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r.Cup, a reusable cup system designed as an alternative to single-use waste, uses clear cups for alcohol and opaque cups for other beverages. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Next time you’re out listening to live music in metro Denver, and you take that last swig of tasty beverage while thinking about an encore, take a look at the cup before tossing it carelessly on the floor. 

At some of the most popular concert venues around the city, the throwaway plastic that littered dance floors and confounded recycling-minded patrons is no longer a thing. 

Music promoters AEG Rocky Mountain Presents have given up single-use plastic cups. From now on, all the Colorado venues controlled by AEG – the Ogden, the Bluebird, the Gothic, Mission Ballroom and, this spring, Fiddler’s Green – will wash and reuse plastic cups built to last through 500 uses. 

Leaving the crunchy sound to the electric guitars and not the drinking cups is part of a sustainability trend in entertainment and recreation, as promoters tune their venues to match the environmental sensibilities of their customers. Copper Mountain has given up 16-ounce plastic cups for recyclable aluminum made by Ball Aluminum, and Copper parent POWDR Corp. is trying it at Eldora as well. 

AEG Presents is using the r.Cup system developed after consulting with environmentally minded international acts like U2, Maggie Rogers, Jack Johnson and Steve Miller. Some musicians have asked promoters to examine the environmental costs of every aspect of live entertainment, from plane flights to trucked amplifiers to catering. 

The cup company says 95% of customers are putting the reuse-marked cups in the return bins, and are happy to get a new shot at recycling, said chief marketing officer Keiko Niccolini in New York. Reception at more than a dozen shows so far in Denver has been terrific, Niccolini says. 

Colorado’s beat-tapping environmental community is thrilled. 

“Like most Colorado music fans, I go to many shows and get a bit fed up with the amount of plastic that remains on the ground after people exit the venue,” said Josh Valentine, a regular concert-goer and spokesman for the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. 

Aydan Yarano, operations manager at r.Cup, arranges cups on Jan. 13, 2022. r.Cup is a reusable cup system designed as an alternative to single-use waste, especially during music and sporting events. r.Cup collects, washes, sanitizes, inspects and then repackages cups for reuse. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

“This is a no-brainer and a perfect match for the music community in Colorado, and especially Denver, which has one of the most vibrant live music scenes in the world,” Valentine said. 

Denver’s office of Climate Action, Sustainability and Resiliency is also a loud fan of the performance cups. 

“We think this is great news for Denver, as the success of this project will help reduce our collective waste,” said CASR Manager Charlotte Pitt. “We are interested to learn how this model can work for other venues and events, and I think visitors and customers will appreciate that these venues are leading the way in rethinking their waste habits.”

Engineering the cups properly is a bit tricky, Niccolini noted. Excise laws dictate the cups meant to hold alcohol be see-through, and the material needs to stay palatable through multiple washes. r.Cup and AEG are also watching to see if they’ve over-engineered the cups and could save resources with future changes – they are designed to last 500 cycles, but customer habits may mean the average cup only survives a few dozen uses. 

Re-using cups began at concerts in the European Union, Niccolini said, which is “a few years ahead” on recycling in entertainment. Further tests were made on U.S. tours with bands like Dave Matthews and the Rolling Stones before fixed-venue promoters like AEG Presents signed up. 

Other entertainment venues in the Rocky Mountains are now talking with the cup company, Niccolini said, and they expect the idea to expand. 

“From an energy efficiency and environmental standpoint, it’s win-win,” said SWEEP’s Valentine. “It takes a lot less power to clean drinkware than to produce it, ship it, and dispose of it. Not to mention the decrease in waste and pollution.”

Copper’s move to aluminum 16 ounce cups in company-owned food facilities will reduce plastic waste at the resort by 6,600 pounds a year, said project and efficiency manager Jeff Grasser, in email responses. Independent food services are not part of the plan yet, Grasser said. 

The aluminum cups at Copper or Eldora are recyclable just like an aluminum beer or soda can, and are collected in existing recycling bins. The cups are initially more expensive, but bulk buying helps. Aluminum containers can be melted and remade indefinitely, and recycling represents up to 90% savings over the energy-intensive initial smelting process of new aluminum. 

Ball is working on offering other cup sizes in the same recyclable format, Grasser said. 

“Existing recyclable plastics have major limitations on how many times they can be recycled, and are often downcycled in value due to contaminants,” he added. 

For the AEG Presents agreement, r.Cup set up one of its “Wash Hubs” in an enterprise zone in north Denver, though the company did not receive assistance from the city climate office, Pitt said. r.Cup says it is working with local agencies to be a Second Chance hiring center for the formerly incarcerated and to increase employment in an underserved area.

If major sports arenas sign up, an r.Cup manager said, the Denver hub could handle many more circulating cups. Future versions could feature an RFID sticker on the bottom that would show where unreturned cups end up. Another branch of r.Cup produces takeout and delivery food containers that can also be tracked, returned and reused. Tagging could boost recovery even beyond the current 95-96%, managers said, while also allowing better inventory tracking.

The cup company partners with Ecolab at various wash hubs to guarantee sterilization standards, Niccolini said. The return bins at the music venues are all highly visible, and the cups include a QR code fans can use to read about the reuse effort and enter ticket giveaways.

“We know that a key element to our success is having the guests and fans understand the program, and really take an interest in its success,” Niccolini said. “Because we ask them to do something when they participate, which is to return the cup on site.”

The plastic the engineers settled on is also recyclable at most municipal facilities for the cups that “fall out of the loop,” she added. 

At 14 test shows in the Rocky Mountain venues, Niccolini said, at least 470 pounds of throwaway plastic were taken out of the waste stream. 

When Fiddler’s Green concerts come online in spring and summer, with the amphitheater’s 18,000-fan capacity, Niccolini said, “We can really begin to grasp the scale of the impact.”  

This story was updated on Jan. 21 with more information about how r.Cup uses RFID tracking.

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...