Steven Van Zandt was passing through Morgantown, West Virginia last month on tour with his band, the Disciples of Soul, when something went amiss. The singer-guitarist was staying at a Marriott hotel when, much to his dismay, his room service breakfast was delivered to him entirely in disposable plastic containers. “I’ve lived in hotels my whole life, and I’ve never seen that before,” says Van Zandt, 68. “I hope it’s not a new trend.”
That morning, Van Zandt took to Twitter. “This is a terrible idea for at least 4 reasons,” he wrote. “Plastic is a worldwide environmental problem; Economically it is idiotic; The negative imaging removes all class and dignity from the hotel chain. The concept, which is to minimize human interaction (!) is mindless and counterproductive at best. And totally unnecessary since the employees I met were wonderful people. This needs an organized protest.”
Within days, the lifelong activist — who organized a major protest of South African racism three decades ago with Artists Against Apartheid’s “Sun City” — heeded his own words, enlisting his old friend Jackson Browne and teaming up with the Plastic Pollution Coalition to call for an organized boycott of the hotel chain.
“I’m happy to answer Stevie Van Zandt’s call for this boycott,” Browne said in a statement last week. “I spend much of my year in hotel rooms, and it is absolutely my choice not to stay where they serve food in plastic.”
(In an interview, a senior Marriott executive clarified that the room service Van Zandt ordered in Morgantown was part of the company’s Fresh Bites pilot program, a more informal, affordable form of room service the company is testing out in two hundred of their more than 6,000 hotels as a way to compete with services like Seamless. The company also noted that the plastic in Van Zandt’s order was recyclable and made of pre-consumer recycled materials. “We all care about this issue,” says Erika Alexander, Marriott’s Chief Lodging Services Officer for the Americas. “It’s important for all of us to reduce our reliance upon plastics, and there are a lot of different reasons for that that are all totally valid.”)
Rolling Stone caught up with Van Zandt on the tail end of his Soulfire tour to learn more about his reasoning behind his new cause and to talk about his life as an artist-activist.
Can you walk us through how, exactly, you ended up organizing a boycott of Marriott Hotels?
It happened totally out of the circumstance. I was in a Marriott, ordered room service, and they bring it up in seven or eight plastic containers. I’m thinking to myself, “What’s up with that? Don’t these guys read the papers?” So I go to the manager, and he says, “It’s a new policy from the Marriott corporation.” And I’m thinking to myself, “Jesus Christ.” This is a whole bunch of ridiculous single-use plastic for no purpose other than what, saving money on a dishwasher? They’ve got plates, they own restaurants. I’m talking about the single-use plastic stuff — straws and cups and bags and containers and packaging, the stuff that is really not necessary, that can be easily replaced with paper or whatever. It just bothers me that these corporations don’t have any sense of civic responsibility anymore. They don’t even care. The bean counter has taken over the world.
Let’s just try to have them regain their sanity here and change this policy. Snapple just went glass to plastic — that’s a terrible idea. It’s saving them a couple bucks here and there, but these companies are doing very well. It’s not like they’re struggling. I mean, come on. When is it enough? So I just said, “Fuck this, I’m gonna boycott.”
In your initial tweet, you made it clear that pollution and toxicity weren’t the only reasons you disliked the plastic room service policy.
That’s right. It’s costing at least one person a job, too, by the way, which is why they’re doing it. Let’s face it. They’re doing it because they’re getting a chance to save money on the guy who would be washing the dishes. So I mean, that’s bad, but also, there’s the imaging. How classy is a hotel when they hand you plastic containers for room service? You know what i’m saying? It’s an undignified way of doing business. The whole concept of hotels, I thought, was to make you feel at home. How would it feel to go to somebody’s home for dinner and they’re serving plastic containers? So there’s also that level, aside from the morality, and aside from the toxicity, there’s this dignity part of it as well. It just bothers me, every day, when in one form or the other, the bean counters are just ruining the quality of life. It just gets worse and worse and worse. We want to do something about it. We want to fight back.
Do you have a typical room-service order?
No. In this case, it wasn’t even a lot of things — it was a little breakfast. But it was the toast in one container, the butter in another container, the jelly in another container, the eggs in another container.
That does sound like a ton of plastic, as if they were using as much plastic as humanly possible.
Exactly! Really. That’s exactly it. I’m like, don’t you guys read the fucking paper? What’s the matter with you? There are whales washing up that are choking on plastic. You got plastics in the oceans the size of Texas. That’s not even counting the toxicity. I’m not going to bore you with the science, because I’m not a scientist to begin with, but I know enough about the science that it’s fucking scary, man. Okay? When you read about the actual science of it, they’re finding microplastics now in 36 out of the 39 grains of salt (Editor’s note: This is accurate). This is not a good thing.
