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Lights, Camera, Recycle!

Hollywood’s penchant for rehashing old, worn-out ideas is finally being put to good use

Author Jon Marcus Illustration Peter Norvath


A few blocks from Forest Lawn Cemetery—the final resting place of Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor—is a warehouse that backs up to a railroad track. The building, in the Glendale section of Los Angeles, doesn’t look like much from the outside. But inside is a shifting fantasy world of fake snow, giant dice, a 13-foot pink tree and a dining-room set with holes cut into it for cables that make it “float.” It is, in short, a place where Hollywood flotsam and jetsam are given new life.

The outfit occupying the warehouse, EcoSet, is at the forefront of a growing movement, one that aims to reduce the waste generated by the entertainment industry, in which elaborate sets are often built and dismantled in a matter of days, and usually dumped in landfills. EcoSet estimates that television commercial shoots in Los Angeles alone create about 4,000 tons of trash per year.

“We call it the underbelly,” says Kris Barberg, EcoSet’s executive director. “People outside the filming world don’t even know about this, and some in the industry are really, really bothered by it.”

EcoSet was started in 2008 by Shannon Bart—who has since moved on to take charge of sustainable production at NBCUniversal—and is now run by Barberg, an inveterate hiker and outdoorswoman. Both are TV commercial production veterans. The company has collected nearly 350 tons of material used in ads for the likes of Samsung and Subaru, redistributing more than 200 tons to film students, artists and nonprofit organizations. “What we’re proving,” says Barberg, “is that the stuff they’re throwing away can be useful.”

Barberg’s company doesn’t charge the recipients of its bounty. Instead, it makes money by charging clients for its services, a combination of waste management and eco-consultancy. Along with carting off building-size temporary backdrops, the firm might recommend that an on-set catering company use reusable stainless steel water bottles rather than plastic ones, or arrange for food waste to be composted.

As for the “useful” stuff that gets passed along, Barberg cites the 60 tons of sand from an artificial beach used in a Target ad, part of which was donated to a wildlife sanctuary; the 15-ton game-show set from an Old Navy ad that formed the backdrop for a music festival; and the shelving used to simulate a retail-store interior that went to a local charity.

So far, EcoSet has focused its efforts on the ad industry, but there is room for expansion. The Producers Guild of America has reported that a single motion picture can generate 275 tons of set debris and 70 tons of food waste, and has formed its own nonprofit to encourage filmmakers to go green. Outfits similar to EcoSet are springing up in cities like Vancouver and New York. Finally, the film and TV industries are starting to take recycling seriously, as are the manufacturers whose goods are being advertised.

“It really is a win-win,” says Geoff Bado, a senior manager at Campbell Soup Company, which now requires production companies to recycle materials from commercial sets. Kitchen cabinets used in Campbell’s “Momma’s Boy” series were used on the set of an independent film. “I have not had pushback from any producer I’ve worked with,” Bado says. “What I get more than anything is that they wish that more clients did this kind of thing.”

George Watland, senior director of the Sierra Club in Los Angeles, points out that this sort of enthusiasm isn’t driven by altruism alone. “Not only are they avoiding the cost of hauling this stuff to the landfill, they’re reusing it, and saving money that way,” he says. Beyond this, Watland adds, going green is always going to be good PR.

Whatever the motives behind Hollywood’s recycling drive, the industry has suddenly and unexpectedly found itself at the vanguard of Zero Waste LA, the city’s enormously ambitious environmental project, which aims to reduce landfill use by 90 percent over the next decade. “They’re helping other businesses realize that they can save money by doing this too,” says Watland. “It’s become part of bringing the rest of the city along to catch up.”

Perhaps the biggest proponents of repurposing mock Main Streets and fictitious winter wonderlands are the people who create them. “Production designers feel good knowing their sets have been donated rather than rotting in a dumpster,” says Barberg. “They don’t want to throw away their art.”

Boston-based reporter and editor Jon Marcus thinks that the creepy wig in the Old Spice Super Bowl ad would look very nice on his living room floor.

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