An employee sorts plastics at the Recology recycling plant on Pier 96 in San Francisco. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)
Attending a live music event is thirsty work. Audiences drink a lot of water, leaving thousands of empty disposable plastic water bottles behind at the end of the night.
After years of shipping the mounting piles of bottles to recycling plants, some entertainment industry players, like The Midway, a music venue and gallery space in San Francisco, are starting to take a different approach to dealing with plastic waste: It allows people to bring in and refill their own water bottles. And in January, it switched from selling water in single-use plastic bottles at $4 each to resealable aluminum bottles at $6.
"We started to look at the numbers, and they were staggering," said Kelsey Issel, art program director of The Midway and its parent company, Non Plus Ultra. "Around 25,000 water bottles just on New Year's Eve alone."
Since ditching plastic, The Midway has cut its water bottle consumption by two-thirds, Issel said. She said plans are afoot to extend the plastic water sales ban to other Non Plus Ultra venues in San Francisco, such as the San Francisco Mint.
"We're really noticing the dramatic reduction in waste," Issel said.
People use 500 billion plastic bottles a year, according to a 2017 packaging trends report by market research firm Euromonitor International. Along with plastic straws, clamshells and bags, they’re a huge environmental hazard. Stories of sea life washing up on beaches around the world with plastics in their stomachs are becoming more commonplace.
And the recycling market for this material isn’t what it once was, now that China, which used to recycle about half of the world’s plastic, has slashed imports.
"When China said no more, it left countries and cities scrambling to figure out what they're going to do with all their plastics," said Robert Reed, spokesman for Recology, San Francisco's recycling company.
Along with many forms of plastic, Recology also processes aluminum cans, which are easier to recycle than other beverage containers, Reed said.
"There’s a worldwide market for aluminum cans," Reed said. "Very limited markets for the plastic."
The Fillmore, another music venue in San Francisco, switched from plastic bottles to aluminum cans in early May. General manager Amie Bailey-Knobler is happy about the company's change, part of a larger environmental effort by its parent company, Live Nation.
The Fillmore is part of the California Green Business Network, too. Like The Midway, it allows patrons to bring in their own water bottles. The venue also provides filling stations and compostable cups for those who don't have their own bottles or want to buy a can of water at the bar.
But Bailey-Knobler said hard metal surfaces can be a safety hazard at some events.
"Bands don't want canteens (metal water containers) or stuff like that in a crowd if there's a mosh pit kind of situation or something," Bailey-Knobler said.
Another issue is cost: Cans are more than four times the price of plastic bottles, Bailey-Knobler said.
The Fillmore, which is owned by a large entertainment corporation, said it can absorb the cost, but it's harder for a small local player like The Midway.
"It's a significant loss," Issel said of her company's switch to aluminum containers.
But Non Plus Ultra is willing to take the hit because of its commitment to reducing waste, said Issel. She hopes profit margins will improve as more eco-friendly manufacturers enter the market to meet consumer demand.
"So we imagine that not only will the price go down, but it will also be easier for us to get," Issel said.
"We don't want to see this in the environment anymore than anyone else," said DeFife.
And, he said, more efficient systems are needed to process the debris that concertgoers leave behind.
"If you're going to have that many people using disposable packaging, you're going to need additional waste management infrastructure to capture all of the material," DeFife said.
At the cavernous Recology recycling plant on San Francisco’s waterfront, Robert Reed watched as a hailstorm of plastic bottles pelted down from the rafters into a giant metal cage below.
"There’s just dozens of them falling down every few seconds," Reed said. "It gives you a sense of how fast they get consumed in San Francisco."
Reed said recycling and composting continue to be important in the fight against the ever-growing piles of trash. But what’s even more important right now is reducing the overall waste footprint.
"Do simple things so we don't make so much garbage," he said. "Like buying produce loose at the farmers market instead of wrapped in Saran wrap at the store. And bringing your own bottle the next time you go hear live music."