Environmental sustainability: Lessons from overseas

Earth Angels in the US.

Sarah Tosone is a specialist in environmental management across film and TV production, events and festivals. Here, she talks to those working in the same space in Canada, the UK and the US to see what lessons can be shared with Australia, particularly during COVID-19.

The effects of COVID-19 are still being felt in Australia and around the world with unknown long-term consequences. In our attempts to be safe from this virus, I have noticed an increase of waste has occurred. There’s been a return of single use items, particularly plastic water bottles and boxed lunches. Most of this ends up in landfill, as does PPE (personal protective equipment).

Climate change and environmental sustainability appears to have taken a back seat. It quickly became mandatory for film productions to have a COVID-19 plan, implemented by a COVID-19 department. What a shame the same can’t be said for a mandatory environmental plan, supervised and implemented by a qualified environmental department working on the physical production. It would be a win-win situation.

The question needs to be asked: for how long will Australia continue to lag behind? To highlight our situation, I’ve spoken to colleagues overseas to find out what is happening in Canada, the UK and the US. They include president of Green Spark Group, Zena Harris (Canada), founder and managing director of Neptune Environmental Solutions, Louise Marie Smith (UK), and founder and CEO of Earth Angel, Emellie O’Brien (US). Zena, Louise and Emellie are doing phenomenal work in their part of the world.

It is exciting and encouraging to hear about the progress made and how doable it all can be. In Australia, we need more people advocating for these changes, connecting with each other and building the momentum. There is definitely a lot of environmental stewardship to do, but moving forward, only positive outcomes can be achieved, and it will unite more than divide us.

Green Spark Group is a sustainability consulting firm focused on changing the climate of entertainment.

Zena Harris.

What is happening in Canada to ‘green’ film and TV production?

The sustainable production momentum in Canada is intensifying. Reel Green in British Columbia is looking to the future and planning for broader collaboration and industry transformation. Reel Green is part of BAFTA International and uses all of the same tools. There are now formal sustainable production programs in other provinces like Reel Green in Manitoba and Ontario Green Screen to support local engagement. With this growing national attention paid to sustainable production, the Canadian motion picture industry must not get complacent; every production can engage with their
industry organisations for tools and resources, such as the Reel Green carbon calculator powered by Albert, and must work to reduce environmental impacts.

How has COVID-19 impacted sustainability efforts?

COVID-19 has been hard for so many people, but there is a silver lining in how we’ve adapted our work habits and how productions think about their work. Reel Green has a guide called, “A Greener Return During COVID” to help productions navigate their new set protocols. Productions are more thoughtful in their planning to ensure a safe set. When sustainability is carefully thought through, productions can still minimise waste and realise significant carbon emission reductions. Yes, we now use PPE, but this can be recycled. Additionally, when faced with the need to purchase single use, productions can choose fibre-based cutlery and catering ware, for example, so all of it is compostable. Plastic is not needed.

Further, materials and purchases can be carefully thought through to minimise costs. By prioritising the use of second-hand materials, such as set walls, doors, wardrobe, we are not stressing the supply chain and purchasing new materials at a premium price.

There are also many sustainable practices that haven’t changed at all with COVID-19, such as reducing beef consumption – we can do this anytime. Some practices do need to be adapted depending on the area and local guidelines, but we have the ability to adapt and continue to prioritise sustainability.

How do you envision the future of the industry?

We have all the tools in the marketplace to be sustainable, but it takes the will of leaders in the industry to make it a priority; to approach production with sustainability in mind instead of an afterthought. We can transition right now if we collectively want to. One way to jump on the collective action bandwagon is to endorse the Creative Industries Pact for Sustainable Action – a common set of goals. Over 100 industry organisations, from unions, studios, film commissions and private companies have endorsed this pact. The community is growing; great things happen when we come with diverse perspectives, share our learnings, and work together.

When I look to the future, I see a motion picture industry where we take planning for sustainability seriously and actively approach production with sustainability in mind, not as an afterthought.

Productions do not falsely comport themselves by claiming their one sustainability PA will make their production sustainable – it takes the entire crew. I also see leaders stepping up and making sustainable production a priority and not fearing or assuming pushback from producers and crew. I see productions incorporating clean tech and reducing emissions and embracing the circular economy and material reuse is prioritised over recycling. I see those who work in sustainable production being taken seriously and embraced by crew. I see collaboration intensifying on production, in the broader region and globally, because we need to work together to change culture. I see an industry that is brave, courageous, and creative and completely embraces the art of sustainable production.

Neptune Environmental Solutions is a consultancy specialising in sustainability management systems.

Louise Marie Smith.

What is happening in the UK to ‘green’ film and TV productions?

There has been a huge amount of progress in sustainable production of film and TV in the past 10 years in the UK, which has accelerated even more so in the past five. There are dedicated environmental departments on the majority of large tentpole features from the US studios that are shot in London, and the effective resourcing of these
teams has been steadily improving as the importance of this work becomes more widely recognised. The supply chain has also made great progress, with an increasing array of sustainable vendors and products on the market, largely driven by a continued push from producers and heads of department to hire these products and services.

Crew are increasingly driven to manage the environmental impact of their own departments, with the development of groups such as Cut It starting to emerge. There is a long way to go before we conquer the bigger scale issues of energy use and material resource waste that are systemic to a business so ephemeral, but there is progress towards tackling this in future.

How has COVID-19 impacted sustainability efforts?

The commitment from producers and studios seems to be fairly steadfast and the need to build sustainability into COVID-19 procedures is understood. Thankfully COVID-19 has not affected sustainability to a great extent.

