Green Screens: The Fight for Sustainability on Vancouver’s Film Sets

You can describe Riverdale a lot of ways. Melodramatic. Sensationalistic. An upsettingly sexual portrait of Miss Grundy. But you can also call it a gas guzzler.

It’s nothing personal toward Archie and the gang: film sets in general have a huge carbon footprint. An estimated 500 tonnes of CO2 are emitted on average over the course of a single production, and considering that hundreds of projects film in B.C. every year, it seems our $3.2 billion provincial industry is putting much more than just titillating teen dramas into the atmosphere.

Emissions tend to add up on set, between the paper output required (daily scripts, call sheets and contracts) and the waste that comes along with providing three square meals on the go for hundreds of people. Then there’s the fuel consumption: generators, transportation, airfare.

“We’re not an industry that has a profile of being out there polluting the atmosphere or cutting down a lot of trees, but if you look closer, we do use a lot of material and we are very temporary,” says veteran production manager Warren Carr, currently working on thriller series Brand New Cherry Flavor. “Imagine if someone built 200 houses in one part of town and two years later tore it all down.”

But sprinkled across the city are voices calling for change from the ground up. There’s Creative BC’s Reel Green initiative, a resource guide. There’s green production consulting firm Green Spark Group, which runs the two-day Sustainable Production Forum each fall, with workshops on topics like carbon literacy. And there are the individuals trying to make a difference on set. About a year ago, production manager Robyn Wiener walked backstage on a Hallmark mystery set to see a sea of half-empty plastic water bottles, and decided she’d had enough. She put out a memo setting a new standard: “I said, ‘We’re a small show, but we have to try.’” Cast and crew were asked to bring their own bottles and mugs to cut down on single-use items. A no-idling policy was put in place, and hyper-specific recycling bins were brought onto set. At production meetings, 25 to 30 people sit around with scripts: since Wiener started asking her team to go digital with software called Scriptation, only a handful still use paper. “It was as simple as saying, ‘Please don’t print a 105-page script,’”she says.

The kicker is this: being sustainable is a good business decision, not just for the warm fuzzies it brings your staff, but because doing the right thing saves money. “There’s a huge misconception that green costs more,” says Clara George, a producer on fantasy series The Magicians and a vocal sustainability activist. “It costs less.” One season, George rented equipment to upgrade the electric system instead of running generators: it paid for itself in a few months. Buying a dishwasher and a stack of melamine plates cost her $6,000, but reducing single-use catering garbage saved $8,000. Changing 10 bulbs in the studio to LED cut the power usage by thousands of kilowatts and saved the company $20,000.

Reducing waste from set design has been a two-fold approach: building set-pieces with reuse in mind (like creating a standard dimensions for windows so elements can be swapped in), and using the Keep It Green Material Reuse program, where sets are saved for use by other productions, charities or film students. In 2019, 138 tonnes of materials were donated to Material Reuse: walls, doors, windows and even pianos.

Funnily enough, what makes these transient productions so prone to waste is also what will help them make the change they need. “Every time we start up a new show, we bring in what we did before,” says George. “I’m only one person, but as a producer I can influence 500 people on a set each time, and see that influence spread from set to set.” With giant corporations that have multinational partners and 15-year business plans, it’s hard to move the needle. The film industry can move it instantly—provided they get the right combination of policy and staff buy-in. “We’re used to working on a deadline. If we wanted to make it snow today, we do it,” says George. “So it’s kind of our responsibility to look at what a clean Vancouver could be.”

That influence trickles into film-adjacent industries and suppliers. Roy’s Copier—a frequent supplier of scripts to the industry—now only offers 100 percent recycled-paper printing thanks to influence by Reel Green. This small change saves 85,000 trees a year. (“A small forest!” says George.) Reel Green also went to rental car companies to ask for hybrid cars to use on sets, and the one company that listened, Driving Force, had such a demand that it’s now rocking 100 hybrid cars in its fleet.

One of the biggest wins for the green crusaders in film lately was securing clean electric infrastructure for film sets: goodbye, generators. “It’s crazy we were hauling around generators when we just aren’t allowed to use clean power,” says George. If each show can replace three fuel generators, over the course of 7,000 filming days that could save more than six million litres of fuel a year. City Hall passed a motion to reduce diesel generators in July; the average film set at the VAG started plugging into the power grid instead, and rapidly went from 45 generators to three.

The industry isn’t perfect yet, but it’s reassuring to hear that change is happening —not that you would ever know it when you turn on the TV.  “If you push your crew to compost,” says George, “that doesn’t change one line of dialogue, one shot.”