customer awareness: people just not knowing what they can recycle and what they can’t. It’s an issue that Cinemark has attempted to combat with color-coded recycling containers, decorated with large, easy-to-understand graphics depicting what goes where. “We’ve tried to make it as intuitive as possible by using not just words, but pictures,” says Justice. 

Even that isn’t enough to combat the dreaded bottleneck. “It’s the biggest challenge we have,” says Justice. “You have 200, 300, maybe 400 people coming out [of an auditorium] at once.” Graphics on recycling containers don’t cut it—if customers don’t already know where they should put something, it’s probably going in the trash. To that end, Cinemark is planning to roll out a pre-show video that talks about the chain’s sustainability efforts—including an explanation of the containers, so that by the time the lights come up and customers gather their leftover popcorn bags and nacho trays, they already know where to put them. “I kind of relate it to being at home,” says Justice. “When I first started recycling, I had to think about what I was doing. But over time, you just become accustomed to it.”

“It’s absolutely true that consumers are often confused or unaware of how to recycle correctly,” agrees Coca-Cola’s global vice president, strategic partnership marketing, Krista Schulte. “Add that onto the fact that there are differing rules for what local recycling centers accept from municipality to municipality,” and the issue becomes even more complicated. At some Cinemark locations, Justice notes, “recycling just isn’t available” due to location regulations. At others, only cardboard can be recycled. On the other end of the spectrum, “in California there’s now an ordinance that requires composting.” All told, the chain has 185 locations where they recycle both front- and back-of-house materials.

Though these regional legislative differences can cut down on an exhibitor’s options for recycling, it can also create infrastructure that makes it easier. “It’s hard to find a compost service provider in some markets where the city government is not addressing waste concerns,” explains Karrie League, co-founder and head of the sustainability task force at Alamo Drafthouse. Over the course of one year, in Austin alone, they “have composted more than 600 tons of waste that would previously have gone into a landfill. This doesn’t include the amount of landfill trash that was saved through eliminating disposables or by our more rigorous recycling efforts,” including the creation of a sustainability task force designed to increase sustainability at all levels of the chain. “Our initiatives are currently being implemented in half the cities we are in. Over the next several years we hope to include all Alamo cinemas in the effort.”


For movie theaters, recycling isn’t only—or even necessarily mostly—a matter of customers putting their water bottles in the right bin as they leave the theater. Justice estimates that, in terms of weight, 65 percent of Cinemark’s waste comes from back-of-house operations. For Alamo Drafthouse, says League, most waste also comes from behind the scenes: “We have changed our front-of-house service ware so that almost everything is either washable or compostable. Back of house we have deliveries that come in all imaginable types of packaging.”

Many back-of-house items can be recycled—from the high-volume, like bins full of cardboard, to things like batteries and Sharpies, which local retailers often have recycling programs set up for. The problem, explains League, is “compliance. We have to get absolutely everybody educated and onboard. … We need for everyone to participate to make sure that all waste ends up in the right place. And that is very hard to achieve.” 

It starts at the top. League cites the case of Alamo’s events department, which is “responsible for putting on movie parties and special events.” The props given to guests for use at special screenings were being thrown away: “Plastic toys, inflatables, ribbons, hats, etc. Not to mention all the individual wrapping these came in. Now the head of the events department is selecting props more carefully so that they can be collected, sanitized, and reused.” 

Individual theater managers, too, have a role in cutting down their locations’ waste footprint. “It’s pretty encouraging, because we’ve had some managers say, ‘Hey, I need another recycle container. I’m filling this one up two or three times a week. I need new pickups, or I need a new container.’ We view that as a good thing,” says Justice.


For theaters who want to go even greener, there are vendors ready to go with them on that journey. “There have always sustainable options,” notes Beau Bartoni, vice president of sales and marketing at Packaging Concepts, Inc., even if “maybe they’re not always specifically marketed that way.” Since 2008, PCI has been making a recyclable popcorn bag. At CinemaCon, they introduced a paper drinking straw “develop[ed] specifically for cinemas”—meaning it will “perform well for an extended period of time,” says PCI’s vice president, technical director Adam Irace, not just the “10 to 15 minutes” required if you’re drinking a soda at a fast food restaurant. 

Another player in the eco-friendly landscape is Royal Corporation, which has “been actively engaged with developing green sustainable programs for just around 20 years,” says president George Abiaad. The company’s range of eco-friendly products includes “basic sanitary paper, an extensive variety of cleaning and sanitizing chemicals, food packaging and equipment, and many more”; he touts extensive use by national and regional circuits (including Cinemark) of their Revolution trash bag, which contains “over 90 percent EPA postconsumer waste content.”

A company as big as Coca-Cola, Schulte explains, is doing its part to make the theater industry more environmentally friendly. “We’re reimagining all of our packaging to make it better for our planet and our business. Coca-Cola Freestyle machines now utilize SmartPAK cartridges, which have a smaller carbon footprint than traditional syrup packaging and contain 15–30 percent recycled content. The plastic packaging we use today is far lighter than glass, which makes it easier and less energy-intensive to ship. But we are looking to bring that weight down even further, because every gram of plastic saved means less energy expended across our supply chain.” Cinema customers were also invited to their 2019 Sustainability Summit, giving them the opportunity “to learn about the latest sustainability practices across various industries. Each day, we continue to walk with them as we learn and grow in our efforts to decrease waste and increase sustainability.”

