Green Cinema Revisited: Tips to becoming a more environmentally-responsible exhibitor

As seen in Screen Trade Magazine September 2019 Green Cinema: Revisited Issue

It’s a hopping Saturday evening. The kids are on a sleepover, and the wife and I, having just collected our movie-tickets at the box office, make our way over to the concession. Of course, as we approach the snack-counter, the pleasantly-hypnotic aroma of buttery-popcorn immediately fills the nostrils as our gaze roams before locking-in on the array of luminous candy colours emanating from behind the glassware. “Two large popcorns, please... a medium soda and a box of those M&M’s”, requests the wife to the staffer greetings us at the counter. Pulling out my wallet, I also order for myself a large iced-tea along with a tray of nachos to top the order off. As our snack-bounty almost instantaneously materialises, we’re directed to the napkin-and-straw trays at the condiment station to the right of the concession. Upon loading-up on condiments and other necessary wares, without a further thought we make our way to our seats. What a great action movie... and before we know it, our onscreen hero has all but saved the world as the rolling-credits start to kick-in. However, as the audience disperses and makes its way to out of the exits, we slowly ease out of our seats, feeling somewhat overwhelmed by all the packaging still in our laps. Two large, and mostly empty, popcorn buckets; two large paper soda cups complete with lids and straws; an empty large box of M&Ms; a food-tray with hardening left-over nacho cheese and a few used napkins. In fact, this is nothing compared to the figurative mountain of similar trash tossed onto the floor, and this is just one screen in a typical nine-screen theatre; and yet the amount of waste generated, even in here, becomes truly staggering. And, in as much as Cinema’s exhibition sector remains a contributor to this increasingly ugly state-of-affairs, there is much preventative as well as remedial action that may still be taken by us, as a body – that is, by those both inside and outside of the sector.


Although, too, as a nation, we’ve always automatically assumed that used packaging would be recycled, there’s been a lot in the news lately about us having a serious and growing packaging-waste problem. And it made us wonder what the above Maryland theatre, in particular, actually does with all of the used packaging that accumulates following each show. Also, since most people will consider plastics and paper-packaging to be indeed recyclable materials, it often comes as something of a huge shock to many when they learn instead about their, and others’, trash instead getting buried deep into landfill. However, despite some plastic packaging being recyclable, the surprising truth is that it doesn’t get recycled nearly as often as we might hope or expect, all of which means it’s accumulating in landfills as well as finding its way into the Atlantic due to wanton littering. As a consequence, many businesses the world over are switching from plastic-packaging to more sustainable materials, including paper. And while paper cups and other paper-based foodservice-packaging may well do something to ease environmental concerns for some on an emotional level – mainly, that is, because of ‘how sustainable it all looks and feels’ – the reality is that paper packaging also has its fair share of issues. What issues?


Well, as just one example, paper cups aren’t just paper, but instead come with a lining to make them able to contain liquids as well as to seal the paper in the cup at its seams. The most commonly-used lining is polyethylene* and this plastic-coating becomes incompatible with conventional paper-recycling systems, making it often too difficult to recycle, so that the majority of paper cups become sorted from the recycling process before then being diverted to a landfill site. It’s actually been reported that over 2.5bn paper coffee cups become discarded as trash in the UK each year; whilst, in the U.S., a combination of hot and cold cups results in over 50bn drinking cups facing the same eventuality. In fact, the same polyethylene coating is also often used in other disposable paper-barrier packaging, which includes Cinema’s ice-cream tubs, popcorn-buckets, food-trays and take-out boxes, and so the scale of the problem remains far from in significant.


In determining which sustainable packaging alternatives remain worthy of consideration, it’s important first to understand what is referred to as the ‘end-of-life packaging hierarchy’. This end-of-life hierarchy, as advocated by industry experts, is established by sifting-out the best-to-worst approaches in addressing packaging-waste and goes something like:’ Reduce’, ‘Reuse’, ‘Recycle’, and then ‘Compost’, ‘Incinerate, and ‘Landfill’. In other words: whenever it is possible to reduce, reuse and/or recycle used packaging, we are doing better than those opting to compost, incinerate or landfill the same materials. Also, when evaluating sustainable packaging alternatives, it’s important that they address each of the necessary performance, economic and environmental criteria. The packaging obviously has to be fit-for-purpose and to work well since it has to prevent the leakage of oils from a popcorn tub or, say, soda from a theatre’s paper drinking cup. Critically, the packaging also has to be affordable and not to negatively affect the profit-margins of the products being sold in them. And, lastly, there has to be a legitimate all-round environmental benefit or else there hasn’t been anything gained by the use of sustainable packaging. All this being so, what are the options?