Reusable bottles/cups:
Initially, they were a ‘no go’ and we ended up with a lot of disposable single use cups. But we have progressed already and reusable cups/bottles are now allowed with reengineered coolers that are foot-operated. The stipulation is to only allow bottles/cups where the drinking point is removed for refill; if the lid\ unscrews to fill the bottle, and the drinking area is nowhere near the cooler, it is safe.

PPE: Progress again. There was no recycling of masks before. Instead, we took note of how many were purchased and thrown away each week. This allowed for budgeting to use Terracycle to recycle masks on the next show. However, we also now provide reusable masks in a welcome pack for any crew who want them – it’s important to monitor that they are switched every four hours, and washed, so crew will need to have a stock of quite a few masks to get through a week. Some departments like carpenters will always need disposables because of the dusty workshop, but we have reduced disposable use in offices and on set by a lot since July.

Disposables: No mugs, reusable plates, cutlery etc are in any canteens or office kitchens these days. This means A LOT of disposables. We purchased vegware and have specific liners, bins and a skip to collect the vegware on site to go back to vegware to be correctly composted.

Catering: Food waste is WAY down, massively. This is a bonus of the new system. However, sometimes the pre-packaged meals come in plastic and it’s not possible to clean it enough to recycle it afterward. I am looking into this; we use compostable boxes when we can.

Flights: Way, way down, absolutely no unnecessary travel is happening – we need to really look at this and keep the reductions where sensible as things open up. COVID-19 has also accelerated some changes that I had been pushing for years:
• Zero printed call sheets
• Start paperwork and timesheets – all digital
• POs and invoicing – all digital
• Paper use is very much reduced as a result.

Downsides: More and bigger trailers to power. Shared space isn’t possible. Even for department trailers we need far more space to accommodate social distancing than before. We are running from 100 per cent renewable electricity at the studio I am at and have enough power to run them all from the grid. But it is still additional power being used.

How do you envision the future of the industry?

I expect to see a push from government and local councils towards lowering NOx and SOx emissions at location sites. I think this will drive the use of diesel generators to become more efficient and better filtered. Eventually, they’ll be phased out entirely in city centres where power drops are an alternative and air quality measures are in place to lower harmful pollution.

I expect the need to monitor and report CO2 emissions to the government to become mandatory, as will with transport emissions and power use at studios. This is already on the horizon with Film London’s Grid Project; the Energy Savings Opportunity Scheme (ESOS): and the restrictions and costs associated with driving older, more polluting heavy vehicles into Central London under the ULEZ scheme.

I would like to see the continued growth of sustainability as an essential part of filmmaking, driving our crew and our supply chains to continue to innovate and develop sustainable solutions to our high energy activities, use of materials, management of resources and waste and transport of people and materials.

Ideally in future there will be a minimum level of training and experience required to take on the role of environmental co-ordinator or sustainability manager. This would ensure that the work carried out is always to an acceptable and high standard. The reputation of this role is still relatively new, and it is important that it is done with the requisite knowledge base in sustainability.

Earth Angel is a sustainability service provider with experts providing the strategy, skilled labour, supplies, and analytics to reduce the environmental impact of entertainment.

Emellie O’Brien.

What is happening in the US to ‘green’ film and TV productions?

We are seeing a really promising trend towards a more sustainable production industry here in the US. Things like local municipalities getting more involved in the conversation as well as the creatives themselves, our unions and guilds creating green committees and industry-led working groups demanding stronger action, such as Young Entertainment Activists and Filmmakers for Future, all get me really excited!

I think folks are also starting to see sustainability beyond just corporate responsibility and an actual opportunity to do better business, promote crew wellbeing and also integrate environmental justice. There’s so much innovation happening and it’s clear folks are really hungry for solutions, so my hope is that we allocate resources toward accelerating this transition more quickly. The planet is running out of time and the solutions are there, we just need stronger inter-stakeholder collaboration and a real, systemic culture shift to integrate these solutions in both a top-down and bottom-up sense.

How has COVID-19 impacted sustainability efforts?

It’s been a mixed bag. For some, COVID-19 has motivated people to reflect on their way of working and connect the dots between the pandemic and the unsustainable world we are living in, and they are really using it as an opportunity to prioritise a green recovery. For others, it’s only heightened their “production panic” and pushed sustainability even further from their minds.

At Earth Angel, we are all about taking the burden of sustainable production logistics off of our shows. So we launched our Clean and Green program to provide a) a revitalised Eco PA labour force now trained in set safety and sanitisation; and b) a vendor partner network with both COVID- 19 safe and sustainable products/ services for our shows. We’re seeing a really great response to this fusion of health and safety and sustainability, and a real deepening of the understanding that we are in a convergence of crises at the moment. Just because we are in a pandemic does not mean we get to ignore the climate crisis. We have to walk and chew gum at the same time.

How do you envision the future of the industry?

I really want to see a truly sustainable industry as far as achieving net zero carbon, but also addressing inclusivity and crew health and safety issues. I think the only way to do that is greater transparency and collaboration. We need to be publishing annual reports on our impact so people are empowered with the data to understand the magnitude of the problem and so that we can track our progress. We need to have hard conversations about what’s working and what isn’t. And we need radical collaboration in terms of bringing the many, many stakeholders together that we need to achieve this very ambitious goal. That’s what we are in the early stages of at the moment with some incredible partners at the Global Green Media Network.

I also still can’t wait for audiences (our industry’s consumers) to gain awareness of the industry’s impact. When you combine the economic, political and social will to change, we can really start to unlock a sustainable future.

An original version of this article appeared in IF Magazine #198. Subscribe to the magazine here.