The Museum of Ice Cream, a surreal storefront tribute to our favorite frozen desert, has for months been a sold-out fairyland destination for tourists and selfie-seeking celebrities alike.
But now it’s being dogged by a controversy anchored to an unlikely culprit — rainbow sprinkles.
Few would have expected the backlash when the museum opened its pop-up space here last fall on the heels of pop-ups in Los Angeles, Miami and New York: Fines in two cities, a petition demanding its highlight exhibit shut down, inspections from city officials.
The attraction’s pièce de résistance is a pool filled to the brim with rainbow sprinkles, where visitors can dive in and fling the faux ice cream toppings into the air. It’s every five-year-old’s dream, and the perfect backdrop for grown-up selfies.
The catch? The sprinkles are made of plastic that can attach themselves to visitors and get swept into city storm drains when they leave.
Things went sour when visitors started tweeting about finding sprinkles on their clothes, scattered in their homes, on the sidewalks near the museums, and in gutters.
Beginning with the museum’s Miami location, storm clouds punctured the museum’s candy-land image as a whimsical playground for Instagram poses as environmental concerns mounted.
“The sprinkle pit was a great idea in theory, but its implementation was a mess,” said Dave Doebler, co-founder of environmental organization VolunteerCleanup.Org, who first raised complaints about the sprinkle pollution in Miami.
The start-up running these roaming exhibits was founded in 2016 by Time Inc.’s former head of forecasting and innovation, Maryellis Bunn, and former Lightbox CEO Manish Vora.
The idea was less educational center and more art gallery playground. It worked. Kim Kardashian and Beyoncé have posed against retro pink pay phones and alongside giant melting popsicles. In San Francisco, $38 tickets sold out in 18 minutes.
But company founders say they’ve turned the corner on these sprinkle-based complaints.
In September, the San Francisco location will switch to water-soluble plastic sprinkles, so if any of these tiny pieces — made to look like edible toppings on ice cream — end up in the ocean, they’ll dissolve, according to museum staff and San Francisco Public Utilities Commission spokespeople.
And for the last six months, the museum has been paying “sprinkle cleaners” $15 an hour to sweep off plastic sprinkles from visitors so they stay inside.
In late June, the museum placed straw wattles – thick, compressed cylinders of straw designed to control water runoff – in the storm drains on surrounding the San Francisco streets, the better to catch any stray sprinkles with.
The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission says it monitors the museum to make sure it keeps the surrounding area free of sprinkles. The museum, in turn, sends its photos of nearby storm drains testifying to its improvements.
The changes are aimed to keep the almost 100 million tiny plastic bits out of area waters.
As states and companies move to ban plastic bags and plastic straws, it’s yet another a reminder of how plastic waste can turn up in even the most surprising places, and how its clean-up isn’t always so straight forward.
Moving the pool
The complaints against the hip museum heated up in December. Doebler uploaded a video of the streets outside the museum’s Miami location in covered in sprinkles just days after the museum opened, lining the streets and piling up in storm drains.
Both exhibits made adjustments. The museum moved the sprinkle pool to the beginning of the tour to give people more time to dust themselves off before they left. It hired cleaners and posted instructions asking guests to shake any sprinkles out before leaving. It installed a row of blow dryers outside the pool.
Once the fixes were implemented in January, Miami lifted its museum’s fines according to city spokesperson Melissa Berthier. The Miami location closed down in May after only five months.
Doebler, invited to visit the museum in January after the changes, said outside there was already a significant drop in the amount of sprinkles lining the streets.
In June, however, outrage over the San Francisco sprinkle pool bloomed again, this time in the form of an online petition started by activist organization Care2 calling for the museum to get rid of the pool altogether until a biodegradable alternative can be rolled out.
As of last week, the petition had garnered more than 27,000 signatures, nearly three times its original goal of 10,000.
Rebecca Gerber, the senior director of engagement for Care2, visited the museum when she was in Los Angeles last year. Any harmful effects potentially caused by plastic sprinkle litter, she said, felt easy to overlook during her visit because of how small they are.
“It’s embarrassing to think of now,” Gerber said. “It’s really easy to excuse away a few sprinkles in your hair or stuck to your shoes … Until they come up with those alternatives, it’s probably not worth the selfie to hurt the environment.”
If not plastic, then what?
The museum chose plastic sprinkles for a reason: They carry an anti-microbial coating that makes the sprinkles easier to clean each day.
But alternatives that solved the biggest environmental complaint weren’t easy to develop. Doebler, who took a look at the museum’s plans for non-plastic sprinkles in January, pointed out a problem with one initial option: The prototypes were made from corn plastic and were only soluble in soil, which wouldn’t help if sprinkles ended up in the water supply.
Museum spokesperson Shelley Reinstein says the museum put an end to plastic sprinkle production late last year. And it’s come up with a sprinkle that can “fully degrade in sea water” within six weeks.
It will introduce them to San Francisco in September, which is currently the only location still operating.
In July, San Francisco lifted the museum’s fines, according to San Francisco Department of Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon.
Denise King, who works at the San Francisco science museum The Exploratorium, was visiting the San Francisco location one July afternoon. She said she was satisfied with the museum’s efforts to keep the streets clean.
“They should try to (replace the pool with biodegradable sprinkles) if they want to stay open for a long time,” she said, gathered outside the museum with her friends after a tour.
These days, there are hardly any sprinkles to be found in the streets anymore: A walk around the block on a sunny day in July turned up only a few stray sprinkles, which would have been difficult to spot if someone wasn’t actively trying to find them.
But on Twitter, people are still posting about finding sprinkles on them even several months after visiting the museum.
These reports haven’t cooled visitors’ interest. Unlike the city’s major art museums, it allows no walk-ins. A year after the San Francisco opening, there’s still a weeklong wait just to reserve tickets.
Exiting the San Francisco location near the city’s shopping district this month, Michael and Eileen Angotti said glowing reports of the museum experience outweighed the pool’s reported environmental concerns.
They noted that some of the kids threw sprinkles into the air, but added that sweepers were nearby and immediately contained the mess.
“As long as they reuse them and don’t keep throwing them out every day, I think it’s fine,” Eileen Angotti said.
Alfred Twu, chair of the Zero Waste Committee at the Sierra Club’s San Francisco chapter, took a look at the streets outside the museum for himself. There were a few sprinkles laying around, he said, but in the same span of time he saw far more cigarette butts.
Twu said plastic pollutants are a “very small percentage” of total waste, but they can pose a larger problem because of how easily they scatter into the water.
There’s a lesson to be learned here, he said: “The fewer small parts used in a business, the better.”