Behind Every Film Production Is a Mess of Environmental Wreckage

Hollywood may be full of progressives, but critics say the industry needs to do a much better job limiting waste and carbon emissions.
A pile of garbage in front of lights and cameras
Photo illustration by Hunter French

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom didn't make much of an impression with critics, but the $300 million blockbuster represented an immense undertaking. Preproduction started in 2015 and included the film’s writer taking a cross-country road trip to hash out story details and a four-week working trip in Barcelona, where director J.A. Bayona and production designer Andy Nicholson figured out visuals like set design and framing shots. In 2016, scouting for shooting locations began internationally—scouts trekked to Peru and Ecuador—and eventually, massive sets were built on an soundstage in England and in Hawaii. Creating the film required flying hundreds of staffers in departments like art, costuming, creature effects, special effects, visual effects, and editing to various places around the world—not to mention the people involved in the production of a slew of licensed products related to the movie. And all of that emitted a huge quantity of carbon, and resulted in a lot of waste.


Every movie and TV show depends on electricians, carpenters, designers, and all sorts of other specialized laborers and artisans working in offices and workshops in support of actors, writers, directors, and camerapeople. Though we tend not to think of the entertainment industry as an industry, with all the outputs that that entails, it does a significant amount of environmental damage. According to BAFTA, the British film organization, a single hour of television produced in the U.K.—fiction or nonfiction—produces 13 metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s nearly as much CO2 as an average American generates in a year. A 2006 UCLA study found that the California film and television industry created 8.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide; the number for the U.S. film and TV industry as a whole was 15 million tons.

That might be seen as a drop in the bucket compared to larger and more carbon-intensive industries—one recent United Nations estimate said worldwide air travel produced 900 million tons of C02 in 2018—but critics say that the film and TV industry, which is full of outspoken progressives concerned about climate change, are producing an unacceptable amount of waste that doesn’t jibe with the perception of the business.

In addition to the impact of day-to-day operations, there are more notable examples of productions actively harming the environment: Crew on 2017’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales allegedly dumped chemical waste while filming in Queensland, Australia, potentially tainting local water; 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road damaged sensitive areas on the African Atlantic coast while filming, endangering local reptiles and cacti; a contractor hired during The Expendables 2's production damaged a protected bat habitat in 2011. This isn’t a new phenomenon; 2000’s The Beach led to the ruin of Maya Bay Beach in Thailand; 1994’s City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold trampled park land near Dead Horse Point, Utah; and to take a particularly egregious example from nearly a century ago, the 1924 film The Vanishing American brought bison from the Great Plains to Catalina Island in California but failed to remove the non-native species, which continue to live on the island today.


Emille O'Brien's job is to stop these sorts of things. She's the founder of Earth Angel, a consultancy service for film and television dedicated to making Hollywood productions greener. She came up with the idea after studying film at New York University in the hopes of being a producer, and was shocked by how much waste there was on sets: plastic water bottles littering sets, trays of uneaten catering food getting dumped into the trash, and entire custom-built set pieces getting loaded into dumpsters after a production wraps. “We can be such a progressive industry in our content,” O’Brien said. “But it’s just that we’re not always practicing it. I wanted to investigate and understand why there is this disconnect.”

“A single production can buy millions of dollars, if not tens of millions of dollars, of products for a show,” O’Brien added. Every department—construction, set decoration, electric, camera, janitorial, and more—has to buy equipment. Imagine a scene set at an elaborate gala: a production is likely to buy the flowers and set dressing like tablecloths, wallpaper, plates, and other on-screen items, but also off-screen necessities like batteries and tape and flame retardants and zip ties, rope and food and beverages, clothing and shoes, office supplies and electronics.

“Every set that’s made comes with an impact, a carbon footprint, a supply chain, a lot of human resources,” said Zena Harris, the founder of Green Spark Group, a company that consults with productions to make them more sustainable. “When Hollywood walks the talk, then they have the ability to speak to the public, to speak about [the issue]. You can’t speak about it if you aren’t doing it.”


