Hollywood works to stop sets and props from ending up in landfill Sets are often discarded after productions, with thousands of tons of materials going into dumpsters each year. Now art directors and their allies are pushing for a more sustainable approach.

How Hollywood art directors are working to keep their sets out of the landfill

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Hollywood is creative and also wasteful. For example, set designers create the backdrops for TV shows and movies and then throw it all out. Thousands of tons of materials end up in dumps each year. Some in the industry want a more sustainable approach. NPR's Chloe Veltman reports.

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: For decades, it was standard practice in Hollywood for art departments to build sets for movies and TV shows from scratch, and then break them down and haul the pieces off to the landfill at wrap time. For example, there was the 1988 high school comedy "Johnny Be Good"...


CHUCK BERRY: (Singing) Go, Johnny, go, go.

VELTMAN: ...The long-running TV drama "Bones"...


DAVID BOREANAZ: (As Seeley Booth) Grab your skull, and let's vamoose.

VELTMAN: ...The political action thriller "Olympus Has Fallen," as recently as 2013.


MORGAN FREEMAN: (As Speaker Trumbull) ...Just opened the gates of hell.

VELTMAN: These are just a few of the projects veteran art director Karen Steward worked on where she says this happened.

KAREN STEWARD: The dumpsters just line up at the end of the show, and there's no talking about it because it's time to get off the soundstage.

VELTMAN: Steward is part of a group of like-minded Art Directors Guild members who have been pushing for more sustainable practices for years. She says it was hard at first to get much traction.

STEWARD: We're all about not wasting time, and hurry up, and get it done and time is money.

VELTMAN: But Steward says things are becoming easier as the industry is gradually coming to grips with its impact on human-caused climate change.

STEWARD: It's getting better. And to find a true circular solution, a true zero-waste idea is what we're working toward.

VELTMAN: The average production in 2022 created about 240 tons of waste. That's according to Earth Angel, an agency that works with productions to reduce their environmental footprint. They estimated half of this waste came from sets. One way to reduce this is to reuse old sets rather than always building new ones.


VELTMAN: Beachwood Services, owned by Sony, rents out sets and props for reuse that were originally built for its own productions. Outside Beachwood's facility north of Los Angeles, Francisco Escobedo works with fellow crew members to load a sink and cabinets onto a truck.

FRANCISCO ESCOBEDO: It's basically a set from a kitchen, and this is going to a stage somewhere.

VELTMAN: For use in the popular sitcom, "That '90s Show."

ESCOBEDO: We're going to put some line over here and strap it down.

VELTMAN: The warehouse is packed with scenic gems, like the chopper from the 2001 war movie "Black Hawk Down."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) We got a black hawk down, black hawk down.

VELTMAN: It's looking a bit dusty.

MIKE MANCILLA: Yes, it's been here for a while (laughter), but we do rent it out to other production companies that need it.

VELTMAN: Crew member Mike Mancilla says that chopper has been used for "Terminator 4 (ph)," "Suicide Squad" and "The A-Team"...


LIAM NEESON: (As John "Hannibal" Smith) I love it when a plan comes together.

VELTMAN: ...Among other movies and TV shows. And when those sets get too old to rent out to productions, they often wind up at places like EcoSet. EcoSet is in Los Angeles. Productions pay for the company to haul away their unwanted sets, props and construction materials. Instead of going to landfills, those treasures are then donated to whoever wants them, like Oyster Liao.


VELTMAN: The film student is pushing a metal shopping cart around the aisles of EcoSet's warehouse. It's piled so high with pots of paint she can barely see over it. She's also on the hunt for plastic tarps...

OYSTER LIAO: I think it will be very interesting when light penetrates through.

VELTMAN: ...For use in her class movie production. It's a psychological thriller set in a half-built auditorium.

LIAO: I think this place is very friendly for students who don't have so much fund and support, and I like that we don't have to waste so much.


VELTMAN: But these solutions to Hollywood's chronic waste problem only go so far. EcoSet's owners don't know what happens to all of the free stuff the business gives out, whether it's recycled again or trashed. Also, many warehouses around the region that used to keep old sets and props in circulation, like Sony's Beachwood Services, have downsized or shuttered in the past couple of years owing to rising real estate costs.

JONATHAN WANG: I don't think anyone in our industry would shy away from really hard challenges, or else we wouldn't be in our industry, but I do think it's tricky.

VELTMAN: That's Jonathan Wong. He produced the Oscar-winning movie "Everything Everywhere All At Once." He's also a champion of sustainable practices on film sets. He says, despite people's best intentions, a lot of stuff still gets thrown out in the rush to meet hectic production deadlines, including on his own sets.

WANG: I think it's important to just acknowledge that we're all figuring it out. We're trying to do it better.

VELTMAN: Wang says producers should plan for reducing their environmental impact in the same way that they dealt with the COVID pandemic in recent years, when they allocated 4 or 5% of their budget to cover things like health and safety offices and testing.

WANG: We adapted to the emergency that was needed on set. And we are currently in an emergency with burning through resources faster than we renew them.

VELTMAN: So, Wang says, producers need to make similar room in their budgets for innovation towards sustainability. That way, he says, Hollywood will get closer to zero waste.

Chloe Veltman, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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