Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.
'U2 started an industry — and a movement,' Mike Martin, founder and CEO of r.Cup and Effect Partners who's been the band's environmental advisor since 2009, speaks to Cathleen Falsani at Sphere where the latest innovation in live-event sustainability also made its debut.
For their run of shows at Sphere in Las Vegas, U2 has partnered with r.World — Martin's new company that makes r.Cup and a whole line of other reusable serveware for live events — to make reusable plastic cups available at the world's most technologically innovative venue.
r.Cup's distinctive, hard plastic cups, which are free from PFAs (the nasty 'forever chemicals' that wreak havoc on the environment and our general health and can stick around for millennia), are designed to be used hundreds of times and are collected in special yellow-and-black bins situated next to traditional garbage and recycling bins. At the end of the night the r.Cups are 'harvested', packed up and taken to a local washing facility where they're sanitized and returned to the venue for re-use.
'The mission of r.Cup is to build the infrastructure, the platform, and the movement for the reuse economy', Martin said. 'Reduce, reuse, recycle. That is in priority of what you should do. Reduce the use of single-use plastics. If you can't reduce, then reuse. If you can't reuse, then recycle. If you can't recycle, it ends up in the trash.'
Martin's company first introduced reusable r.Cups to venues during the U2's Joshua Tree tour in 2017, and they were used again on the 2018 eXPERIENCE and iNNOCENCE Tour, as well as in some venues during 2019's Joshua Tree Tour of Australia, New Zealand, and Asia.
The sustainable r.Cups are part of ongoing efforts to combat single-use plastic waste, one of the most pressing environmental concerns globally. The live event industry —concerts, sports, and other entertainment gatherings large and small — contributes more than 4 billion single-use cups annually, most of which end up in landfills.
'Only nine percent of plastics are ever recycled — that's not effective recycling, that's “wish-cycling”,' Martin said recently as he walked through Sphere before a recent U2:UV show, straightening the yellow-topped black bins and signage directing fans where to return their used r.Cups.
'It takes three ounces of water per cup that we wash. I was really bummed about that until I learned that it takes 66 ounces of water to produce just one single-use plastic cup. And that same ratio applies to every environmental factor in terms of Co2 emission, toxins, all that stuff', he said.
When live entertainment effectively was shuttered worldwide during the early years of COVID, Martin and other leaders in the environmental movement realized that neither switching to single-use products made from materials other than plastic (such as aluminum) nor using compostable products were truly viable solutions to the single-use waste problem.
While aluminum cups might seem like a great alternative to plastic, according to Martin, 'the lifecycle analysis says a single-use aluminum cup has 86 percent more Co2 emissions than a single-use plastic cup and unless hand-sorted do not make it to recycling.'
'We've done all this research to figure out what to do', Martin continued. 'I hate plastic, but that's the best solution for now in terms of what we're optimizing for — the lowest Co2 emissions. That's what everybody's got to focus on'.
'People really want to do the right thing but there's so much misinformation out there', he said. 'A huge chunk of what we do is education.'
Rather than travel with touring artists as the company had in the past, now r.Cup partners directly with venues and sets up wash hubs in nearby economic development zones where they hire many so-called 'second chance' workers. 'We're hiring people who need to get a leg up', Martin said.
Part of the r.Cup program is educating venue employees from servers, bartenders, and custodians to the marketing department, guest services, and ushers about the reuse program long before fans arrive for a show.
Servers seem to love the r.Cup reuse program. Some of the appeal is practical: The sturdier plastic means draught beer doesn't foam as much, and they don't tip over as easily as single-use plastic cups. But it's more than that. 'They feel like schmucks for having given out so much single use plastic over their entire career. And secondly, guests love it, so there's a positive feedback loop and they even get better tips', Martin said.
Presently, r.Cup is working with venues and operating washing hubs in in Denver, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C. As word of the re-use model has spread, Martin even got a call from the White House wanting to know how federal government could implement reuse programs. On Earth Day in April, Martin hosted a day-long event where federal agencies made commitments to reuse programs.
'That's part of the movement-building', Martin said. 'We're targeting cultural institutions to help build momentum and that's part of why we wanted to be here…There's no higher profile venue in the world right now than Sphere'.
As noted in the official U2 UV Sphere Book, the band are committed to measuring the carbon emissions of their Sphere residency following science-based best practices and standards: 'Measures are being taken to reduce emissions where possible, such as the use of sustainable fuels, electric ground transportation, and reusable materials. U2 will also fund a portfolio of climate solutions that will prioritize projects that help capture carbon from the atmosphere and will aim to drawdown the equivalent or more emissions than the shows produce.'
One thing is clear: single-use plastics will soon be a thing of the past in live entertainment, Martin said. They've been banned already at venues in Germany and France. The UK is expected to follow suit in the new year and in San Francisco, as of July 1, 2024, single-use plastics will be verboten at all live-event venues with 2,000 or more seats, he said.
'When r.Cup started, we were the first reuse company in the country. There's now more than a hundred', Martin said. 'U2 started an industry — and a movement. We are the tip of the spear… the tip of the Sphere, actually'.
Addressing live touring's environmental impact - earlier stories:
The Little Things
Going Green (Part II)
Hydrogen-Powered Rock 'n' Roll