Greening the movie set: FilmBizRecycling gains momentum
Recycling of trailers and 3D glasses, digital delivery of data files, popcorn bags made from sustainable paper, LED-retrofit poster cases and plant-based bottles… While movie theatres are doing their fair share of LEED-ing the way to a greener entertainment experience (see our Sept. 2011 story on the AMC Randhurst and March 2010 piece on the Carmike Majestic Chattanooga), our colleagues on the production side have been doing their own fair share of caring and composting as well.
This month, we take a look at two laudable initiatives that represent the far-reaching spectrum of what this industry can do for people and the environment. (As a reminder, Film Journal International is available in digital format for a variety of devices.) Whereas Brooklyn, NY-based FilmBizRecycling is the result of one woman’s determination (www.filmbizrecycling.org), the Solid Waste Task Force represents the joint initiative of the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP) and Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in Los Angeles. In the more than two decades since the Task Force was formed, “our member companies have steadily increased and improved their environmental efforts across all platforms—on and off studio lots, during production, and in everyday business practices,” the latter’s chairman and CEO, Senator Chris Dodd, tells us. “Through innovative solutions and a commitment to environmental best practices, our industry is helping lead the way to a greener tomorrow.”
During her 15 years in the art department of various productions, Eva Radke and her decorating co-workers were “always amongst the last to leave any set,” the founder and president of FilmBizRecycling explains. “While a handful of grips and a couple of production assistants were ripping everything up and throwing it into dumpsters, I spent much of my time trying to find homes for everything.” Whether that was “on Craigslist, between friends or giving it away in stages,” she felt, “no matter what, there was still an incredible amount of waste all the time. It was just unconscionable.”
Of those ever mounting frustrations, “the straw that broke the camel’s back” was actually a bunch of very healthy plants to be used in a toothpaste commercial, Radke recalls. “Finding that many mint trees in the middle of January in New York City was impossible. I finally had them hydroponically grown in Florida, flown up to JFK airport in a special plane and with special permits, followed by transport in heated trucks. It was ridiculous. Several thousands of dollars and many days, and blood, sweat and tears later, the mint plants show up and they don’t even use them. Instead, they were going to go right into the dumpster on the next day. I just took it personally…” One can still hear the determination in Radke’s voice. “You know what, these mint plants and I have worked very hard to get here and they are not garbage.”
Having recently become a mother, Radke posted the dilemma at some of the online support groups she had joined. Finding homes for all those beautiful plants, she says, was the defining moment when it really hit her. “If I can do this with a bunch of moms, why can’t I do this with my colleagues? We all use the same items and materials over and over again. Throwing them out just didn’t make any sense. What we needed to do instead was to communicate with one another.”
And that’s exactly what Radke did, beginning with her closest industry friends and colleagues. “I have 45 footballs, who wants them?” she asked around. “Who needs AstroTurf? What started with some 30 people has grown to well over 11,000 now,” Radke proudly states. “We can help each other out and save money in the process.” And the environment, of course.
“While most people were really grateful and supportive [of her idea,] confirming that this was something that they thought about themselves,” Radke experienced some pushback as well. Mostly for lack of understanding the concept, she opines. “In the film industry we have special effects, fires and explosions, and stuntmen are jumping out of helicopters. So, there is not one person on the set that tells me that we can’t do something as simple as putting our scraps in a separate bucket.”
After a while it became clear to her “that everything needed a place to go temporarily, as the time of exchanging didn’t fit all the production schedules.” The original warehouse space of FilmBizRecycling was going to be a transfer station alone. But as the list of saved items and the group of participants and supporters kept on growing, Radke realized that a fully operational prop house would be in order. “We have to grow or we have to die,” she thought at the time. “This is not a small operation, it is a big operation. I am going to put FilmBizRecycling in here or I am going to quit.” She took the leap of faith and went after the space of her dreams.
Within two weeks, Radke had raised $20,000 from friends and supporters in the industry to rent 10,000 square feet (930 sq. m) in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn. (Going forward, Radke’s vision for FilmBizRecycling version 3.0 is a 50,000-square-foot (4,645 sq. m) up-cycling factory, where “we are deconstructing a set and putting it back together as a high-end coffee table.”) “There is a lot of personal interest in this,” she reasons, “and the crews bought into the idea, particularly in the art department, and especially the decorators and the leadsmen.” On film, television and commercial productions, “we are not only saving thousands of dollars in disposal fees and dumpster rentals, but we are also creating jobs for the drivers and supporting the local economy… Why not keep the industry moving,” she asks, “instead of having the waste company create more pollution? It’s about so much more than diverting waste.”
