A girl's quest to live on the greener side.

How to Be Zero Waste at the Movies

zero waste at the movies

By: Ariana Palmieri

I'll be honest: My boyfriend and I are frequent movie goers. We both like action and sci-fi movies best, so whenever a good one comes out we're on top of it. He's a huge fan of Star Wars specifically, so that's always a given, and I love super hero movies (omg, have you seen Infinity Wars yet?? GO). But I must admit, being zero waste at the movies isn't always easy. With all the ticket stubs they give out, the plastic-wrapped candies, the plastic-lined buckets of popcorn...all of it can be quite wasteful. Worse yet, my movie theater doesn't even have recycling. They just dump everything into the trash. That's why I decided, whenever I could, I would do my best to keep my waste at a minimum while at the movies. I never purchase candy there (just popcorn), and that's easier to make at home and bring in a glass jar (stashed in my bag of course). Maybe at some point I'll try to talk to the theater about changing their wasteful practices, but until then, I'll at least do my part. Since I'm sure I'm not the only zero waste movie goer, I figured it would be a good idea to share my tips and tricks with all of you greenifiers too. I've even included a sample letter (at the bottom of the post) you can use in case you decide to contact your local theater about introducing more zero waste options! Now without further ado, here's how to be zero waste at the movies.

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How to be zero waste at the movies

zero waste at the movies

Here are some tips and tricks that work for me. I hope they help you create as minimal waste as possible. Also, I've included a sample letter you can send to movie theaters near you who need to step up their zero waste game a little. Feel free to shoot them an email if you want - you never know what they'll say! Reaching out and making them aware of their waste may help them realize there are better options out there.
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Popcorn (and other snacks)

zero waste at the movies


If you know you're going to be heading to the movies, I recommend making your popcorn at home (if there's time) and placing it in a glass jar. It doesn't have to be a mason jar - any empty jar will do. 

I bought my popcorn kernels in bulk from my local health food store and they've lasted a long time so far. I pop them in a stainless steel pot with a little bit of olive oil. I then season it as I see fit (usually with just a little bit of salt) and place the popcorn in a glass jar. It's fun to try different flavors every once and a while (I once made sugar and cinnamon flavored popcorn which was delicious). You can get as creative as you like here.

Once you've made your popcorn, seasoned it, and put it in a glass jar, just plop it into your bag. If you're with kids (who are old enough) you can each give them a jar full of popcorn for themselves. You can also shop for candy in bulk before heading to the movie theater, if you prefer eating that while watching a flick. See what your local bulk food store has to offer (I know mine sells chocolate covered raisins so I may grab some of those next time). 

If you don't have access to bulk food stores, consider buying snacks from the movie theater that are packaged in easy to recycle cardboard boxes (make sure to hold onto them if your movie theater has no recycling options).

Of course, your best option is to avoid snacks altogether. This is the healthiest solution too. Grab dinner beforehand and you won't feel the need to snack as much.

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Bring your own drink (or ask for yours in a reusable mug)

zero waste at the movies

Movie theaters are infamous for their fountain drinks that come in plastic lined containers with plastic lids and straws. Try to avoid purchasing these. Instead, I just bring my reusable water bottle with me to the movies and keep it in my bag until I'm seated. 

If you prefer something other than water, try bringing a reusable mug with you and asking them to fill it with the fountain drinks they offer. Either that or stop by CVS beforehand - I have one right next to my movie theater - and get a drink in sustainable packaging. Typically, I get a Teavana iced tea which is packaged in a glass bottle I can easily reuse or recycle. I have reused one and it now works as a container for my homemade zero waste cashew milk. I stash it in my bag (right next to my jar of popcorn) until I'm seated in front of the big screen.

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Save (or recycle) your ticket stubs

zero waste at the movies

Ticket stubs are unavoidable at the movie theater. I have a ton of them. I keep all of them for sentimental value. You can place them in a memory box or random glass jar you have lying around (don't be like me and leave them scattered about your room). 

