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And… action! Recycling goes to Hollywood

On a recent trip to the US, it was refreshing to see that Hollywood studios and popular tourist attractions like the Grand Canyon national park support the recycling message. This is a welcome realisation on Earth Day.

You may have noticed I was off the radar for a while. I’ve just come back from Las Vegas, where I attended the ISRI convention. The day after the tradeshow ended, my boyfriend Roland and I rented a car and embarked on a road trip to explore Nevada, Arizona and California. I was surprised to find so many (routinely emptied) recycling bins at national parks – there was no trace of the mass tourism.

Obviously, we had to make a stop in Los Angeles. Home to a sea of palm trees, surfers, the Walk of Fame, Rodeo Drive and young dreamers wanting to make it to the big screen. Again, against my expectations, the beating heart of the US film industry has similarly evolved into a recycling-friendly area.

Universal has 30 sound stages used to shoot films and TV shows, while Warner Brothers (WB) has 37. Walking around the permanent outdoor sets, which include a main street with stores, city hall, church and bell tower (used in the classic Back to the Future franchise), I noticed that some buildings had two faces.

I mean this literally; the front and the back end of certain houses differed so they may be used for multiple stories, sometimes set in completely different times. It’s a creative way to extend the lifecycle of a property, for sure.

Touring the interior sets of WB sports drama series ‘All American’, we learned that the classrooms and offices featured on the show are all shot in the same space. With the clever use of elaborate set photos, stickers and barcodes (that cover all props big and small ever made) the crew members rearrange furniture and decor pieces to create the illusion of a whole new room.

Once the storyline is completed, the unnecessary items (including supporting walls, windows and doors) are swiftly removed from the set and put into storage. These large pieces also contain a unique barcode so they can be traced in the digital library at any time.

Once a character is written out of the story, or a TV show reaches its final season, WB studios may opt to change the paint, wallpaper or other elements of the set design so it can serve another production. ‘Nothing gets thrown out, we recycle sets and props as long as we can,’ our tour guide Amanda told me.

‘It’s part of our “Green Initiative”; we want to make the most of our materials.’ She was quick to point out a poster bearing the recycling logo. ‘We also ask all staff members to separate their recyclables. All sound stages have at least one or two recycling bins.’

That same evening, we attended a studio recording of the revived 80s sitcom ‘Night Court’. Our presence at sound stage 41 was said to be ‘a big deal’ considering our group was the first to be allowed back on set after the pandemic. During one of our many breaks (I never realised how long it takes to film one single episode!) we were escorted to the guests’ food and beverage station. Right next to it was, you guessed it, a recycling bin.

One point of criticism is that we weren’t allowed to take a bottle back inside with us. I get that eating a bag of crisps might interfere with sound editing but do we really drink so loudly? This resulted in our party of 60 generating quite a bit of unnecessary waste over the course of just five hours (breaks were short because no one wanted to miss the filming experience – especially the bloopers).

I was promptly told to ‘toss’ my mineral water after taking just a few sips, required to counter the dryness of the cheese crackers I had to finish in one sitting. I grumpily complied. Inside the bin were the remains of half-eaten snacks and semi-full cans and bottles. It makes me wonder if the catering for actors and crew members is organised in the same fashion. 

That night, we had shrimp in China Town and stayed at a nice hotel in Pasadena, a short drive from the WB lot. Back on the busy streets downtown, I noticed the droves of homeless people sleeping rough or in tents. Some had set up camps and were surrounded by litter, mainly fast-food packaging, plastic bags and cigarette butts.

It was a stark contrast to the manicured lawns and clean streets seen in Beverly Hills earlier that day. It dawned on me that single-use packaging or inadequate recycling infrastructure isn’t the biggest problem our society is facing – it’s how we deal with people. After all, you can start as many outreach programmes as you want but how are you going to phase out waste without addressing minimum wage, mental health problems and substance abuse?

I wonder if maybe the mindset of big cities like LA is too reactionary. It rained heavily on the first day we arrived – so much so that pavements and roads were partly flooded. At one point I was in a puddle almost up to my ankles. Floods occur because there are hardly any drains in the city centre and the water simply has nowhere to go. ‘It’s mostly sunny here; this weather is rare,’ I heard by way of explanation.

I watched as people tried their best to walk or drive around the mess as officials were blocking off roads and kids took the opportunity to make a splash. The situation reminded me of a Dutch saying “to mop the floor while the tap is running”. It means you are trying to solve a problem without changing the conditions, essentially cleaning up after yourself over and over again.

It’s a pointless cycle. I think we know better than to wait for the same problem to occur a second, third or tenth time before taking action. This applies to improving recycling schemes and city infrastructure as much as it does to raising the standard of living.

Looking ahead, I’d love to see some more conscious changes in legislation so that California’s recyclers and its residents can both have a “happy ending”. Our world needs that to be more than a hollow Hollywood phrase.

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