In addition, though Coca-Cola itself “does not produce cups and straws, we believe that every cup that carries a Coca-Cola beverage should have value in the circular economy, and we support our customers with cup recommendations and in-outlet recycling best practices,” says Schulte. In 2018 the company become a “consortium partner” in the Next Generation Cup Challenge, which has as its aim identifying and encouraging more eco-friendly alternatives to the traditional single-use cup. “The diverse solutions include cutting-edge plant-based materials, new innovative liners for cups, and reusable cup systems that redesign the fiber to-go cup so that it is more widely recoverable or remains in circulation for multiple uses. These cups exist in market, and over time we hope the cost will improve and use of these cups will be widely accepted.”


Cost can be a sticking point when it comes to purchasing any product, especially eco-friendly ones, which have a reputation for being more expensive than their nonrecyclable counterparts. Sometimes that’s true. PCI’s environmentally friendly popcorn bags “are usually less expensive than the regular bags,” explains Bartoni. If they were to make environmentally friendly popcorn tubs, however, the cost of the raw materials required would drive up cost to the consumer by “10, 20, to 30 percent,” explains Irace. “That hasn’t been something that people have been requesting, so we don’t cater to that.”

Sometimes eco-friendly products that cost more in the short term are designed to generate long-term savings. This is true of HaloVino, a plastic wine glass that is reusable, dishwasher-safe, stackable, and stemless. “It’s expensive to have a wine glass” instead of a standard plastic cup, founder Jessica Bell admits. “But we tend to look at price increase relative to increased revenue and cost control. One ounce of over pour can lead to a dollar to two dollars in loss of revenue. We have ounce lines on our cup,” making over pour easily preventable. Further, Bell argues, HaloVino’s unique design—engineered to aerate wine for a better drinking experience—ultimately drives sales. She says that a 5 percent increase in cost has led in some cases to an increase in wine sales by 20 or even 40 percent. 

At Alamo, League admits, “compostable straws cost more.” But staff members now ask guests if they want a straw instead of giving them one outright, leading to an overall decrease of the number of straws being used. Generally speaking, “by switching to washable/reusable products, there is a higher up-front cost, but we lose the ongoing cost of disposables. Compostable products are more expensive, but it drives us to find other solutions where we drastically cut down on the amount of those products that we use. All efforts to save water and energy end up in cost savings.”


“It does sound simple to say, ‘Hey, we decided we’re going to recycle!’ But as you introduce all these other elements, it becomes a challenge for sure,” says Cinemark’s Justice. If the challenge seems too insurmountable, it’s about time we turned to a case study that shows how theaters, customers, and vendors can work together to pull this whole thing off: 3-D glasses.

If it seems like customers automatically toss everything in the trash, regardless of whether it’s recyclable, it seems equally true that they’ve gotten pretty good at tossing their 3-D glasses in the appropriate receptacle so that they can be sent off, cleaned, and reused. According to RealD’s Mike Irvin, vice president, corporate initiatives, RealD has a “collection rate” on their glasses of 60 percent, up from 50 percent two years ago and three times larger than the approximately 20 percent collection rate they had in 2009, around the time Avatar was bringing scores of customers to a 3-D movie for the first time. 

The process of increasing that collection rate so dramatically, says RealD operations manager Brian Somers, has been one of “trial and error.” Initially, the collection boxes were smaller, darker, and lower to the ground than they currently are. People would frequently not see them. When they did see them, sometimes they would confuse them with trash cans. “What that was telling us was that the bins themselves were not labeled correctly, that we were not being direct enough in letting people know that this bin has a specific use, and that’s recycling,” says Irvin. The bins were given a pyramid-shaped top, so people couldn’t rest trash on them. They were given clearer labels. The newest generation of RealD’s recycling bins, currently in development, will be about six feet tall and a brighter, more easily visible shade than their current dark blue. The 40 percent of RealD glasses that don’t end up in the collection bins, as well as the plastic poly bags they come in, are made of recyclable plastic themselves, so they could be recycled locally. 

According to Irvin, “Sustainability was always a core value for” founder Michael Lewis. “From the very beginning,” Irwin notes, “we’ve tried to have our 3-D technology reflect our commitment to sustainability.” At the same time, “This program would not work if we didn’t have the support of the exhibitors.” That communication between RealD and its exhibitor partners provided a solution to the dreaded bottleneck problem: putting one recycling bin outside the auditorium and another in the lobby or elsewhere in the theater, with placement customized to the “pattern of flow” of each individual location. 

In order for RealD to reach the 60 percent collection rate they currently enjoy—and the higher collection rate they hope to reach in the future—they needed not just customers but also theater staff to know exactly what to do at all points during the process. “From the operation side, it’s literally a click of a button,” says director of global operations Robert Swan. When a theater orders eyewear, they can also order the collection boxes, called RSCs. “When that RSC is delivered to the theater, it’s already prelabeled. So as soon as that box is full of recycled eyewear, the theater just has to close it and put it out for next-day pickup. We have multiple pickups scheduled throughout the week, if not daily. Everything’s at no cost to the theaters. We’re supplying the RSCs, and we’re handling the shipping costs to return the eyewear.”

Looking toward the future, RealD has had conversations with exhibitors about getting messaging about recycling on the theaters’ apps. “How do you get customers to read messaging and get into the habit of recycling? The more points that they can see, the better,” says Somers. “That’s another thing that we have explored and continue to explore: the technology front and how that’s changing.”


A 2018 Nielsen study showed that 73 percent of consumers would change their consumption habits if doing so had a positive impact on the environment. “Everybody wants to recycle,” argues RealD’s Irvin. “They want to do the right thing.” That’s certainly the case for younger generations, who, argues Cinemark’s Justice, have grown up with recycling. “For them, it’s what they do. It’s not ‘Am I going to this?’ It’s ‘I am going to do this.’” When it comes to movie theaters, it takes determination and communication to turn that willingness into a reality.

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