The film industry needs to do something about its environmental impact

The film industry has long been destructive to the environment. Now more than ever, filmmakers and producers need to incorporate sustainable film and TV production practices to reduce their carbon footprint.

The film industry needs to do something about its environmental impact
Sustainable filmmaker Laura Torenbeek on set of Candy Floss

by Sydney Bollinger and Rebecca Holland

We need filmmakers to take action for climate change

It’s long been known that the filmmaking industry has wreaked havoc on the environment. Despite many celebrities taking up the cause of climate change, we’re still in the beginning stages of seeing climate action through film and TV.

According to a data analysis by Albert, a U.K. organization focused on sustainable filmmaking, a film with a budget of $70 million or more generates, on average, 2840 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. A little over half of that carbon is generated by travel alone.

This is an expansive problem because film sets are using immense resources. A typical production (in the budget stated above) could power Times Square in New York City for five days with its energy consumption and fuel an average car tank over 11,000 times. This level of resource use is not sustainable in the long-term, especially with the reality of climate change inching closer and closer every day.

Now more than ever, it is paramount that the entertainment industry take heed of climate warnings and figure out how to make the art that we all know and love while taking care of our planet and its people.

What is sustainable filmmaking?

Filmmakers have a couple of approaches to eco-minded production and filmmaking:

  1. Incorporate climate change and sustainability into on-screen narratices
  2. Commit to sustainable, earth-friendly practices behind the camera

Laura Torenbeek, a Dutch filmmaker and founder of Green Film Productions in the U.K., is committed to producing sustainable films. Torenbeek was always interested in storytelling and has long loved the natural world. During film school, she supervised student projects and noticed how much waste was produced, which led to her interest in sustainable filmmaking.

“Making a film doesn’t give you the right to pollute the environment and you should keep sustainability in mind with every decision you make for your project,” Torenbeek said.

Sustainable filmmaking isn’t an easy process, especially because sustainable practices are often at odds with how the film industry has been operating for years. Prioritizing green practices will go a long way in mitigating some effects of the climate crisis.

“[At Green Film Productions] the aim is to not only make our productions carbon neutral, but carbon positive,” said Torenbeek. “We offset our emissions and plant a tree for each production, but are also thinking about other ways to make a positive impact on the environment.”

a man stands in the ocean and on the left a film crew captures the moment
Behind the scenes of Candy Floss (2020), directed by Torenbeek

Torenbeek noted the importance of Albert as a resource for filmmakers, especially in the U.K. Some filmmakers are even required to work with the organization as part of their project’s funding.

The organization takes multiple approaches to sustainability in film, including “Planet Placement” — product placement for climate action, i.e. characters in TV shows using reusable bags or water bottles — and hopes to create change through the storytelling so viewers can see climate action and sustainability as part of everyday life.

Especially as the impacts of climate change worsen, it’s important for these larger productions to take their impact into account.

Organizations like Green Film offer certifications for films meeting sustainability standards. Albert has started offering the Studio Sustainability Standard,co-launched with Sony Pictures and Sony Pictures Studios.

Pushing our favorite studios and directors to seek certification in these areas can be the start of a big change in Hollywood-level film productions. It’s not enough to make or star in Don’t Look Up. We need to see what’s going on behind the scenes and how climate change is at the center of an entire production.

Reducing environmental impact on film sets

More filmmakers and production companies should follow the lead of indie filmmakers like Torenbeek. Plastic bottles, for example, are an enormous problem all over the world, but also in filmmaking.

Although there aren’t specific stats for the film industry, film writer Jazeen Hollings estimates that in 2016 when Universal produced 21 films, production could have used as many as 804,400 plastic bottles in one year. By way of context, 736 films were released in US cinemas in the same year. That’s a lot of plastic.

There’s hope, though. With some foresight and proper planning, many film sets could implement viable alternatives to single-use plastic bottles. There’s also an incentive, because it could actually save money from the budget — and what producer will say no to that?

Potential solutions include implementing a “bring your own” water bottle policy, which is communicated in advance of shooting to all cast and crew. Even better, production could simply provide a reusable bottle to each person from the money saved from not buying bottles of water. Then cast, crew and runners can fill up the bottles from refillable water jugs. And, there’s a great memento of the project to take home too! But seriously, inform everyone. Especially your runners.

It’s not just water bottles, though. Food waste is also an issue. Often sets will have food and snacks for people working on the production. Figuring out earth-friendly ways to dispose of food waste is paramount, especially because food waste is one of the biggest polluters. In the landfill, food waste emits methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide.

Paper is another problem. It’s ubiquitous on set — anyone who’s worked on a set will know about the sheer amount of paper-based documents, including call sheets, scripts, contracts, policies and safety documents. In recent years, digital facilities have come a long way (even for film sets). Not only are there options to use software that automatically sends updated call sheets, electronic signing facilities for contracts, there’s also this little called, um, e-mail. You might have heard of it? All these individual pieces of paper add up over time and can be prevented by simply moving to paper-free options wherever possible.

In addition, establishing composting for food waste and natural materials on set would make a huge difference in waste management. Even if sets continue to use single-use products, switching to compostable products would cut down on waste, thus cutting down on emissions.

Moving forward, productions should be more transparent about their environmental impact. It’s important to see this data, especially as consumers. Soon, sustainability on set won’t be a choice. As the climate crisis continues to make harrowing impacts worldwide, all productions will need to adapt to our “new normal” on the planet. By prioritizing sustainability now, filmmakers can get ahead of the curve, making themselves more resilient — and take the lead on a much-needed movement.


Further Reading

Screen New Deal Report (Albert)

Lights, camera...action for nature?

How the Film and TV Industry is Working Towards Sustainability

Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University

The Environmentally Conscious Mind of Filmmaking

Cut! How the Entertainment Industry is Reducing Environmental Impacts


More from Thursday Matinee

A Brief History of Environmental Filmmaking
While environmental films have definitely gained popularity since the start of the millennium, the past twenty or so years just represents a recent boom in a nearly century-long tradition. Its storied history began with the work of Pare Lorentz in the late 1930s.
Climate Change, Dystopia, and Our Stories
Sydney discusses what the end of the world means for our stories and why narratives about climate change are important as we continue the fight.