Exploding Plastic Inevitable: One Venue’s Quest to Banish Single-Use Water Bottles

The Midway convened a multimedia discussion and exhibit in March to discuss the importance of reducing plastic, while taking on the challenge internally.

One of Natural Plasticity’s giant inflatable water bottles. (Photo by Peter Lawrence Kane)

Polythene Pam was good-looking — you could say she was attractively built — but polyethylene terephthalate, the plastic that water bottles are made out of, is not attractively built. It’s even less attractively disposed of. Accounting for roughly a third of all plastic production, polyethylene collects on beaches, in the stomachs of whales, and in remote islands thousands of miles from the nearest vending machine.

You know the routine by now. The planet is choking on single-use plastics that were designed to be tossed and which almost inevitably escape the landfills into which they are carelessly thrown, destined for the sea, where they either endure for centuries or swirl around slowly decomposing in giant oceanic vortices. Last year, it was plastic straws, and this year, it’s bottles.

To combat the scourge of single-use plastic — water bottles, in particular — The Midway convened representatives from organizations such as Lonely Whale, the International Ocean Film Festival, and the Oakland A’s one Friday in March for “Ocean Bound,” to discuss the ways in which stadiums and other public venues can reduce their consumption. Because The Midway is a cultural hub, these were juxtaposed with documentary films about the accumulation of plastic in the Global South plus some impressive multimedia artworks, such as Zaria Forman’s Ice Crispies, a sound installation consisting of field recordings of glaciers melting. (Coincidentally, “Ocean Bound” fell on the same day as the Student Climate Strike, which was also the day that Coca-Cola finally disclosed that it uses three million tons of plastic every year.)

While there was a fair amount of Davos-y chatter about “leveraging the power of brands” and “impactful [sic], market-based change” — if we’re subordinating the climate crisis to the sanctity of corporate hegemony, we’re truly fucked — the sincerity and dedication were obvious. Dinner was from Luke’s Lobster, the certified B Corp. that opened over the winter on Second Street and which is obsessively focused on maintaining a sustainable supply chain, and everyone present genuinely seemed invested in the urgency of finding solutions.

The Midway itself is among the more admirable institutions in its zeal to do better. Having made a big push to switch to aluminum water bottles prior to New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, it’s taking a page from San Francisco City Hall, which banned their sale on municipal properties several years ago.

“I think it’s about time that the venues and the rest of the entertainment aspect of it falls in line with what truly is the right thing to do,” said Jordan Langer, president of Non Plus Ultra (the Midway’s parent company, which also manages the Palace of Fine Arts, the Old Mint, Jones, Big, and SVN West, originally the Fillmore West and for many years, a white elephant above a Honda dealership). “I have two little boys, and it’s scary to think about it now, but there’s talk about ‘The world’s going to end in 12 years.’ What can we do on a daily basis? A very easy thing we can do is not contribute to the problem.”

The Midway used to go through 300,000 bottles a year, more than 800 every day (or one every two minutes). Company-wide, the figure is closer to 1.5 million. They’re fanatical about trash separation, but they know that recycling and composting don’t end at the blue and green bins and most things end up where they shouldn’t. While you can order a hundred pallets of Crystal Geyser from Costco and have them arrive within hours, sourcing aluminum bottles proved much trickier (and the act of unloading them from the truck required the entire staff to work for hours). But unlike the surprisingly vociferous opposition to bans on plastic straws, there hasn’t been much grumbling.

“It’s been easier for our customers than it has been for us,” said Kelsey Issel, the Midway’s art director (and the curator of “Ocean Bound”). “The cost difference between what we were paying in plastic versus aluminum was five-fold, whereas our customers are paying more and they know a dollar is being donated and we have these resealable bottles to fill up, so the cost difference isn’t as much. We haven’t gotten the pushback here.”

In sum, it’s now $6 to buy water at The Midway, which hosts its share of raves, after-hours parties, and events where water consumption runs high. While the staff are still working out the mechanics of refill stations (so it doesn’t take anyone 20 minutes of queueing just to hydrate) the principle is that patrons pay more up front. But if they get the equivalent of six waters out of that one bottle, the Midway has cut back on all the plastic, along with five-sixths of the metal, and thirsty partiers come out money-ahead. Presumably, the venue is forgoing the money it would otherwise earn on bottled water’s substantial markup, but the point is to help shift the culture of uncritical reliance on all that unnecessary packaging. You may also bring outside bottles in, as long as they’re demonstrably empty upon arrival.

“Only 9 percent of our recyclables are actually recycled,” Issel said. “That’s a jaw-dropping number that not a lot of people know, even here, and that’s why we’re so happy to partner with Lonely Whale on this. They have the capacity to educate the public like no one else can.”

When people looking to duplicate these efforts ask how much money the Midway is saving, both Issel and Langer laugh — because it’s not. Very near to where Natural Plasticity’s Oldeberg-esque inflatable post-consumer sculptures of a plastic straw and a water bottle had been set up, Langer mused about the eventual tipping point.

“It’s going to be a thing where it becomes a lot more sustainable, and then it becomes the norm,” he said. “Just like water bottles became the norm 15 years ago.”

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