Playhouses and Studios Bringing Sustainability Center Stage

When sitting comfortably with popcorn and soda in hand, it is easy to be drawn into the world of plays and films with little thought spared to what was necessary to create them. Whether it’s a blockbuster movie or just a commercial the focus is on the finished product rather than things like efficiency or post-production waste management. Environmental consulting firm EcoSet estimates that commercials in the United States produce 18 million pounds of waste annually. Though historically not being known for trailblazing into the realm of sustainability, the different facets of the entertainment industry are evolving to embrace more opportunities for ecological stewardship.

I recently spent some time walking around NYC’s Green Festival at the Javit’s Center (which is currently undergoing its efficiency renovation including the biggest green roof in the city). Claiming to be the largest green consumer convention in the country, the convention hall was packed with everything from Phillips lighting reps with their LED bulbs to organic, free trade chocolate, to environmental activist groups handing out fliers and buttons (I did snag a few of those).

In the course of my wandering I came across a woman standing dutifully and pleasantly next to a sign describing the Fourth Arts Block (or FABnyc). The organization is a community driven non-profit that promotes sustainable programs at the grass roots level. The woman’s name was Betsy Imershein and she is FABnyc’s Sustainability Consultant. She told me that she was at the festival promoting one of the groups most prominent programs called “Load OUT!” designed to target adaptive reuse for waste streams flowing from local theatres. I became instantly intrigued.

Betsy went on to explain that the program currently runs twice a year, targeting smaller theatres that commonly discard used sets and props directly into dumpsters once productions are through. The practice is more common particularly in smaller companies that are short on permanent storage space for used material. Their key group of recipients is other artists that often have plenty of new uses for repurposing old materials. At FAB’s most recent event in March, the group diverted over 6 tons of waste including 1 ton of e-waste and 1 ton of textiles.

It occurred to me that this was only a handful of small theatres in the city. When I asked about the scale of this kind of waste stream at the scale of the whole metropolis, Betsy replied, “It’s immense.”

It wasn’t the only time I had heard of our entertainment industry beginning to make an effort to migrate towards more sustainable practices. I reached out to a source who has spent a growing amount of time on the artistic side of the movie industry. The source will remain anonymous for our purposes, but we can refer to him/her as “Big Screen.”

“In the past few years, the movies that I have worked on have hired someone to be their green or sustainability coordinator,” Big Screen explained.  “Their job is not only to look at the construction and building of sets but also every other department to try and save, reuse and conserve as much as possible.”

Big Screen’s experience pointed to an effort of transferring from paper to digital when it comes to moving information around the studio sites. Another target was the craft service truck where the crew can get food on shoots, trying to use compostable or recyclable materials.

“There was a great sustainability coordinator that was able to coordinate with the fire department and use the set for fire training,” Big Screen went on to  tell me. Apparently the set served as a great opportunity to give new firefighter recruits some new surroundings for setting and extinguishing mock fires.

One sticking point that came up was the issue of liability. No studio wants to get sued because someone gets hurt from props, sets or food that was given away for free. “Typically a lot of food doesn’t get given out for that reason.” Eventually I had to ask if Big Screen thought that these experiences were unique to specific movies and studio companies or was it actually a change being felt across the industry.

“It’s definitely industry wide. I think what helps is that the city is very much on board with it.”

These kinds of efforts point to another source of a growing willingness to change. Like the educational system, the movie industry is a valuable participant to have on board given the amount of money that we spend on entertainment in this country.