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The Green Cinema

Authored by: Andrew Lee

Edited by: Matthew Chiu & Samuel Tan

The Global Cinema Industry Continues to Grow

In 2019, the global cinema industry generated USD 13.49 billion in revenue [1]. In just the United States, a survey conducted in 2019 revealed that 14% of adults patronise cinemas one or more times per month, while 40% occasionally visit cinemas throughout the year [2]. With its attraction of huge crowds and the unique experience of blockbuster films and high-quality screening of films that cinemas provide to audiences, we expect that the cinema industry will likely experience continued industry growth post COVID-19.

However, while the cinema industry experiences continued growth, sustainable progress in the industry is limited. Cinemas have become high-energy users (from high-quality digital projectors and accompanying air conditioning systems) and extreme accumulators of waste (generated from post-movie plastic trash from the food and beverage consumed) over time.

Calls for sustainability are strengthening due to increasing legislative action, rising consumer pressure, high profile investor activism, and corporate ESG policies. To balance current desires with the ecological, societal, and economic needs of future generations, how can the cinema industry adapt? Can cinemas do more for the planet? What types of sustainable measures can be adopted?

Cinemas have become high-energy users (from high-quality digital projectors and accompanying air conditioning systems) and extreme accumulators of waste...

Environmental Concerns of the Cinema Industry

Presently, cinemas and film production places great strain on the state of our environment. At cinemas, the preference for snacks and beverages to consume while watching a movie results in high usage of plastic and paper packaging. This comes in the form of popcorn buckets, drink cups, plastic bottles and printed ticket stubs [3]. The energy usage to cool or heat the cinema, and screen movies exacerbates the unfettered demand for electricity.

Covertly, film production in itself is an even bigger culprit. Research by the British Film Institute has revealed that an average film production emits 2,840 tons of carbon dioxide [4]. The vast majority (66%) is due to transport reasons, followed by the production process (30%) and accommodation (4%) [5]. Even if cinemas manage to fully go green, the high level of carbon emissions in the production of films greatly hinders the ability of the cinema industry to be fully carbon neutral.

The linear nature of consumption and production practices increases energy usage and results in over 315,000 tons of waste on set. From the printing of scripts on paper to the consumption of water in plastic bottles, it is evident that waste production is unlikely to be reduced without active purposeful intervention.

Mitigating the notoriously high carbon footprint of film production

As theorised by the joint report [5] produced by sustainability consultancy Arup and the British Film Institute, there needs to be an adherence to 5 key focus areas in order to effectively rehaul existing film production practices.

Production Materials

Set production and prop building encourages the unsustainable usage of materials. Furthermore, such props and sets are often used for a limited time and discarded promptly after, with little to no opportunities for recycling. The difficulty in transporting bulky and heavy props acts as a deterrence for recycling and the film-specific set reduces its ability to be exactly reused for other films. Encouraging base materials to be reused and adapted to meet future films’ needs would largely target this issue and mitigate wastage of raw materials.

Choosing only materials harvested responsibility and sustainably through products certified by organisations such as Forest Stewardship Council and Rainforest Alliance reduces damage to the natural ecosystem, while championing ethical, social and environmental compliance to regulatory standards.

Precision manufacturing or 3D printing optimises resource usage and reduces material usage to produce props. This brings about efficient utilisation of material and generates long-term cost savings.

Studio Buildings and Facilities

Using Internet of Things (IOT) technology embedded within building systems empowers users to maintain oversight of the internal environment, regulating temperature, humidity, air quality and electricity consumption centrally on a smartphone or computer. Real-time data is collated and fed into analytics frameworks to optimise resource usage and improve efficiency of energy usage. Predictive maintenance reduces lag time and increases the speed of response prior to the failure of any system component.

Studio Sites and Locations

Waste separation measures increases the circular nature of resources and minimises wastage of materials. In the long term, material usage can be refined and cut down from the beginning to save costs and reduce resource extraction from the get-go.

Energy and Water

Green engineered buildings reduce electrical consumption and encourages biodiversity to flourish in the vicinity of buildings. These greening measures serves to save cost and beautify the work environment of the film crew, providing natural spaces to relax and destress. Coupled with renewable energy sources, net zero carbon targets can be within reach and greatly reduce the Carbon Dioxide emissions on a production set.

Production Planning

Prior forecasting and scheduling of filming demands and backdrops build efficient workflow that allow producers to save cost of redundant efforts and save time of the crew. With modern day deep technology such as Virtual Reality software, producers are able to refine and test their intended scenes without the need for production of a physical backdrop.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Lauded as the greenest movie produced by Sony pictures, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 paved the way for other film studios to follow in its lead [6]. 52% of waste was redirected away from landfills by recycling materials or donating out to future film sets for reuse.

Depot shows what the green cinema could look like

Depot is an independent three-screen cinema and cafe-restaurant [7] based in Essex, United Kingdom, and has operated since May 2017. They have implemented a wide range of sustainable measures [8], including renewable energy for its operations, sustainable products at concession stands, and proper waste management procedures. As a result, Depot has been hailed as one of the "greenest cinemas" in Europe.