One of the items that “goes in and out all the time” of the prop house at FilmBizRecycling is foam rubble that was painted by a scenic artist. For use in film and television, “real rubble is difficult to come by,” she elaborates, “and really, really heavy. Ours you can lift up with one hand.” Just like commercials where they open up a refrigerator and take out a beverage, “this is something that is only useful to us in production,” Radke observes. “Same with advertising for dryer sheets. Usually that is done by buying a new refrigerator and dryer, cutting out the back so that the camera can be placed there, getting the shot and then throwing it away. Now you can rent from us for half the price of buying and modifying a brand-new appliance every single time. It took me 15 years of being on sets to realize what the market really is.”
Some of the more unique items that have come up during that time include a four-foot disco ball and six-foot banana “that looks like the real thing,” a bullet-hole-riddled KGB phone and bust of Stalin, an electric chair and 1960s lie detector. “They always say, hook up your boyfriends,” she laughs.
In addition to recycling by renting out and selling reclaimed items to productions, Radke and her 12-strong team find even better reuse for those things that cannot be used in that way. More than 60% of salvaged materials are donated to worthy causes, including Gowanus Canal Conservancy, Lower East Side Ecology Center, the Sean Casey Animal Rescue, BuiltItGreen! NYC and Materials for the Arts. “Curtains, blankets, towels, housewares, frames and the like are all given to a women’s shelter,” Radke says, citing another example. “We spent four years looking at all the materials that come in and figuring out what goes where.” E-waste is being safely discarded at a nearby facility, for instance, and textiles and clothing are being reused or recycled into rags. “Sometimes we get ‘bloodstains’ on the clothing and stained table cloths or items that have been torn up in the shoot,” she explains. FilmBizRecycling has an in-house sewing center and resident textile artist turning those items into something else (Re-Stitch), as well as an exhibition space (Re-Gallery) that features uniquely designed products by artisans who specialize in up-cycling. The Re-Workshop does repairs and offers DYI classes, and the FilmBizRecycling performance space is available for parties and events, such as screenings from cinema club BBQ Films.
“The one movie that really stands out” for Radke is this month’s bike-messenger thriller Premium Rush. “They donated not only actual bicycles and tons and tons of bicycle parts but also very expensive clothing and much more. It was just a great donation that did so much tangible good,” Radke enthuses. “We filled up a whole truck and Recycle-a-Bicycle was able to help more than 40 kids make and have bikes last year.”
According to the 2011 MPAA report referenced in our sidebar, this Columbia Pictures production—together with “testing and sourcing all energy-efficient lighting” for spring hit Think Like a Man—was part of Sony Pictures’ commitment to achieve “zero waste” and advance green production practices. Sustainable efforts on Premium Rush were “comprehensive,” the MPAA writes, “touching all departments on set” and included “utilizing hybrid vehicles for 60% of rental cars for cast and crew transportation, as well as composting around 5,500 pounds of food waste and compostable paper products, and eliminating plastic water bottles on set, saving 66,000 water bottles from ever being used.”
MPAA member companies diverted over 45 million pounds (20,412 tons) from landfills last year alone, representing “the highest figure ever reported by the studios since they began voluntary waste reduction.” In turn, FilmBizRecycling has put more than 285 tons of stuff to better use since 2008. “We spread that like fertilizer,” Radke says. “Those materials promote growth.”
One of her personal favorite recipients is Blissful Bedrooms. “They redo rooms for severely disabled teens and turn them into absolute dream spaces. They didn’t even have their nonprofit status yet when I found them looking for paint on Craigslist when I was trying to give paint away. It has been a great relationship ever since. When Blissful Bedrooms does a project, they can come here and raid the place. They can have anything they want to realize any kind of fantasy and favorite décor…”
Not surprisingly, Radke feels that “there is a ton of opportunity out there. And if something needs changing, we need to change it. We are in very dire times now and business can’t just be all about the money,” she concludes. “At FilmBizRecycling, we subscribe to the triple bottom line of people, profit and our planet. We create jobs, avoid landfills and have created a self-sustaining nonprofit that can pay its bills and offers living wages in New York City with health benefits… We want to be a model for the big six industries to look at and say, ‘If they can do it, so can we.’”
Studios Embrace Environmental Responsibility
While this author had the good fortune of first learning about FilmBizRecycling at Pepcom’s EcoFocus in New York City, the Motion Picture Association of America keeps everybody green with a yearly activities update in time for Earth Day. Coordinated on behalf of its studio members and with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP), the MPAA’s role in the Solid Waste Task Force is that of facilitator and record-keeper, Sarah Walsh explains. The director of state government affairs at the MPAA has also been leading the Task Force for the last seven years.
