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The entertainment industry, resource consumption, and sustainability.

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The entertainment industry, resource consumption, and sustainability.

August 26
14:32 2022
Do films produce waste? Is it a fact? Let’s get some insights into the film industry and how it contributes to climate change. Filmmaker Shreyans Zaveri talks about sustainability in filmmaking. How the filmmaking industry generates and manages its carbon footprint and the implications of this on the global climate crisis.

The film industry is known for bringing us compelling stories that shape our lives and open our minds — but these stories come at a cost. The entertainment industry is a behemoth that employs millions of people all over the world. Film-making, advertising, video production and visual effects are just some of the industries that exist under the umbrella of the entertainment industry, many of which collide on film sets, a fun and exciting place to work if ever there was one. The buzz, the activity, the silence that falls on set as soon as the clapper is dropped and the thrill of the pursuing scene once the camera rolls are all worth experiencing. While all of that sounds amazing and glamorous — and it is — these spaces also generate a colossal amount of waste. When making a big-budget Hollywood movie or creating a top-notch commercial at an advertising agency, the sky is not the limit. Budgets, resources and energy are pushed to the hilt for that ‘perfect take.’ For many, the idea of spending tens of millions of dollars to make a movie can seem excessive. In reality, the true cost of a movie is less about the dollars spent and more about the environmental cost of resources involved. Films are resource-heavy productions, and these resources are coming directly at the cost of our planet. As an illustrative example, let’s take a look at some statistics to understand the resources that go into making a movie.

At the beginning of 2022, Richard Whittington, the Senior Vice President of SAP reported that the average $70 million dollar film produces 2,840 tons of CO2 during production. According to another 2021 study, a production generates anywhere between 391 to 3370 metric tons of CO2. To put that in perspective, it’s 7 million pounds of carbon dioxide produced per film. To simplify this further, a vehicle produces 4.6 metric tons of CO2 annually when used daily. This means that a single large Hollywood production produces 732 cars worth of carbon dioxide. An average of 46 trees offset 1 ton of CO2 annually. Thus, 155,020 trees are required to offset the carbon emitted from a single blockbuster film. The Guardian also reported that Hollywood is responsible for more pollution than many other industries — including both aerospace and semiconductor industries. This significant environmental impact is influencing the planet in a negative way, leading many to look for new solutions.

How are these statistics so appalling? How does a film set produce so much waste? To answer that question, we need to look at a film set and explore all its moving pieces. A film set is a complex space. It brings together multiple departments and utilities. Let’s take a look at some of the bigger moving pieces that are part of a film’s production.

The film set itself uses raw materials to replicate or build a city or a scene. Here, you can find everything that you would see on a regular construction site — from concrete to wood, plastic, iron, etc. These sets are built from scratch; then, once filming is complete, they are dismantled. A lot of this building material is just dumped as waste. Not only that, all of this material needs to be transported to the place where it is put together, and once filming is complete, it needs to be carried away. That also adds to transportation costs and emissions, which we will discuss next. Hollywood did find a great new way to minimize the carbon footprint that is generated from set building: virtual production. Seen for the first time on The Mandalorian, virtual sets are an efficient new way to reduce the waste generated by the set building.

Even with virtual production gaining traction, the transportation factor still remains. It isn’t a secret that transportation is a costly environmental expense, particularly for big stars. As we recently learned with the scandal over Taylor Swift’s private jet usage, with Vulture reporting 8,293.54 tons of CO2 for her travels in 2022 alone, high-profile celebrities in Hollywood are having a major impact. Whittington’s report found that 51% of the film industry’s CO2 emissions are directly linked to the transportation of cast, crew, and materials.

People, including crew, actors and other staff need to be on set. Equipment and all the other peripherals need to be transported to and from the film set. The fuel consumed to transport people and supplies and to power generators on a film set remains the highest contributing factor. According to an article in Variety magazine, they account for 48–56% of a film set’s carbon footprint. In this case, better management of equipment and people would help to reduce the number of trips. Moreover, in terms of on-set generators, the technology is improving, and LED lights and panels for virtual productions are replacing traditional power-hungry lights and other equipment.

To keep such massive sets and crews running, they need fuel as well. That is when food and beverage come into the picture. Plastic bottles, plastic food packaging, plastic utensils, coffee cups, plates, etc., all create a huge amount of waste on the film set. Using reusable personal bottles or flasks goes a long way. As an active crew member, I always carry my own flask and refill it throughout the day. It is a simple and cost-effective choice. Once that is addressed, the next issue is food wastage. It is said that a film set wastes or dumps 72 tons of food. If you factor in the environmental footprint of producing that food, getting it to a table on the film set and then just throwing it out in the dumpster, the loss is painful. Big-budget movies are known to have a lot of food options, especially meat. While it sounds good to be well fed, a lot of this food just ends up in the dumpster. The equivalent of 3 buffet meals for the entire cast and crew is reportedly thrown out. This can be changed. Whenever possible, I carry my own food on set. This reduces waste and the overall carbon footprint. While it isn’t possible for everyone to do so, a better way to provide food is to order it for each individual. That way, the correct quantity of food gets ordered and consumed. Bigger productions can even have an on-set menu-based catering option. This reduces the distance that food has to travel to reach the set, thus reducing fuel consumption. If there is an option to order what you want to eat, only that much gets made; hence, waste is reduced. Film sets can aim to go vegan. Given the increase in vegan options and meat alternatives, a vegan movie set will have a much lower carbon footprint and better health benefits for the crew and the planet.

There are even appalling reports of how some movies have directly affected the environment by being careless regarding the location where they were filming. This could have been avoided easily. Dumping or leaving behind waste in the filming location is a rookie mistake. For a long-term and sustainable trajectory, this mindset needs to change. And, most critically, it will need to change at an uncomfortable pace in order to facilitate a huge shift in mindset and the subsequent reduction in resource consumption.

As we move towards bigger and more thrilling cinematic advances, we must consider the costs that come with them. Already, experts all around the world are calling for Hollywood and other prominent film centers to cut back on emissions before it is too late. Bringing sustainability to filmmaking is a task that is easier said than done. The push for green energy to be used on sets is growing with time. Already, some prominent and innovative groups are pushing toward long-term sustainability goals. Netflix is aiming to be entirely carbon neutral by the end of 2022 — and recent reports show that they are on track to meet this goal. However, some of their efforts are largely focused on balancing with carbon credits — credits that give the right to emit a certain amount of carbon dioxide — rather than exclusively changing practices. Still, they are focused on reducing their impact in other ways. There are many other initiatives being put into place, and many movie sets and studios have willingly stepped forward to go green. The Producer’s Guild is also coming up with guidelines and incentives to make movie sets greener.

Films are fun, and film sets are even more so, but the current unsustainable trends are not good for the environment. Small, definite, and concrete steps taken every day will push the trajectory toward sustainability. The medium of film can drive powerful social change. We must come together to use that very medium efficiently, sustainably, and consciously. The time to embrace best practices and make environmentally aware decisions while filmmaking is now.

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About the Author 

Shreyans Zaveri is an author and filmmaker. He works towards sustainability and conservation. Some of his films are also focused on the same. He is from India and currently works in the Silicon Valley, Bay area in California. 

With over 9 years of industry experience in film and visual effects, Shreyans Zaveri has worked and studied across the globe. Some of his popular works have garnered over 9 million views on YouTube.

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