I get the sense that this is also about corporate greed and profit for you?
That’s right. I’m sorry — I believe in capitalism with a conscience. I know that’s an old phrase that’s no longer in use. And it’s despicable that this goes on every single day in every boardroom, and that people just let it happen. They’re afraid of being Jerry Maguire’d as a business.
You have a long history of activism and social justice work. How does something like room service become your new cause? When you experience what you feel is an injustice, is there a natural instinct for making noise about that?
Yeah, it is a natural instinct. I’ve been very, very cool these last 10, 15 years. I’ve gotten out of all partisan politics. I didn’t endorse Obama and I didn’t criticize Trump. I’m out of that business because of my education thing now, which is far more important to me. We are non-partisan and non-political. But when it comes to the environment, I don’t understand why that’s political. I never have. Personally, I don’t use these terms like “global warming” and “climate change.” There’s no need to use those words, because I use the word “poison.” It’s poison, okay? That’s something everybody understands. There’s nobody in favor of poison. So I don’t know how that became a Democratic issue versus Republican. Don’t we all breathe the same air? Don’t we all eat the same food?
Are you saying that the phrases “global warming” and “climate change” have been poorly marketed, or that you’re not interested in talking about the phenomenon they describe?
I’m saying that those phrases, based on science, are easily misunderstood or disregarded by the typical person in the street. Especially with some encouragement to disbelieve the science. It’s a scientific term that the typical person does not understand, so let’s use words that they do understand, like “poison.” That’s all I’m saying.
So to be totally clear, you do believe climate change is a massive problem?
Obviously. Of course it’s a problem, and it’s going to get a lot worse. We don’t have the infrastructure to handle it. We need to do something because the government certainly is not, and it’s their job to do it. It’s their job to be the protectors. Isn’t the first job of the government to protect the people? They’re not doing their job. They’re not protecting us from the weather, and they’re not protecting us from the toxins in our food and water.
Was your decision to remove yourself from partisan politics directly a response to needing to appear non-partisan because you run your arts education non-profit?
That’s correct, 100%. My foundation has been writing a music history curriculum for 12 years and it’s the most important thing I’ll ever do with my life. I want it to be in every school, every grade level, every classroom in the world. We’re the only country in the world that thinks art is a luxury. Art teaches kids how to think, not what to think. And that’s an essential part of the future.
What would you say to your fans who initially reacted to your Marriott boycott by saying it seemed like a random or weirdly specific cause?
I mean, pollution and the environment have always been causes of mine. I have songs about the environment on my solo album. It’s not a new cause. And so what if it was? Would that make plastic any less polluting?
I think it was the idea of taking on the pollution problem within the very narrow framework of one hotel chain’s room service policy.
I just wanted to explain how I came into the issue. I’m a busy guy. I’m not looking around for issues to get involved in. I’m really not. I just recorded a brand-new album coming out next year. I’m very, very proud of it. That’s my real life. That’s why I’m here. I’m not looking to be an activist. I never was. I fell into “Sun City” by being down there and witnessing what I witnessed. The same thing happened here. There may be a couple of assholes who criticize me by saying, “Stevie, we don’t have room service problems.” They’re missing the point. I happened to come into this issue because I happened to order something in a hotel, and I realized that this is wrong, and I wanted to say something about it
We’ve been talking a lot about corporate profits and greed. Did you know that thousands of Marriott workers were recently on strike fighting for higher wages and increased workplace protections?
So you’re not the only person to be calling out that company right now.
Corporate greed tends to be part of the policy.
Have you heard back from Marriott?
I don’t think we’ve hit their radar yet. I don’t think they follow me on Twitter. Hopefully bigger people than me will engage them. I just want to try to organize all the rock bands and sports teams that I can, to just be unified and show solidarity on this so we can actually change the policy.
I imagine that delivering room service in plastic must also make it harder to keep the food warm.
There’s another reason! I’m sure we could come up with ten reasons if we really tried. I’ll tell you what though, drink water from glass for a couple months and then try drinking water out of a plastic bottle and see how it tastes. You’d be shocked.
So when you’re on stage, you won’t drink water out of a plastic bottle?
No. I’m all glass, all the time. Acqua Panna, the greatest water in the world. I hate to say it, but even Acqua Panna, I’m starting to see some plastic bottles. I’m so disappointed in them. That’s my water, man.