The Final (Plastic) Straw

In common with the wider retail industry, cinemas are under fire over a lack of environmental sustainability. Patrick von Sychowski presents a special focus on exhibitors’ work to do the right thing.

Words by Patrick von Sychowski

On Wednesday, 4th April an email arrived in the inboxes of UK’s senior cinema managers and thousands of others. It began: “Big businesses are pumping plastic into our oceans and landfill. Here in the UK, plastic straws are one of our worst pollution problems. And big cinema chains like Cineworld, Odeon and Vue, who use thousands every day, are some of the biggest culprits.”

It went on to explain how the campaign by 38 Degrees would put pressure on these chains to replace plastic straws with paper ones. At the time of writing the campaign ( had 212,940 signatures. It’s not the first time campaigners have targetted cinemas, whether over calories in concessions or the Living Wage, but this time it was part of a groundswell that has forced big brands into adopting more sustainable products and practices, often with a speed that has taken seasoned observers by surprise.

Can cinemas follow the likes of Pret-A-Manger and McDonalds when it comes to becoming part of the circular economy and reduce, re-use and recycle more? While straws have become somewhat totemic, comprehensive action has to happen on a number of levels on both the consumer-facing packaging front and behind-the-scenes use of electricity and more.

1. Food and Films

Whether it likes it or not, cinemas are part of the food and beverage (F&B) retail industry and, as such, have to be part of changes underway everywhere form cafés to fast food franchises. The good news is that efforts are underway. Asked about it by CT magazine, UK Cinema Association’s CEO Phil Clapp noted that “The last year in particular has seen a great deal of activity amongst UK operators of all sizes to see what more might be done to reduce the use of plastics (including but also beyond the straws issue), increase the amount of recyclable material used and indeed to increase the amount of recycling.” He observed that “this has come about as much from a desire amongst these businesses to ‘do the right thing’ as it has from media and public pressure.”   

Efforts to demonstrate sustainable programmes to the industry were visible on the Coca-Cola stand at CineEurope in June. The Coca-Cola Company has been championing green initiatives across its business, such as its goal to replenish 100 per cent of the water it uses in its global sales volume back to communities by 2020. Coke now wants to help cinemas be more sustainable, through initiatives such as non-plastic straw replacements and selling drinks in PET bottles that are more easily recycled than cups. 

“Industry commitment towards the Circular Economy can be demonstrated through collaboration across a range of initiatives,” says Sarah Girling, co-founder of consultancy Blue Stocking Partnership (BSPL), which has worked with Coke, Odeon, McDonalds and others on a number of retail projects. She notes that “At CineEurope, Blue Stocking brought to life show sponsor Coca-Cola’s sustainable packaging programmes through the use of marine biodegradable straws; offering smartwater in PlantBottle packaging containing renewable and recycled plastic while encouraging recycling with the placement of three ‘Be A Star’ recycling stations.”

Observing that cinemas won’t be immune from the consumer forces pushing the rest of the F&B industry, Girling says that “customers have growing expectations about food and packaging waste and everyone should be playing a part.” The message is also that there are greater financial savings in preventing waste in the first instance than recycling waste produced.


2. Re-use  & Retain

While brands such as Pret-A-Manger have launched re-usable coffee cup initiatives, it is harder for cinemas to do the same. Sodas are fundamentally different to coffee — while there are collectible cups and popcorn buckets, it is rare for customers to bring these back on future visits and there are hygiene issues involved. Nevertheless, Cinemark Argentina launched a re-usable popcorn bucket in 2017 linked to a smart customer retention program offering discounts on re-fills.