Also, depending on where you live, ticket stubs may be recyclable. I'm not sure if they can be recycled where I live (Staten Island, New York), and even after some digging it's still a mystery. Check with your local recycling laws before putting them into the recycling bin.

If you can't recycle them, here are some cool art projects you can use ticket stubs in

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Bring any leftovers home

Whatever you decide to bring (or get) at the movie theater, don't just throw it away if you can't finish it all by the end of the movie. Save it and bring it home with you to finish at a later time. Food waste is a big problem and contributes to methane gas - a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide. That's because when food is dumped in the trash and sent to landfill, it does not decompose the right way. Due to lack of moisture and soil, organic matter produces methane (and other gases) in landfills.

To avoid contributing to food waste, do your part and take your leftovers home with you. I usually never have any leftovers (I drink and eat everything I bring), but I know it can happen. Sometimes your eyes are bigger than your mouth! If you have leftover popcorn, consider giving it to a neighbor who has chickens (I've heard they quite like popcorn). Or just keep it and eat it yourself (make sure to seal it in an airtight container when you get home to prevent it from getting stale too quickly).

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Talk to the movie theater about more zero waste options

zero waste at the movies

If all else fails and you're absolutely repulsed at the waste your theater creates, consider talking to them about it. You can try contacting them via their social media pages, email or phone. Or maybe even asking for the manager while you're there. Start off by telling them how much you value their theater and love coming there to see movies. Then ease into the problems you've seen regarding waste in their theater (ticket stubs on the floor, no recycling, excessive plastic packaging waste). Don't dwell on this too long, just make them aware of what you've noticed. Finally, wrap up what you have to say by offering some zero waste alternatives (provide more than one option if you can), such as the possibility of offering bulk candy, a compost box for leftover popcorn, a ticket stub recycling box, etc. Give them your ideas and you may be surprised at how they respond!

Here is a sample letter of what you could send to your movie theater (or say over the phone/ in person):

Sample letter


Dear ( manager of theater/ movie theater name),

I absolutely love your movie theater and have been coming here many years. I really love the quality of your theaters and have made a lot of great memories in them.

I do my best to live zero waste, which means I refuse all single-use products in an attempt to divert as much trash to landfill as possible. I do this because too much plastic waste ends up polluting our waterways, lands, and our own backyards.

Unfortunately, your theater is not zero waste because (explain why and give expamples).

I would love to see your theater become more zero waste friendly. Might I suggest (2-3 options for a more zero waste theater that solves the problems listed earlier)?

Thank you for your time and I look forward to your feedback.

Sincerely,

(Your name)

* This letter template was modified and adapted from Green Indy Blog's zero waste feedback letter. Go check out her amazing blog! *

zero waste at the movies

Feel free to copy and paste this letter as needed. If you hear nothing back from the movie theater, remember to reach out again. Sometimes one letter isn't enough, or you should try a different approach (speaking to the manager may help, if you feel bold, or contacting them on social media). Whatever the case, you never know what response you'll get unless you try.

zero waste at the movies

How do you stay zero waste at the movies?

30 comments

  1. Most don't recycle because of the food that will be dumped in there in addition to the food residue. Look in the trash bin while you're there and you'll see why they don't do it.

    I bring my own popcorn in a ziplock, so much healthier as it's not cooked in palm oil and I can top it with butter or margarine instead of that questionable substance they call butter. I'm a wash and reuse till it falls apart kind of girl so no waste there and if there's any popcorn left, I throw it out in the yard for the birds. If you have a bird feeder you can put there too.

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    1. Yes, I've definitely noticed that the food mixes with the containers. But it would be great if they set up a compost bin where all the food could go and then a recycling bin for the other containers. I've seen this happen at one theater (not near me) and it worked very well!

      Also, that's great you're bringing your own popcorn in! Love the idea of reusing the ziplock bag. Would you be opposed to putting the popcorn in a glass jar in the future? Just curious. :)

      Thanks for the well thought out comment!