One of the options available is ‘compostable paper foodservice packaging’. Unlike a petroleum-based plastic coating, this type of packaging typically uses a plastic coating derived from plant-sources such as corn or sugar cane; and the goal of compostable packaging obviously is to compost it instead of recycling. But to fully-capitalise upon compostable packaging, it’s important to know if industrial composting is available in your region, as well as offered by your waste-haulier. But, unfortunately – as of the present time – only in very rare circumstances do waste-service providers or municipalities sort for compostable-packaging because they don’t yet have the necessary industrial composting infrastructure. Consumers typically have a fanciful misconception that compostable packaging that doesn’t get composted will still have a better environmental impact, but unless the compostable packaging actually does become properly composted then, sadly, that packaging is still destined for landfill.

Therefore, since recycling remains a better outcome, paper packaging that is recyclable would be the ideal situation. And while that hasn’t been an option for many years with polyethylene coatings, there are recent developments that have finally made paperboard for foodservice recyclable. For example, there are applied coatings for paperboard packaging which use some 40-51% less plastic in paper cup-production and foodservice-packaging that are designed to be easily pulped into recycled paper products using conventional paper-recycling equipment. Such paper cups have been recognised as being recyclable all along (and, most recently, receiving the highest AAA rating from The Green Dot, one of the recycling industry’s most respected certifying groups), as well as qualified to be recycled alongside uncoated paper.


We spoke initially with Todd Gasparik, Vice President at California-based Smart Planet Technologies, an engineering company focused upon developing recyclable packaging solutions – and his we felt to be a balanced view given that the company neither actually produces nor sells packaging, but rather licenses its proprietary technology to the packaging industry. “The first step in the process of paper cup-recycling”, begins Gasparik, “is to make it both valuable and easy for recyclers to pulp into recycled paper products by using conventional paper recycling equipment, and at our company we’ve developed paper-based packaging solutions that offer recycling while also using less plastic”. We learned that packaging this way is now also available to the Movie Theatre industry and has the potential to make a sizeable difference in the paper cup and foodservice packaging waste problem, or at least in America, Australia and the UK, at present.

Of those prepared to talk to us – and on this critical subject, surprisingly, several weren’t, we should add – we also sought other expert opinions in the packaging and waste-management fields to determine their thoughts on both the concept and execution of sustainable-packaging. First up was Eric Kovaraskis, proprietor of Pureco, a paper cup and foodservice-packaging manufacturer which has been making paper products for the Cinema industry for the past eight years. Pureco produces all manner of cinema-packaging including paper cups, popcorn buckets, food-trays, ice-cream cups, also paper-straws and even paper lids. For him, when asked about the most sustainable-packaging options for Exhibition today, he first agreed that paper cups and foodservice-packaging should be recycled both whenever and wherever possible, and that whilst poly-coated paper products will work fine, they often tended to end up in landfill, which obviously isn’t good. Also that while, at first glance, he believed that compostable packaging made good sense, this actually runs slower on his machines, also costs more to produce and typically ends up in landfill along with the poly-coated packaging, anyway, on account of the present lack of good composting-infrastructure. The most promising commercially-available solution to date, he agreed, is [EarthCoating], a mineral-blended resin that runs best on his machines, costs about the same as poly, and can be used to make paper cups and other products requiring less plastic and are designed for easeof- recycling. Further, while his company still ‘offers all options’ – including poly-coated and compostable paper cups and foodservice-packaging, and remains receptive to running a variety of alternative products in the hope of testing for sustainable solutions – he anticipates switching all of its polyethylene-coated paper cup business to mineral-blended resins in the near future. For him, the pricing is also right and the environmental benefits significant. And while it is also true that his customers admit being unable to tell the difference, they seem to be much happier going with the eco-friendlier solution.

Next, we spoke with Oliver Lloyd, owner of Magenta, a UK-based foodservice distributor who was asked if he’d noted any recent increases in demand for good ecosolutions; also which products he’d sold the most of and why. He replied: “Yes, our business is largely focused upon providing customers with environmentally-friendly solutions for their packaging needs and indeed we sell a variety of products... but over the last few months we’ve seen a huge demand for recyclable and compostable paper products. While we’re currently selling both solutions, we find that the recyclable paper products are proving more cost-effective. We also recognise the fact that, here in the UK, we lack the necessary composting infrastructure to ensure compostable products actually do get properly composted. We also have a private-label brand called ‘The 100% Recyclable Paper Cup’ which most of our customers prefer to use in support of their sustainable packaging initiatives”. Among good examples of customers who have used the company’s recyclable cups and actually had them recycled, Lloyd stated that, only in June, Virgin Sports had used its 100% Recyclable Paper Cup for its marathons and with the cups, post-race, being gathered-up and recycled into brand new paper products.