Depot distinguishes itself through its investment in geothermal heating and cooling systems known as Ground Source Heat Pumps (GSHPs). These systems provide the cinema with efficient underfloor heating and heat water up to 60 degrees. As an alternative to the traditional environmentally harming heater, which is usually considered quintessential during harsh English winters, Depot's investments allows them to save significantly in costs and reduce their carbon emissions.

Depot’s commitment to sustainability is evident in its ambition to minimise energy consumption. Its building design incorporates double glazed windows, LED lighting, automated systems for internal and external lighting, shutters to regulate sunlight and heat, and roof vents rather than air conditioning in the restaurant; all are strong measures for saving energy. The cinema has also layered its roof with green plants as a natural solution for heat and sound insulation. These measures have allowed Depot to achieve its objective of reducing dependency on fossil fuels in its bid to mitigate the effects of global warming and climate action.

Depot evaluates its supply chain to ensure that its materials are sourced ethically from sustainable resources. Depot rigorously screens all materials and products to ensure that sourced supplies align with its ethical values and corporate social responsibility agenda. In particular, Depot selects from manufacturers that generate the lowest possible carbon footprint among its rivals in the manufacturing process and from companies that supply products that can be easily recycled (or reused) after use. Suppliers are also subjected to routine checks on their credentials, ethics, and loyalty to ensure their long-term commitment agree with Depot's vision for a sustainable future.

Another strength of Depot is its relentless dedication to waste management. The cinema is plastic-free: products offered do not contain any form of plastic. Depot does not serve plastic straws (they serve paper straws only upon request) and uses plastic-free takeaway cups in-house. These measures help the cinema staff sort waste and recycling easily, which allows them to dispose of waste more responsibly

They have implemented a wide range of sustainable measures, including renewable energy for its operations, sustainable products at concession stands, and proper waste management procedures.

We have seen how Depot operates a green cinema, from infrastructure to sourcing methods to anti-waste measures adopted by the company in its operations. Looking at Depot's sustainable business model, we can conclude that this is a paragon of how a "green cinema" could operate.

Sustainable strategies for mainstream cinemas

We believe that there are several cost-effective strategies that mainstream cinemas can adopt to increase sustainability.

Serve tap water instead of bottled water

Serving tap water over bottled water saves money, is more convenient, and reduces pressure on the environment.

The Food & Water Watch [9] estimates that bottled water costs around 2,000 times the price of tap water (Figure 1): in the United States, a gallon of single-serve bottled water can cost as much as $9.47 compared to $0.005 for a gallon of tap water. In most cases, the only thing separating the two is that bottled water is often just filtered tap water — in fact, studies have shown that a majority of people cannot tell the difference between tap and bottled water.

Figure 1. Source: Food & Water Watch

Using tap water is also better for the environment. Research has shown that the process of bottling, refrigeration, transport, and disposal associated with bottled water have significantly higher environmental costs than producing tap water. In 2016, the bottling of water in the United States used 4 billion pounds of plastic, requiring an estimated energy input equal to approximately 64 million barrels of oil. These plastic bottles also release toxins when they degrade, bringing harm to frequent consumers of bottled water. During the filming of the Terminator movie, Fresco Films experimented with removing all bottled water and mandating crew members to bring their own bottles to the water refill stations. Over the course of filming, Fresco Films prevented the usage over 95,000 plastic bottles [10].

...the bottling of water in the United States used 4 billion pounds of plastic, requiring an estimated energy input equal to approximately 64 million barrels of oil

However, a challenge posed in adopting tap water is that cinemas have to invest in an in-house water station that can filter out contaminants to meet the local standards for safe drinking water. Implementing this measure may be particularly difficult for developing nations in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa that lack access to clean water and water pipe systems. Furthermore, while we estimate that cost-savings will materialize for investors in the long-run, the immense cost of investing in the in-house water station could deter cinema operators from this investment.

Smart Building Management

Today, between 30 – 50% of energy supplied to buildings are wasted due to inefficiency of electricity usage [11]. Rooms and offices tend to be cooled or lit despite being vacant, leading to excessive wastage of electricity especially during the day when natural light is in abundance.

Smart buildings have the capacity to reduce water consumption, improve air quality and reduce energy usage. The technology revolution has decreased the size of sensors and decreased its energy usage, allowing many sensors to be planted throughout the building. These sensors feed data back into a centralised hub which analyses and monitors the overall environment of the building, thereby optimising water and electricity usage.

Looking at the Edge [12] in Netherlands, it is considered the greenest building in the world because of its innovative features. Firstly, it is constructed facing the North to maximise natural daylight throughout the day while reducing glare. Meanwhile, solar panels are placed on its Southern exterior to collect solar energy which enables the Edge to maximise solar energy harvested while reducing its dependency on electrical lights to brighten up its interior. On average, these solar panels are able to produce more than 100% of the building’s energy usage and be fully energy self-sufficient [13].