While the joint MPAA-AMPTP program was established in response to a 1989 State of California bill that set landfill diversion mandates for municipalities, the studio efforts have always been and continue to be voluntary. As one of the biggest employers in their city, the studio environmental and production people come together to determine how much of their waste was diverted and what actions could be taken to help municipalities improve their rates. Now the Task Force meets at least once a year to review their numbers, share information and determine areas and activities where one studio might be doing an exceptional job for the others to emulate. Although they are all competitors, Walsh noted, this allows them to share their best practices confidentially. Different ways of operating lead to different solutions as well.
What started out as recycling and diverting garbage from landfills has developed into something much larger that is indicative of both the creative forces in this industry and the larger corporate structure behind it. Environmental policy and related goals have grown into more than a production-by-production effort.
Looking at the following examples adapted from the April 2012 message delivered by the MPAA, the varied and wide-ranging work on the studio front becomes obvious. No less than 73.5% of their studio sets and other solid waste was kept from entering landfills during the prior year, exceeding 2010 levels.
* For Earth Day 2012, Walt Disney Studios launched the fourth donation program tied to as many Disneynature releases. They not only helped the Jane Goddall Institute in protecting Chimpanzees, but also planted three million trees in Brazil (Earth), established 40,000 acres of marine-protected area in The Bahamas (Oceans) and protected 65,000 acres of savanna in Kenya (African Cats).
* The job of the Disney Environmental Steward is to organize, lead, and oversee the
“greening” of a movie from pre-production to wrap, and to guide cast and crew about making environmentally friendly decisions. Among the four 2011 productions thus guided, Beverly Hills Chihuahua 3 diverted 85% of its waste and was nearly 100% plastic water bottle-free. The Odd Life of Timothy Green had a diversion rate of nearly 70%.
* Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution avoided the manufacture and sipping of tens of thousands of broadcast tapes to its customers by deploying digital file delivery. Whereas this eliminates over 400 tons of CO2 emissions every year, there are no numbers available on the potentially positive environmental impact from changing film projection to digital cinema.
* Fox Broadcasting Company powered the 2011 Teen Choice Awards on renewable energy from local wind farms and by pedaling 40 Schwinn bicycles. Meanwhile on the studio lot, Fox installed 17 Blink electric vehicle chargers and purchased “the first full electric vehicle in the studio’s fleet” for mail delivery.
* NBCUniversal continues to donate crew meals that were prepared and properly stored but not served. More than 10,000 meals went to homeless shelters and food banks in regions where NBCUniversal productions operated.
* By virtualizing 60% of its West Coast data center, NBCUniversal was able to shut down 2,000 physical machines, resulting in retiring and recycling 47 tons of hardware, cutting power consumption by 11%. At Universal City Studios, a new onsite fuel-cell energy system delivers electricity and hot water 40% more efficiently than traditional energy sources.
* On Earth Day 2011, the Paramount Green Action Team set up a cell-phone recycling drive on the lot. During its e-Waste recycling day in August, employees turned in hundreds of items, weighing nearly one ton.
* In support of Heal the Bay’s “Day Without a Bag” aiming for reducing single-use plastic bags, Paramount gifted nearly 2,000 reusable bags to its Los Angeles-based employees over the last two years. Employees from around the globe were also invited to create short videos showcasing their eco-friendly work- and lifestyles for the inaugural “Green Shorts” competition.
* Sony Pictures offers employees a suite of programs to support eco-friendly actions at home and work. Cash-back for purchase of a hybrid or electric vehicle and incentives for installing a residential solar system have together offset about 1,600 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions with participation by over 230 employees. The studio’s “Idea-to-Action” grant provides employees with up to $1,500 for ideas that make Sony facilities greener. The “Greener World” group-giving model brings employees together to develop a project with a sustainable nonprofit that is then funded through a donation from Sony Pictures Entertainment.
* Six Warner Bros. pictures that were shot wholly or in part in the United Kingdom, including Gravity, Dark Shadows, Jack the Giant Killer and The Dark Knight Rises, made a commitment to environmental stewardship by implementing green production practices. Collectively these films also made a charitable donation to Groundwork Hertfordshire, helping to implement community projects for a more sustainable future.
* Twenty-three Warner Bros. Television productions from Los Angeles, British Columbia, Toronto, New York and Atlanta assigned a “Green Lead” to coordinate composting, food and material donations to local nonprofits, biodiesel fueling and LED lighting packages.
* Warner Bros. Studios completed construction on Building 43, its third LEED certification project since 2004.