Australia-based cinema group, Village Entertainment is one exhibitor already onboard. Its marketing manager, Nic Robin, had declared Village to be the first cinema operation in Australia to be using its disposable products. The company is also shortly to progress a six-month roll out program for its cups, cup-lids and straws across the entire circuit, along with other slow-moving supplies to follow, while feeling this to be a critical step in reducing its sole reliance upon single use plastic products.

Another Australian organisation, the foodservice packaging-distributor, SuperPop Cinema Supplies, too agreed that paper cups and foodservice-packaging made with mineral-blended-resins offered the ‘best of both worlds’ for its clients who remain concerned also aboutdoing the right thing by the environment. Declared Michael Conole, the National Operations Manager for the company: “The packaging looks and performs just the same as our current packaging while, at the same time, uses far less plastic as well as being designed to be easily recycled… and we’re thrilled to be offering this solution to our customers in support both of plastic reduction and increased recycling”.


Paper cups that are sufficiently valuable, as well as easy enough for recyclers to process into new paper products, can begin being used at any location at which the opportunity to ‘close-the-loop’ and to start recycling them becomes available. And so, from this premise, perhaps the question that remains is one of how we might increase the value of our recyclables. How do we do that? Already, there are multiple-recyclers, shredders and material-sourcing companies around the world seeking-out valuable materials to collect for recycling. Paper products that are made with less plastic are more disposed for recycling and, ideally, these items should be separated upon discard to ensure recyclers have materials that are clean, dry and valuable to resell on to recycling-papermills. In the event that the waste is not sorted, the recyclers can extract recyclable materials as there’s still inherent value, but there may be additional costs for the time and effort resulting in a lower rebate for participating cinemas for the volume of recyclables actually sold to the local material recovery facility.


As select movie theatres around the world begin to be subjected to environmental mandates being issued by local municipalities and state legislatures, it feels like only a matter of time before the Cinema industry, and other business sectors, will need to make rapid changes in support of sustainability. Although recyclability and compostability claims differ throughout the world, the end-of-life hierarchy is already clear and advancements in sustainable-packaging and waste-diversion need to be better adopted by the sector.That said, and irrespective of the methods you choose to collect your recyclables, the first step in doing right by the environment is to use packaging designed to minimise the initial environmental impact. Solving our global waste problem requires incremental progress from all parties involved. Cinema industry members are now encouraged to use paper products made containing less plastic and that are both valuable and easy for paper-recyclers to convert into new recycled paper products. Once these materials are being used, the recycling industry can do what it does best: that is, extracting value from the waste-stream for re-use.


An important rider about Greenwashing: the ‘whitewashing’ equivalent for environmental initiatives. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, ‘Greenwashing’ is defined as: ‘Expressions of environmentalist concern, especially those employed as a cover for products, policies or activities’. Therefore, as global demand for sustainable packaging solutions continues to rise, many commercial packaging companies have indeed also begun marketing ‘environmentally-friendly’ products. Unfortunately, several of these socalled ‘green alternatives’ are doing a good job in misleading consumers into a false sense of environmental stewardship because of the claims being made and/or even because of the eco-artwork that’s used – a green environmentally-certified ‘tick’ on the side of the cola cup, for example. Also, will it all be truly compostable paper packaging? As a for instance, ‘compostable paper-packaging’ may very well sound like a great idea in comparison to sending the same used packaging to landfill; however, when we take into consideration the serious lack of industrial composting facilities throughout the globe, it’s unrealistic to truly believe that these materials actually will become fully composted. Therefore, just stating eco-friendly intent can amount to mere greenwashing because, sadly, most of these ‘green-looking’ compostable products actually cost more than conventional polycoated paper-packaging and will end up in landfill sites just the same. It’s a con. And even if there was a pretty good commercial composting infrastructure, we should then be asking why we would be putting paper cups and foodservice-packaging into the ground following the same single-usage? This also represents a waste of virgin fibre that both could and should be recycled – the fibres are long and strong enough to be pulped up to seven times. And what, too, if we turned paper cups and popcorn-tubs into copy paper or even moulded pulp trays?