30,000 sensors are in place to monitor and track human activity, brightness, occupancy, and temperature levels to adjust energy usage and indoor lighting. Data-driven lighting system has been found to reduce energy consumption by 50% [13].

Rainwater is not spared as well, being used to irrigate vertical greenery, and channelled to the toilets to be used for flushes. In fact, 95% of the building was sourced sustainably, while all wood used is Forest Stewardship Council certified [13].

Increasing Awareness and Adopting CSR Campaigns

Separating and recycling waste is arguably the most cost-efficient method that can reduce environmental damage. By sharing the benefits and responsibilities of recycling with staff and making commitments to recycling, cinemas can effectively implement a recycling strategy. This strategy is particularly feasible in developed countries, such as those in the European Union (EU). According to a study conducted by Singh and Livina in 2015 [14], 89% of EU respondents stated that they separate at least part of their waste, possibly caused by the strong recycling culture and the EU's commitment towards Waste Management Plans. Incentivizing customers to bring bottles themselves could further reduce waste disposal costs.

However, this method may face challenges in implementation if cinema employees are not well-versed in how waste should be separated and recycled. In countries such as Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Togo, where most people do not have access to recycling bins at an individual and communal level, creating a recycling culture may be difficult because there is a general lack of awareness of the benefits of recycling.

By sharing the benefits and responsibilities of recycling with staff and making commitments to recycling, cinemas can effectively implement a recycling strategy

Reduce Use of Single-Use Plastic

Cinema-goers often feel thirsty during a movie and may choose to purchase bottled water or other bottled drinks. However, individuals do not consider the impacts of how they would dispose of plastic bottles.

According to the Container Recycling Institute [15], over 60 million plastic water bottles are thrown away daily in the US alone, with the majority ending up in landfills and waterways. Furthermore, a 2018 study that tested 11 globally sourced bottled water brands from nine different countries revealed that the packaging process contaminated 93% of the bottles with microplastics [16]. Another study [17] showed that the number of plastic particles in bottled water was double the number found in tap water, which affects the metabolism and reproduction of humans, animals, and marine life.

Cinemas can reduce single-use plastic bottles is by selling reusable eco-friendly bottles and adopting plastic-free takeaway cups. Customer incentive schemes can supplement efforts to reduce plastic by offering discounts for customers who bring reusable bottles. Placing recycling bins in prominent sight at the entrances and exits of cinemas would also encourage recycling behavior.

The case for the green cinema

The green cinema is fiscally feasible, environmentally responsible, and strategically critical post-COVID-19. Given the need for cinemas to remain adaptable in the 21st century, cinemas can employ their resources to evaluate the wide range of options available and the measures that they can feasibly adopt. Environmental policies will help brand the cinema as socially and environmentally responsible, providing a competitive edge and increased value for investors and consumers.

Given the need for cinemas to remain adaptable in the 21st century, cinemas can employ their resources to evaluate the wide range of options available and the measures that they can feasibly adopt.

BKG research finds that implementing a recycling culture and building environmental infrastructure can be both environmentally and financially effective. From the customer to the employee, incentivizing stakeholders to contribute to protecting the environment at all levels is pivotal to creating lasting change.

Reference List

[1] Statista. (n.d.). Cinema Tickets - Worldwide: Statista Market Forecast. Statista.

[2] Stoll, J. (2021, January 13). Movie theater attendance statistics in U.S. Statista.

[3] Pahle, R., & Malouchou, V. (2020). Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: How Movie Theaters Are Cutting Down on Waste - Boxoffice. Boxoffice.

[4] Hoad, P. (2020). BFI study calls on film industry to urgently reduce emissions. The Guardian.

[5] Arup. (2020). A screen new deal a route map to sustainable film production. Arup.

[6] Sustainability could play leading role in the film industry. Green Production Guide.

[7] Green Cinema. Green Film Shooting. (n.d.).

[8] Padbury, N. (2019). How to build and run a sustainable cinema.

[9] Guide to Safe Tap Water and Water Filters. (2016).

[10] Sáez, C. (2019). Eco-Friendly Practices in the Film Industry. CCCBLab.

[11] Forrest, S. (2020). The growing market opportunity for smart buildings. eeNews Europe.

[12] 7 Incredible Examples of Smart Buildings (And What Makes Them Smart). Planet Technology USA. (2019).

[13] The Edge, Amsterdam. BREEAM. (2016).

[14] Singh, N., & Livina, A. (2015). Waste Separation at Household Level: Comparison and Contrast Among 40 Countries. Indian Journal Of Applied Research, 5(1).

[15] Franklin, P. (2006). Down the drain.

[16] Leonard, J. (2020). Bottled water vs. tap water: Pros and cons.

[17] Mason, S. A., Welch, V. G., & Neratko, J. (2018). Synthetic polymer contamination in bottled water. Frontiers in Chemistry, 6.



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