It's lunchtime on the set of "The Muppets," the high-profile Hollywood production, bringing the beloved characters back to the big screen for the first time since 1999, and co-writer/star Jason Segel is in the mood for mischief. Looking over the vast array of trash and recycling bins designed to accept various forms of waste, Segel turns to the 23-year-old woman standing guard over the receptacles and loudly asks, "Hey, Yazmin! What bucket does the vomit go in?"
Yazmin Watkins blushes and laughs along with the rest of the cast and crew. She's good at taking a joke, which might as well be part of her job description. As the environmental steward for the film, she's the person responsible for reducing the amount of waste produced on set and cutting down on the energy, water and other natural resources that go into production — not an easy task on a project with a reported $40 million budget that involves months of shooting and thousands of cast and crew members.
Her job starts several weeks before any filming begins, giving her time to hunt down and hire green vendors, such as waste haulers that are willing to transport compost and caterers who cook with organic ingredients. She meets with each department, such as wardrobe, construction and locations, to discuss the most environmentally friendly choices for the film. On set, she refills reusable water bottles for the puppeteers — a task that would usually fall to a low-level production assistant, but that Watkins gladly takes on so that no one will be tempted to drink from a plastic bottle and toss it in the trash.
We're desperately trying to avoid the cliché here, but let's just come right out and say it: Kermit was right when he sang about the lack of ease of being green.
"The Muppets" is being produced by Disney, which launched the environmental steward program in 2009. "The environment is affected by every single department in a motion picture," says producer Whitney Green, who helped make Disney's "Race to Witch Mountain" more eco-conscious. "We realized, when we started looking at it, how much we could potentially accomplish if we had someone devoted full time to this. This could be a job."
Since then, Disney has placed an environmental steward on every production. Watkins (right, on set with Kermit) applied for the job as a senior at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., where she learned from career services that Disney was hiring for a new position requiring passion for the environment and an interest in film. As a vegetarian and someone who cares about the environment, Watkins thought the position sounded like a dream. "The Muppets" is her second complete gig, after working in Utah on the science fiction film "John Carter" (about a former Confederate soldier who is transported to Mars) and a shorter stint helping out on "Pirates of the Carribbean IV."
Segel isn't the only one on "The Muppets" set who gives Watkins a (mostly) good-natured hard time. She's been called Green Police, Green Queen, Oscar the Grouch, Green Gestapo, Eco Terrorist and Flower Child — and those are just the ones she remembers off the top of her head. It helps, though, that many of the more senior producers have her back.
"Sometimes the vendors aren't on board day one," says John Scotti, co-producer and unit production manager for "The Muppets," where the catering department balked at the cost of providing biodegradable cutlery instead of the disposable plastic variety. "I had to explain to the caterer, 'Listen, I'm not expecting you to eat the difference,'" Scotti says. "I'll write you a check for the difference so we can have 100 percent compostable-cutlery and be a green show."
Exactly what being a "green show" means isn't monitored or regulated by the government or anyone else. But many studios have implemented sustainability initiatives in recent years, and they're working together on ways to judge success. In January 2010, the Producers Guild of America launched GreenProductionGuide.com, a free resource that includes a database of green vendors that producers have worked with and trust. It also provides a carbon calculator template designed for entertainment productions and a compilation of the sustainability guidelines followed by some of the industries' biggest players, such as Warner Bros., Disney, NBC Universal, Fox and Sony Pictures Entertainment.
One of the biggest challenges for a green steward is finding ways to reuse items from a film set that would otherwise be discarded. The Muppets, for instance, produced a lot of difficult-to-recycle color gels. Watkins suggested donating them to film schools in Southern California for use in student projects. Whenever catering had extra food, Watkins called the Midnight Mission in downtown Los Angeles to come and pick up the leftovers. "In this industry," says Teddy Yonenaka, the film's craft services director, "we use something, toss it, and keep going. That's just the nature of the film business. So Yazmin being here, we can kind of watch that."
So maybe Kermit was only partially right: It's not easy being green, but when someone's around to remind you, it gets easier.
Solvie Karlstrom wrote this article for OnEarth Magazine. Solvie writes for NRDC's Smarter Living and Smarter Cities websites, Rodale.com and other online outlets, and serves as web editor and marketing support for Green Media Solutions, an environmental consulting firm serving the entertainment industry.