In 2013, the film and television industry operate under a widespread initiative to make sets as green as possible, with most major studios establishing departments expressly for that purpose. But other companies, such as independent production houses and advertising concerns that produce commercials, may need some help, and that’s where EcoSet Consulting comes in.

Armed with a mandate to “mitigate waste, minimize footprint, maximize resources and magnify possible,” as Executive Director Kris Barberg puts it, EcoSet “creates an environment on set where everyone can make responsible choices and use resources more efficiently as we work hard to redefine the word ‘trash’ in the minds of the film crews we work with.”

In business since 2009, when it partnered with Target on a commercial, EcoSet has worked with such brands as Campbell Soup Company, Honda, Subaru, Old Navy, Ford and Microsoft on productions in the United States and abroad.

Barberg, who worked her way up from production assistant to supervisor on various productions before joining forces with partner Shannon Bart, explains the company concept, aim and process.

MNN: How did EcoSet begin?

Kris Barberg: Shannon Bart founded EcoSet in Minnesota in 2008 after successfully implementing a green set on the Coen Brothers film “A Serious Man.” At the time, Shannon and I were working as freelancers in the film industry in both Minneapolis and Los Angeles. After a few years of working on commercial and independent film sets, Shannon became increasingly concerned with the amount of waste created throughout the production process and set out to change it. While working as production secretary on “A Serious Man,” Shannon pitched a comprehensive zero waste plan to the producers. With their approval and a blessing from the studio, she proceeded to engage the entire crew in the effort. In 10 shoot weeks, 11 tons of waste was diverted from the local waste stream. Other successes from the production included the near elimination of individual plastic water bottles and the donation of set walls and production materials during wrap. Shannon started EcoSet shortly after this experience, and these practices became the foundation of our services. 

What specifically do you do?

We address the challenges of the fast-paced, ever-changing and often vastly wasteful production process. In partnership with our clients, we’re setting new standards for sustainable best practices, including our goal of zero-waste sets. We’ve crafted our services to be a collaboration with department heads and crew members. Throughout the production, EcoSet works to prevent waste from being created, recycles and composts the materials that are used, and rescues valuable materials that would have been destined for the dumpster. After every shoot we see that one person’s trash is truly another’s treasure, and we re-circulate as many castoffs as possible into the community for reuse. Since we began, 147 tons, which is 52 percent of the materials discarded on the sets we’ve worked on, have been repurposed in the local community — we actually see recycling as a last resort.

To make our reuse process more efficient, last year we opened a Community Resource Center (CRC) in Los Angeles where nonprofits, artists, theaters, schools and individuals can receive materials for no cost. Organizations and artists peruse our shelves by appointment each week, and we also host seasonal “Giving Back” events, where organizations can select a large quantity of items to benefit their constituents. Around the holidays, we donate tens of thousands of dollars of seasonal décor, home goods, furniture, toys and clothing. Each year, nonprofits that come to these events tell us that some families wouldn’t have gifts for their children if it weren’t for the items we give them from our clients’ holiday productions. We have more than 400 nonprofits in our database in multiple cities. We prioritize nonprofits that do not sell the donated goods, but use them to directly benefit the families and individuals that they serve.

In addition to waste reduction and repurposing, we also advocate the use of renewable energy options on set. As solar-assisted vehicles and technology have become more available in Los Angeles, we work with productions to understand what is available and encourage the use of these new options. We hire locals wherever we go in an effort to integrate sustainable best practices with the local production culture. Our hope is that we can show what is possible locally and that many of the practices we implement will be carried on long after we wrap on that production.

We are an insurance policy and a way to improve brand reputation. Our services provide a way to reach out and give back to the local community. Our clients feel that engaging EcoSet in their productions is easy and unobtrusive and simply put, it’s the right thing to do. We also provide added value beyond our on-set work, such as data tracking and heart-warming donation stories that can be used by our clients for internal and external messaging. We’re eager to work with corporations with existing environmental and social responsibility priorities.

Do you devise green plans for each production?
We start by aligning our services with our clients’ existing Corporate Social Responsibility commitments. Many corporations are setting waste, energy and carbon reduction goals, and we translate those values into best practices on their film sets. We provide consultation and strategy as well as hands-on supervision of our zero waste services on set. We pre-determine the environmental priorities and solutions for the project based on the creative concepts and scope of the shoot, then during pre-production, our coordination team communicates with various members of the production to orchestrate the logistics of waste prevention and diversion and other practices like implementing solar and renewable energy.  

On shoot days, we dispatch one or two EcoSet crewmembers to be on location. EcoSet is like another department on set and our goal is to keep discarded materials from reaching landfills. We partner with local haulers and recyclers in the cities where we work, and EcoSet’s crew collects and sorts the materials on set based on what the specific hauler can recover. Our crew is first on set and last to leave, ensuring maximum waste diversion and materials recovery through composting, recycling and collecting reusable items for repurposing in the local community. EcoSet donates what is seen on-camera and repurposes what is used off-camera. Clothing, props, furniture, set dressing and scenic materials are donated to local partners who have the greatest need and can give the items the longest lifecycle. We prioritize giving to organizations that support women and children, family services, recovery and transitional programs, education and the arts.

