SUSTAINABILITY COMMITTEE CO-CHAIRS ASTRA BURKA AND ANDREW GAINOR ON SUSTAINABLE SETS AND GREENING THE FILM INDUSTRY

In honour of Earth Day today, we spoke to the co-chairs of DGC Ontario’s Sustainability Committee: Production Designer Astra Burka and Location Manager Andrew Gainor. Read on to learn about their work on the Committee, their goals for the future of the industry and circular economy, and what all of us can do to reduce our individual carbon footprint.

Whatever comes in should be recorded, so you actually see that there’s an exit plan for everything. Whatever comes in, you have a plan for what goes out. That’s really what the circular economy is – where does this waste go, and how much is actually being diverted?

-Astra Burka
Sustainability Committee Co-Chairs Astra Burka & Andrew Gainor

How did you get your start in the industry, and what led you to your interest in sustainability?

Andrew: I’m a Location Manager. I’ve been in the Guild for over 30 years now. A few years ago, I started my own waste removal company, Green Film Maintenance Inc., taking the garbage and recycling away from sets after filming, just to be a better service and to be more economical. I then discovered the difficulties of recycling, and how productions go about separating their recycling from the garbage. It’s very dysfunctional in terms of trying to recycle. So I became involved through my specific niche with removing waste from a location at the end of filming. The Sustainability Committee was formed last year, and knowing my background in waste and recycling removal, the Guild asked me if I would co-chair it with Astra, and I agreed. 

Astra: My background is in architecture; I came from architecture to film and worked as a Production Designer, and I’m also an independent filmmaker directing and producing my own shorts and documentaries. I’m passionate about sustainability in film, so around 2014, I started getting involved with the circular economy, and was looking at material waste within architecture. I’ve been just aghast at how much waste there is in the construction business, so I did a course with University of Toronto engineering students on how to deconstruct a house with modular bins so that you can separate the materials rather than throw them into one bin. Then I saw that the film industry was getting interested in sustainability, and I always think of the film industry as the trendsetters. They’re ahead of the game. 

I got involved with the DGC National Climate Action Sustainability Committee, working with the art department on how to deconstruct sets, and how to deal with vinyls. Just like Andrew, I was asked to co-chair the Sustainability Committee and that was very exciting. It’s my passion, it’s Andrew’s passion, we get along fantastically, and we both have different skills that can make a dynamic impact in the industry. 

What are some of your goals for the future of the committee and for the industry in terms of sustainability?

Andrew: Our current goals are really focusing on improving awareness for all Members about sustainability and what they can do. The other goal we’re concentrating on now is training and creating courses that can teach the whole Membership, in every Caucus, what they can do to help with sustainability, the environment, and energy use. 

Astra: We’ve met with all the different unions and formed a little group with IATSE, NABET, ACTRA and ourselves, working on issues like how to deconstruct a set. In each of our meetings with the caucuses, we educate them with different presentations. The barrier seems to always be, “How do we get started?” We want to be a resource, we want to guide Members towards helpful organizations like Ontario Green Screen, or DGCgreen.ca, so that the information flows, and there’s total transparency. 

For someone who’s reading this article and thinking, “this is great, how can I get started?”, what’s one thing everyone working in the industry can do to decrease their footprint?

Andrew: Really being aware and changing your mindset is key. So for example, even something like ordering lunch, if everybody orders their lunch from the same company, that reduces the cost of delivery, and the energy used to deliver. Do those foods require a high input of energy to bring to market, or is it something more local that requires less energy? Just little things like reducing single-use plastics, and bringing your own cutlery to work, turning the lights off when you’re leaving a room. We used to tie into the electrical grid, instead of running diesel power, things like that. If you’re on location, for example, try to keep your locations close together, so the crew isn’t travelling great distances. If you have a location in Whitby and another location in Mississauga, and you’re travelling during the day from one to the other, that’s a fairly big carbon footprint on that day.

We’re trying to educate and to bring to the forefront all of that knowledge so people can make their own individual decisions, but a lot of bigger decisions, like not running a diesel generator, are issues that the producer has to weigh in on. Some things are really dictated by the entire production. So we’re also trying to educate producers on those options as well. 

Astra: And for example, in the Art Department, offering Members courses so that when they design a set, they can deconstruct it and it can be reused or put into a lockup. The Art Department uses a lot of vinyl, so there are opportunities to share the vinyl, keep the vinyl, or find vinyl that can be recycled. Even things like giving the crew a Green Kit when you start shooting with a reusable water bottle. It’s all those little things – like with food orders, to make sure that the food is being delivered in sustainable materials, that’s just one phone call: “Are you using compostable plates or compostable containers versus black plastic?” What we’re trying to do is to create awareness and messaging. Sometimes the responsibility for a green set is with the producer, the PM, or even the studio. So you try to educate from the bottom up.

What do you think the biggest uphill battle is going to be in terms of getting people to adopt these practices?

Astra: I think waste is a huge battle. Every show throws out dozens of bins into landfills every week. How do you divert that into reusable, recyclable materials? Whatever comes in should be recorded, so you actually see that there’s an exit plan for everything. Whatever comes in, you have a plan for what goes out. That’s really what the circular economy is – where does this waste go, and how much is actually being diverted? So I think waste and diesel are the two key issues. Those create the biggest carbon footprints.

Andrew: I agree, waste is a big issue. A lot does go to landfills from the end of production. In terms of just our carbon footprint, the diesel generator is one of the biggest generators of carbon. It’s more efficient if you’re using a new generator that’s more fuel-efficient and has better monitoring systems. An older one will burn more diesel to generate the same amount of electricity, so even getting the rental houses to upgrade their systems is ideally something that needs to happen.

As Astra mentioned, we’re also part of the overall green group with all the different unions, so we’re increasing our reach and talking to more producers. One of the other issues is that there is a disconnect between what the studios are asking for and what’s actually happening on the ground. Virtually all the studios now have a green protocol to try and green their productions, but not everyone is necessarily following that. So one of the other things that we’re trying to do is to get everybody on board and to show how it can be achieved. One of the things we’re trying to do is to try and put together a course to show production managers how to budget for a sustainable production, because there are savings as well as costs.

Are either of you were doing anything to mark Earth Day?

Astra:  There’s going to be a new sustainable primer course offered on Earth Day from DGC National that active DGC Members can take. So that’s going to be very cool. By next Earth Day, we’re hoping to have more initiatives in place to create more fun with sustainability rather than trying to find all the solutions. We have to have fun being sustainable!

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