Editor’s Note: Call to Earth is a CNN editorial series dedicated to reporting on the environmental challenges facing our planet along with the solutions. Rolex’s Perpetual Planet initiative partners with CNN to drive awareness and education around key sustainability issues and encourage positive action.
Film and television have the power to take audiences to strange and wonderful places. But with that cinematic immersion often comes a large environmental cost.
In addition to the CO2 emissions resulting from transport, fuel for production and accommodation, there is the environmental impact of the waste that is released when building and breaking down film sets. Kits are made from a number of different materials, including nails, plywood, wood, and medium density fiberboard (MDF), which often go to landfill once a kit has been used.
According to a report by Albert, an organization that provides environmental certification for the British television industry, a typical tentpole film production, with a budget of $70 million or more, uses enough plywood to fill 2.5 cargo planes. Plywood production can be associated with deforestation, depending on how it is sourced.
“Building these incredible sets takes days, sometimes weeks or months,” says Chris Gilmour, the director of Vectar Project, a production studio based in Manchester, England. “They’re filmed for two or three days, and then they’re just scrapped. There’s no way to reuse them.”
Related: A hospital ward made from waste highlights Arthur Huang’s mission to revolutionize recycling
To address the problem, Vectar Project is making fully recyclable sets using boards made from cardboard and paper.
Vectar says the boards are made exclusively from wood scraps, such as the sawdust and branches left over from wood production, and they primarily use water-based adhesives, rather than chemicals like formaldehyde that are often used in wood-based boards.
According to Vectar, its boards have an environmental footprint that is 90% lower than MDF and three times lower than plywood. Because the boards are much lighter than MDF, Vectar says their transportation costs less fuel, helping to reduce their carbon footprint.
“We can produce it locally, it’s a lot lighter to transport, it’s faster to go together,” Gilmour said.
Although lightweight, Gilmour says the boards are strong enough to support a person’s weight. While some production designers assume the sets will be like “some kind of gruesome 1970s polystyrene brick sci-fi show,” Gilmour said, the material is “indistinguishable from wooden sets until you pick it up.”
Vectar’s most recent work has been on commercials for companies such as male grooming brand Old Spice and British retail chain JD Sports. It has also recently developed sets for the long-running British soap opera Coronation Street and has begun building sets for a major Hollywood production, which Vectar said it was not allowed to name.
Recently, more and more attention has been paid to the environmental impact of the film industry. An average tentpole film production creates 2,840 tons of carbon dioxide, according to Albert. That is equivalent to the energy consumption of 358 average American households in a year. The organisation, which is affiliated with the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), works with the film industry to reduce its environmental footprint.
Some productions have committed to using solar power for generators and banning plastic bottles on sets. However, film productions are still trying to find other ways to become carbon neutral, says Gilmour. “There is an awareness that is needed in the industry, but there are not many easy fixes,” he adds.
Vectar recently won BAFTA’s Makers and Shakers Award for sustainability, as well as the Greening All Work award at the Ashden Awards, which are organized by a UK climate action charity.
Zsófia Szemerédy, Albert’s international manager of film and TV production, says an advantage of Vectar’s lightweight film sets is that they are easier to build than with conventional wood. “You don’t need that many people,” she explained. “You save … on energy, on personnel. And that really contributes a lot because that’s the biggest part of your carbon footprint,” she added.
Vectar isn’t the only company trying to reduce the environmental impact of film sets. In Los Angeles, Recycled Movie Sets rents already used sets donated by productions that no longer need them and EcoSet also partners with productions to reuse and recycle sets
It is a sign that the film and television industry is trying to improve its green credentials. In 2019, the film “1917” became the first large-scale British film to receive Albert’s highest certification. Netflix, which produced about 1.1 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, announced a goal to reach net zero emissions by the end of 2022 (Netflix does not include emissions from internet transmission or electronic devices viewers use to watch the platform ).
Gilmour believes Vectar’s sets play a vital role in the industry. “It’s not the only thing in film and TV that needs to change,” he said. “But it is the only truly sustainable solution for set construction for the time being.”