We also donate discarded items like packaging materials, lighting gels, rope, lumber and countless other scraps or quirky materials to individuals and organizations who can reuse or repurpose them. At the moment, some of the random things on the shelves at our Community Reuse Center (CRC) are broken dishware, scraps of carpet padding, rolls of Astroturf, 20 empty shoe boxes, prop wedding presents, three volcano science projects and a cow costume covered in pink cellulose slime. All of these materials will be placed with people who are happy to receive them and give them a second life.

How much waste is typically saved?

It varies by type of project and filming location, but a typical large shoot in L.A. with 100 or more people can generate between 500 and 1,000 pounds of waste per day. If set walls and construction elements are being used on a project, that number is much higher. We estimate that Los Angeles-based commercial productions alone generate more than 7.5 million pounds of waste annually.

For example, one four-day shoot this year with large custom props and scenic builds generated more than 20,000 pounds of materials that would’ve normally been discarded as waste. Instead, we reclaimed and donated 17,000 pounds (85 percent of the total waste generated) of flooring and wood elements and scraps for reuse. The majority of the additional 3,000 pounds was recycled or composted, ending that project with a 97 percent diversion rate. On a commercial, 80,000 carrots used as a prop for one scene were saved from the compost heap and instead fed both people and animals. Since 2009, EcoSet has donated 147 tons of materials for reuse that would’ve been otherwise sent to landfills. All told, between recycling, composting and reuse, we’ve diverted 262 tons of waste from advertising productions (92.8 percent) in 544 shoot days, which is about the weight of 37 school buses.

Since solar hybrid trailers came on the scene in 2011, we’ve been advocating their use in place of trailers with standard fuel burning generators, which tend to run 14 or more hours a day to supply power to the various departments working on and around the trailer. In 48 shoot days, the solar hybrid trailers were powered exclusively by the sun for 419 hours (only 325 hours powered by the diesel generator), saving about 840 gallons of fuel, avoiding 8.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions and creating an improved air quality and quieter working environment for those working onboard and nearby.

On our first shoot with one new client, they realized in wrap that they needed to reshoot one scene. Had the set been struck in the conventional way --- tossed into a dumpster -- it would have already been on its way to a landfill. Instead, we were holding the elements for donation, and were able to quickly return the needed set pieces and props, saving the production time and thousands of dollars. 

Are companies more receptive to green production than they used to be?

Yes, definitely. Many are already taking steps to address the wastefulness on their productions, but find it exceedingly difficult for busy crewmembers to also take on sustainable best practices. This is why our clients choose to let us take care of implementation on their productions. At the end of the day, what would normally be dozens of black trash bags are carefully sorted bags of compost, recyclables, and usually only the equivalent of one or two bags of trash remain.

What are EcoSet’s current and upcoming productions?

We are in the donation phase of a Target Back to College project that just wrapped in L.A. Every day this week, trucks and trailers have been rolling up to our office, and local theaters and creative groups are beyond thrilled to receive a vast number of set walls, custom-built wooden set pieces and set dressing items like furniture, bedding and wall hangings. We are working on various product shoots in New York and L.A. for Campbell’s Soup Company, which has been prioritizing sustainable production practices for a few years now. There was a large fashion-oriented production in New York at the end of August where we will need to triple the number of our crew and resources compared to an average shoot. Soon, holiday season will be upon us with upcoming seasonal campaigns being filmed this fall by our various clients.

Have you always been eco-conscious? Why is it important to you?

I’ve had an awareness of conservation since I was a child, growing up in the countryside of a small town in Minnesota. Our family gardened and composted and lived really close to the ground. I watched my dad reuse, repurpose and reinvent so many things from scraps and basic materials. For example, he made a sauna at his cabin out of an old insulated shipping container. As an adult, I’ve gravitated toward minimalism and low-impact living. I go beyond choosing local produce and have learned to forage for wild edible and medicinal plants in the hillsides around L.A. My awareness of sustainability began to grow in large part from working as a freelancer in Minneapolis with Shannon and considering everything that passed through my hands. I, too, had seen my fair share of heart breaking wastefulness and apathy in the industry and was ready to be part of the change.

What goals do you set for the company?

To be a company that our staff and freelancers love to work for, film crews and clients proclaim that they want us on every set, and everyone involved would agree that the production process is improved because we were there. In addition to supporting the sustainable practices on set, EcoSet aims to engage and inspire everyone we meet to incorporate sustainable practices in their daily lives and future work, effectively changing the culture of commercial production and making a better world for ourselves and future generations.

What are your proudest accomplishments so far?

We love being part of the local community and being in a position to bring positive change to the cities in which we work. Our Los Angeles Community Reuse Center offers free materials to nonprofits, artists, teachers and individuals. We have created a growing network of over 400 donation partners throughout the U.S. in the various markets where we work. We are proud to be a certified women-owned business and this year we were honored to receive the 2013 Sustainable Small Business Award from the Sustainable Business Council of Los Angeles. EcoSet is very proud of the fact that we are a for-profit company that is creating green jobs and growing in staff and client base each year, proving that sustainable production practices are not just altruistic, but necessary. There is a recognized and growing need for companies to be environmentally responsible and good neighbors in their local community. We are thrilled to be in a position where we can help and guide businesses to be good environmental stewards.

Related on MNN: