Dealing with cinema’s waste problem (without giving up delicious popcorn)

We’re nearly at the end of Plastic-Free July, a monthly reminder that waste is bad, recycling isn’t really working, and that we should change our habits for the better. I say this not as a Greenpeace ambassador but as a lover of movies who has contributed to cinema’s longstanding problem with waste. And I want to change.

I recently brought a container to a movie theatre (I won’t name them) in an attempt to get my beloved popcorn without the waste. I asked the cashier if they could fill my container with a small-sized popcorn. She reckoned it would only hold a child-sized order. I agreed. It saved me money. Win win. Mission complete.

Except, it wasn’t. This cinema worked on an order system. She typed in the order, another person prepared the order. So while there’s a button for ‘tiny child’s popcorn’, there is no option for the hippie who brought his own container.

When my order was ready, I got my tiny child’s popcorn in a use-once box destined for the landfill. I then had to ask for my container back. It was as awkward as it sounds.

It’s not exactly the staff’s fault. The cashier I talked to was more than happy to accommodate my waste-free method. Unfortunately, they functioned on a system that does not.

Cinema Waste: a flowchart

Most cinemas don’t cater to waste-free options. Since prepackaged goods allow candy bars to run at maximum efficiency, you’ll often see pre-boxed popcorn sitting in warmer cabinets next to bottled drinks and plastic-bagged Maltesers.

When the movie’s done, you have to shimmy through a cesspool of waste left behind by audiences who either don’t care about their mess or cannot fit their rubbish into an overstuffed bin too small to handle us filthy monsters. Talk to anyone who’s worked in a movie theatre about post-film clean-up and they’ll likely start shaking from the horrible memories.

How do we deal with this? Well, one blunt answer is to just not buy snacks and drinks at all.

But I don’t like that answer. Many cinemas, independent ones especially, rely on snack bar purchases for income and I want to contribute to my local. I’m also a glutton for popcorn and will always choose a freshly-warmed batch over a pre-microwaved container hidden in my scumbag jacket.

Another option? Bring the refillery revolution to cinemas.

“What the hell’s a refillery,” you ask? It’s a store like Bin Inn or GoodFor that allows you to put food and other consumables into any container you have on you (refill them, if you will). Think of it like a pick-n-mix aisle, but an entire supermarket.

via GoodFor

Some cinemas already have pick-n-mix aisles for candy, so refillery options wouldn’t be a Grand Canyon-sized leap for big chains to make. Whether it’s a pay-by-weight option or a dollar-per-scoop sort of deal, just providing consumers choices could go a long way to contributing to a necessary change.

And consider those who buy collector’s cups and one-of-a-kind popcorn buckets that go unused after the Day One screening of Avengers: Endgame. Why not reward those who actively purchase, reuse your merch, and stay loyal to your cinema? As of writing, Hoyts are already preparing a Free Popcorn Refills deal with their new Loyalty Program.

This can work.

Will this one change save the planet, though? Absolutely not. There’s no ‘one quick fix’ to sustainability. And narrowing this down to cinemas, a place not as commonly visited as—say—a supermarket, it’d be an even taller ask for Average Sam to remember their popcorn container for their twice-a-year trip to the cinema.

But while it’s not a snap-of-the-fingers solution, it’s an option for the cinema loyalists as well as a visual reminder for anyone at a cinema to consider their waste uptake. That makes a difference.

I say all this as a man who loves cinema as much as he loves planet Earth. I want to be able to support both but the options are not there—not yet.

Cinemas, please help. I do not want to buy waste. I just want your delicious popcorn.