Another example of greenwashing has to do with those claiming ‘plastic-free’ paper cups and foodservice- packaging. And while the idea may, again, sound really worthy, the reality is that most of the ‘plasticfree’ paperboard barrier-packaging options being promoted do make use of plastic in some form or another. This is often because in order for a paper cup or foodservice packaging application to be formed, it must be heat-sealed into shape and thus requires some form of plastic to be heated-up and sealed together. Another good reason is for barrier performance; that is, while press-line aqueous coatings may offer some moisture-resistance – in order for a paper cup or foodservice-package to withstand the rigours of liquid, grease, oils or fatty acids – often heavy use is made of latex and/or acrylics which, again, are... plastics. This kind of marketing certainly lulls consumers into feeling good about using products that often still end-up in landfill (because of the unsuitability of the materials being used) but, in order to truly address our growing waste issues, we need to be asking ourselves, also our cinema operations at all levels, the self-same fundamental question we’ve been asking all along, namely: ‘where will this packaging end-up following use?’. There is no way to solve the problem immediately, however, there are some (green baby) steps that can be taken to make incremental progress in the right direction. As already stated, the first step to getting paper cups recycled is to make them valuable and easy for recyclers to process into recycled-paper products using conventional paper-recycling equipment.


Amid efforts to avoid plastic-packaging, some packagingsolutions being offered can, unwittingly, present even bigger problems. In recent years, bowls and trays made from moulded-pulp have become popular alternatives to plastic-packaging. Such bowls and trays are often used for foodservice such as salads and nachos and while the moulded-pulp bowls and trays are actually ‘plastic-free’ – and marketed as ‘compostable’ – they’re often coated with fluorinated-chemicals which have been shown to be potentially carcinogenic when ingested. In addition, these chemicals are non-biodegradable and can persist in the soil after composting, winding up later in the food products harvested. Recently, Chipotle, among other restaurants, had received negative publicity after being found to be using these bowls and trays, thereby exposing their customers to these chemicals. These are identified via such acronyms as PFAs, PFOAs and Gen-X. Therefore, when making foodservice-packaging decisions at your cinemas, it is critical to confirm non-toxicity and, in particular, also freedom from fluorinated-chemicals.


Again, once paper cups, popcorn-tubs and other paper foodservice-packaging is made sufficiently valuable and convenient for recyclers to process, cinemas have an excellent opportunity to incentivise their movie-goers, and others, by creating in-house ‘recycling reward programs’. For example, what if movie-goers could scan their used paper cups or popcorn-tubs and then immediately scan the recycling bin they put them into for an opportunity to win free popcorn or tickets for next time, and thus going some way to helping to ensure customer loyalty? Or, perhaps for a chance to meet the star or other key player in the movie if this can be arranged, perhaps following a Q&A? All of a sudden, the used paper cups – once merely trash – now become valuable and not dissimilar to that of a small-win lottery ticket, and thus become worthy of collecting. And, from the movie theatre’s viewpoint, such could even help reduce screenturnaround times for many of the busier shows as well as in general. Some other examples of useful recyclingreward programmes that could be implemented at your cinemas, perhaps, are as follows:

• An organisation which has been setting its sights upon creating ‘waste-free communities’, and rewards its members for reducing waste as well as for learning how to reduce waste, emphasising that, ‘together, we can all help to make the world a cleaner, greener place’.

• Simply point the camera and scan the label on a coffee cup or a water-bottle purchased, in this case, at the cinema concession. Identifies and guides on how and where to recycle waste responsibly. It has a growing of network of ‘HELPFUL bins’ where it can guarantee that the plastic you deposit will be recycled and given a second life.

• If looking for a sustainable way to offer your movie-going customers a reusable cup, you can now literally ‘cut the rubbish’ by offering your drinks in a recyclable single-use-cup. RecycleMe™ is a takeaway cup with a ‘next-generation lining’, and with a specially-designed collection network, guaranteeing that cups collected will be diverted from landfill and recycled into high quality paper products. Also, with RecycleMe™ collection points now in Australia, New Zealand and the UK, its network is expanding further to cut the rubbish.

• – A new material-sourcing platform that leverages existing recycling assets and provides participating brands with an online dashboard and realtime landfill waste-diversion metrics.


By way of conclusion, it’s clear that there is overwhelming scientific as well as media evidence of a growing global waste-management problem, with which cinemas – as other business sectors, also – must grapple, and with the need for further immediate remedial action when it comes to plastic pollution-solutions. It is clear also that existing paper-packaging options remain, at best, something of a curate’s egg: there have been positive strides made along with some successes, but also a lot of misinformation-dissemination which, in turn, has managed to mislead as well as create confusion. It is hoped that this article has helped in going some way towards unpicking a few of the more pressing paper/packaging recycling issues which, amongst others, our Exhibition sector faces daily; whilst directing, too, a more effective course applicable across the industry’s various management strata, including individual staff-layers, and even extending to motivating individual movie-going customers, too.