Movies are a huge business, with the global film industry’s box office revenue expected to reach $50 billion in 2020. But the entertainment industry has a dark side when it comes to natural resources and waste. Upon completion of many films, everything from the sets to props are discarded, bound for already overflowing landfills. Then there are the location-based catering services to account for, which encompass single-use dishware and plastic bottles, among other discarded items.

In recent years, the growing concern over the waste produced by the film industry has led to a number of new environmentally friendly initiatives and recycling programs on film sets. Some of these programs have already made a significant, positive impact on the movie industry. For instance, Los Angeles-based EcoSet Consulting has fostered the reuse of more than 145 tons of discarded material since 2014. The company’s sustainability plan includes the elimination of plastic water bottles on set, as well as recycling and composting in all workspaces, from the sets to the editing room.

Filmmakers themselves are also taking matters into their own hands, with sustainability a key concept beginning in the pre-production stages. An Inconvenient Truth, Sweet Land, and Syriana are three notable films where producers remained committed to carbon neutrality during filming. Carbon neutral sets and on-set recycling programs are helping to pave the way towards widespread sustainability and waste reduction into the future.

Recycling Programs on Film Sets

The current climate of sustainability in the film industry didn’t happen overnight, and there have been several bumps in the road. In 2015, the Environmental Quality Award-winning company Film Biz Recycling shut its doors after seven years of diverting movie waste from landfills. Despite the financial failure of her business, Film Biz Recycling founder Eva Radke understands that the problem of film production waste isn’t going anywhere.

“The film industry and every industry that makes something is going to have waste,” Radke told Huffpost. “Every industry needs to be very conscious of filling up landfills. It’s the producer’s responsibility to make sure that while you’re creating your art you’re not creating a mess.”

Producers should be aware of the environmental impact of their film sets and ensure that comprehensive recycling programs are in place. Some film sets now have an on-set recycler, whose job is to do just that. These professionals are well-versed in recycling 101 and work to eliminate as much waste as possible, recycling materials whenever possible, especially plastics, metal, and paper.

The on-set recycler cultivates a keen awareness of the types of materials that can and cannot be recycled. For example, shredded sensitive documents, including scripts and billing records, cannot be traditionally recycled. Shredded paper must be handled by a professional shredding service, and that type of service must be included in a film’s budget from the start. Otherwise, those shredded documents could end up in landfills.

Disruptions to Natural Landscapes

In order for film production to be as sustainable as possible, the on-set recycler can’t do it alone. Waste is just one part of a film’s possible overall environmental impact. Natural environments are also at risk from the moment a film production company begins setting up. 

“Direct environmental impacts of filming may disturb wildlife and habitats, through sound and light pollution, trampling vegetation, constructing sets and increasing waste generation,” writes Guy Castley for The Conversation. Further, fuel consumption associated with production significantly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

Recent films that have come under scrutiny due to negative environmental impact include Mad Max: Fury Road and the Hobbit trilogy. The fact that high-grossing blockbusters can have such an impact on natural spaces illustrates the overarching need for better waste reduction and environmental stewardship within the film industry as a whole.

Reusing and Repurposing Props and Sets

One of the major highlights of the now-defunct Film Biz Recycling was its zero-waste policy, wherein old props and movie sets were donated to charity or repurposed. While it seems hard to believe that a beloved character’s costume or complete on-screen bedroom set could end up in a landfill, that’s indeed what happens to the majority of movie props and sets.

Interestingly, the so-called “geek culture” has become an unlikely partner when it comes to on-set waste reduction. At San Diego Comic-Con and similar gatherings, movie props and costumes are a blossoming industry, often commanding top dollar. In fact, the necromancer costumes from The Chronicles of Riddick reportedly sold to collectors for between $1,000 and $1,500 each.

And on-screen vehicles are often an exception to the wasteful tradition within the film production industry. Many vehicles seen in mainstream films are rented from private owners or companies, and returned upon completion of filming. Junk cars or those destroyed during the filming of chase and crash scenes are another story, however, and there’s no need for those vehicles to end up in landfills. About 98% of a junk car can be recycled, from the metal shell to rubber, glass, and plastic components. And the environmental savings are significant: a single recycled vehicle can save 2,500 pounds of iron ore and 1,400 pounds of coal. 

Final Thoughts

As the film industry continues to grow and evolve, the risk of environmental damage and significant waste generation increases. Production companies need to step up their game when it comes to sustainability in order to reduce the environmental impact of movie-making. Incorporating set-wide recycling programs and donating sets, props, and costumes instead of sending them to a landfill are ideal starting points.

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