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  2. I use mason jars for about everything. I have a food saver and it literally has changed my life. I actually have cottage cheese in a vacuumed pint jar that's been there for 2 months! That being said, I won't carry mason jars around. First is the breakability bu secondly I use a cross-body bag to get the majority of the stress of carrying a purse off my neck. Adding the weight of a mason jar, especially since I'd already be carrying a beverage. And I don' know anyone who would be content wiht having so little popcorn ;)

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    1. That's great you use mason jars for so much! I love hearing that and do the same whenever I can. :) I freeze and store leftovers in mason jars (wrote a whole post about freezing food in mason jars on this blog too).

      I hear you in regards to it being breakable. I carry a cross-body bag as well. But I've had a lot of success with it so far! I only put a mason jar in my bag when I'm heading to the movies (since I fill it with popcorn) and usually it does just fine. I use a fairly big one so I can get a lot of popcorn in there. :D But hey, whatever floats your boat. If it's not broke, don't fix it kind of deal haha.

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  3. ... besides if I have a mason jar there you would clunk against my thermos! hahaha

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  4. I'm a little bit zero-waste. I go to a Harkins theater and reuse my plastic Member Rewards cup for my drink. Also, the popcorn there comes in bags, which yeah, end up getting thrown away. :/ But no popcorn is ever wasted. I tend to get the small bag and between me and my hubby, it's always gone. LOL

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    1. That's great that you re-use the cup! Too bad about the bags though, I must admit. :\ I'm glad the popcorn is at least eaten. What are the bags made out of? Plastic or paper? If it's paper you may be able to take it home and just compost it. :)

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  5. I like my popcorn mixed with Sno-Caps, thankfully Dollar Tree now carries them so I don't have to buy any snack while I'm there. My favorite theater where I used to live had a full-menu and bar, and they come right into the theater and wait on you. Man I miss that place! Once I move back, guess where I'm going... LOL

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    1. That's really cool! I think AMC theaters does that where you can sit and eat a full meal while watching a movie? I really want to visit one at some point to give that a try. As long as they serve the food with reusable cutlery, plates and cups, I'm a happy camper! lol :)

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    2. Dishes, glasses and flatware. For me, disposable plates and utensils are for large gatherings and even then you can tell people to scrape your plate and put it in a dish tub so you can rinse them before putting them in the recycling. I live in an apartment so no compost. So my occasional coffee grounds go down the drain, and if I'm fixing another pot I will reuse the filter (it's one of those half pot coffee makers). I haven't found a metal one but I keep looking. Same goes for a #2 cone for my porcelain one-cup drip. I don't like using that one if I can, it seems like you have to use more coffee.

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  7. theaters make most of their money on concessions --bringing your own popcorn is not allowed in most of the theaters I have attended --so you have to sneak it in --why not bring your own cloth bag for popcorn instead and have them fill it?

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  8. We went to Landmark Cinemas in the Vancouver area this week and we brought our own cups for the drink that came with our ticket. The person we asked said we couldn't use our own because the company counts each cup to order and they get in trouble if it doesn't match! He said we could use our own but he would have to take 2 cups and throw them out to count for our order. I was shocked! Time to write Landmark Cinemas a letter.

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  9. Our theaters are known to check bags to make sure you're not bringing food or drink in because they make most of their money off concessions. They have signs posted about sneaking food in. People still do it but it's definitely frowned upon in every theater I've ever been to

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  10. Those pop corn containers are made of a partially plasticized cardboard, to prevent any liquid/fat inside from leaking out, I believe. Thus rendering them unsuitable for composting, Yet another reason not to eat or drink at the movies. It's a public theatre, not a private living room. It makes noise that disturbs the viewing experience for others who payed to watch a movie in peace. Eating and drinking are not mandatory and it just ruins your appetite. This "tradition" started to turn movie goers into cash cows for concessions. Going zero waste is the perfect opportunity to end it, not to perpetuate it.

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