The Technology View:

Loreto Boitano,  Concessions Manager at Cinemark

“Our former popcorn packaging was made from cardboard and could not be reused, so we looked for a more sustainable alternative. Our new bucket needed to add value to customers. Our supplier Fosko proposed an IML bucket with peelable IML labels in response. It’s proving a hit both for immediate sales results and long-term customer retention.” –

3. Cinema Initiatives

All chains contacted by CT magazine had implemented or were working on sustainability initiatives. Below is an overview of some of these efforts. Everyman’s head of marketing Hoss Ghonouie pointed out that, “we’re on board with recyclable paper straws and (as far as I know) are also the only cinema to use glassware only and no plastic cups across our estate — meaning no plastic and they last a lot longer.” With Everyman refurbishing old sites into boutique cinemas, the company makes “the best of existing buildings rather than going down the industrial estate route.”

Merlin Cinemas was “one of the first to use paper popcorn bags instead of plastic-lined tubs and boxes.” It announced on Facebook in April that “Plastic straws are being replaced with a biodegradable type, whilst as much take-away packaging as possible, is being changed to a card product.” It is also installing separate bins for recycling.

Empire Cinemas’ F&B director Gordon MacDonald told CT: “We have started to review the packaging we use to improve our sustainability,” but he admits, “It’s a frustratingly slow process!” Empire will have switched to paper straws by October and recyclable coffee cups by August. Hot dog and nacho trays were switched to paper several years ago.

Cineworld’s spokesperson said that the company “is always looking for ways to improve sustainability across all areas of our business, including promoting energy efficiency and reducing plastic and paper consumption. To promote more mindful plastic use, we have removed plastic straws from open display and are taking part in an initiative to remove plastic cutlery and straws from display at Starbucks concessions. Plastic straws are only provided to customers making drink orders or on request which has already led to a significant reduction in straw consumption while we search for more sustainable alternatives.”

In benchmarking exhibitors’ efforts remember that cinema is (relatively) a small industry, when compared to high-street fast food, take-away and coffee operations. “We don’t have high enough volumes for our current supplier to justify manufacturing biodegradable or recyclable paper tubs and cups,” explains Empire’s MacDonald. “We want the change but need larger volumes that would come should Cineworld, Odeon or Vue all decide to switch.”

Ultimately cinemas have to find sourcing, recycling and waste management solutions that are sustainable from both an environmental and a cost perspective. “Given the complexities of the sector and relationships with suppliers, change won’t be overnight, but we’re confident the current direction of travel can be supported and accelerated by a coherent industry-wide approach,” UKCA’s Phil Clapp notes. He also affirmed that “The UKCA has begun taking initial steps on the formulation of an industry-wide strategy in this regard and is currently working with members of all sizes to identify good and promising practice.”

The Technology View:

Kathryn Pritchard, Group Chief People Officer – Odeon Cinemas

“We’re working on a range of initiatives to reduce our energy consumption, and our use of plastic and other materials that cannot be recycled or composted,” says Odeon’s Kathryn Pritchard, pointing out that the size of Odeon’s operation across Europe makes changing supply chain a major logistical operation: “We’re working with our partners to create a more sustainable retail supply chain. This has to be an end-to-end process involving procurement, operations, and waste disposal. One priority is to reduce the amount of plastic in our retail system: identifying, sourcing and using more packaging that comes from recycled, renewable or certified sources. We’re currently evaluating a number of paper or compostable alternatives and will announce an update on straws and other packaging products this summer — we expect a rapid roll-out of suitable alternatives.”


Odeon currently has two active trials underway: for paper straws in the UK, and for compostable nacho trays in Germany.

4. What Can  Cinemas Do?

Exhibitors can tap into learnings from the wider F&B industry, such as the Sustainable Restaurant Association (, which has launched a guide to going plastic-free. The SRA recommends a five-step plan as a starter for those serious about reducing reliance on single-use plastic:

  • Complete a plastic audit — a thorough assessment of what you use
  • Identify what’s essential
  • Set reduction targets
  • Ask suppliers for packaging specs
  • Get your waste contractor to detail what they can and can’t recycle.

Another resource is the Waste and Resources Action Programme (, which “works with governments, businesses and communities to deliver practical solutions to improve resource efficiency.”

Informing patrons is also key — ultimately the consumers have to become active participants in any sustainability initiative.