O’Brien’s solution to all the potential waste that entails is to establish what she calls an "eco department," a group of staff on a film’s production dedicated to keeping a set clean. She wants producers to hire "Eco Production Assistants," who are trained by Earth Angel to work in large and small ways to mitigate the environmental impacts of a production. This means setting up waste stations for recycling and composting and trash, which they log and sort; managing relationships with local waste companies and places a production might donate to, like food banks that could take leftover catering; educating crew members on how to personally reduce waste, which means standing by trash cans to make sure recyclables and compostables end up in the right bins; and establishing programs that reward crew members who have reduced the most waste.

Often, however, wasteful practices go far beyond individual sets and crews. Take, for instance, the industry’s use of lauan, a lightweight plywood that's easy to move around important since sets are often transient structures designed to be relocated. Lauan is often harvested from rainforests and is “a massive source of deforestation,” O’Brien said. The 2006 UCLA study quoted the actor and environmental activist Ed Begley Jr., who noted that a single sound stage can be responsible for destroying 4,000 hectares of rainforest. O’Brien thinks productions should focus on using Forest Service Council–certified sources, which are forests that are carefully managed. But finding a replacement for lauan isn't easy and Emagispace—a company specializing in modular, reusable sets—has been met with opposition from carpenter’s unions that want to continue using wood, according to O'Brien.


The Motion Picture Association of America has stressed how studios—i.e., offices and campuses, not film productions that occur on location–all around the world are cutting down on waste. Companies like Walt Disney Studios and Sony Pictures Entertainment are promoting year-round green efforts, from donations toward conservation to pushing productions to use more sustainable products, like tree-free paper. This is fantastic but, as BAFTA Head of Industry Sustainability Aaron Matthews explained, it’s not enough to solve the problem. "Examples of productions putting green practices into place are of course more common, and savings can be recorded and demonstrated,” Matthews said. “But there are nowhere near enough examples to drive overall impact."

The problem is how to make going green an appealing prospect for individual producers who are often working outside of the aforementioned studio campuses and lots. One answer is to point out that green practices save money: According to the Green Production Guide from the Producers Guild of America, replacing plastic water bottles with refillable water tanks and compostable cups would save a crew of 100 more than $5,000 per 60 days of work. Another tactic O’Brien envisions is lobbying major film markets like California and New York to give tax credits to green productions akin to the tax credits these states offer productions for in-state filming.

One idea is to continue applauding the industry whenever it makes the smallest step toward going green: To tap into Hollywood's love of awards, green organizations could give out statues or plaques for sustainable productions. O’Brien thinks putting sustainability on a pedestal of achievement for people to strive for can have a huge impact. What also might help is a moment like Frances McDormand’s “inclusion rider” Oscar acceptance speech, in which the actress stressed that individual stars can put diversity stipulations into their contracts. “Everyone knew what that was the next day,” O’Brien said. “That’s the dream for us when it comes to sustainability.”

Change could also come if viewers demand it, though O'Brien thinks that's unlikely, since the carbon costs of films and shows are so invisible to the average consumer. “No individual is going to choose to watch [something] because the production was made sustainably,” she said.

As the #MeToo scandals and the recent conversations about on- and off-screen diversity have shown, for all of Hollywood's reputation as a liberal industry, it remains resistant to change, even when its longstanding practices are doing demonstrable damage. So those demanding that it clean up its act—literally—expect to have a challenge in pushing producers and executives to embrace sustainability. “Hollywood is obviously an enormous cultural force of change, but it's also very stuck in its ways,” O’Brien said. “It usually takes a huge controversy in order for this industry to change. [Hollywood]'s a very naturally… exploitative industry of people, of resources. It has that reputation for a reason.”

Kyle Raymond Fitzpatrick is a writer who lives in Los Angeles and is gay. Follow him on Twitter.