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Thumbs Up for a Wooden Performance : Environment: The entertainment industry is recycling lumber used to build sets. Economics and laws to reduce waste are two of the driving forces.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The entertainment business has discovered a new cause. Its name is wood.

The film, television and theater industries have begun recycling set walls and flats, most of them made of tropical hardwood, that in past years would have been tossed into landfills.

Hollywood studios also are experimenting with wood substitutes, anticipating that the cost of imported wood will rise as logging restrictions and export charges increase. The alternative products, made of such materials as cardboard, wood fibers and plastics, are expected to allow studios to phase out their use of tropical timber over the next two years.

“Studios have considerable clout to demonstrate that throwing away wood is no longer an acceptable practice,” said April Smith, an environmental consultant for Sony Pictures Entertainment and co-founder of E2, a Marina del Rey-based environmental resource firm.

Most of the imported wood used by the studios is known as lauan, the commercial name for a variety of tropical hardwoods. Used mostly in plywood form, lauan is prized by set crews for its flexibility, smooth surface, lightness and--until recently at least--its low cost. It replaced such heavier materials as gypsum board and Masonite in the early 1970s.

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The region’s entertainment industry consumes about 250,000 sheets of lauan plywood each year, according to surveys conducted by environmental consultant David Kupfer.

While there is surely an element of environmental goodwill involved, some studios are seeking to change their habits because they have no choice. Recently, Santa Monica and Los Angeles enacted laws severely limiting the purchase of tropical hardwoods within their borders.

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Meanwhile, all California cities are subject to a law requiring them to reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfills by 25% by 1995 and 50% by 2000. As part of Los Angeles’ effort to comply, the city has negotiated agreements with major studios to make significant cuts in their solid waste, with particular attention paid to wood.

To handle the 41,000 tons of solid waste generated by major studios each year, an assortment of private businesses and nonprofit organizations have sprung up recently to collect used walls, floors, furniture and props for recycling. And in the past two years, all of the region’s major motion picture studios have hired environmental consultants to help them reduce waste.

The City of Los Angeles produces 420,000 tons of wood waste each year, according to a tally kept by the Integrated Solid Waste Management Office of the Board of Public Works. About 5% of that wood waste is generated by the entertainment industry.

“Out of all the products that can be recycled by studios, wood has emerged as the No. 1 priority,” said Leigh Volkland, public affairs director of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers’ solid waste task force, formed in 1991.

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The rush to recycle has helped rescue Hollywood from the embarrassing contradiction of producing movies that champion rain forests (“Fern Gully,” “The Emerald Forest,” “Medicine Man”) while building sets fashioned from tropical hardwoods.

Beverly O’Brien, recycling director for Culver Studios, said the studio now recycles from 85% to 90% of its waste. “Before we had a recycling program three years ago, nothing was recycled,” she said.

Three organizations, all formed in the past two years, perform the bulk of the recycling services for the studios, collecting sets, furniture and props. When possible, the materials are distributed to low-budget small theaters, independent filmmakers and high school theater departments.

Safe Sets, a private, nonprofit group based in Santa Monica, operates as a resource center, linking theater and church groups to Hollywood sound stages.

“With cuts to budgets, schools are clamoring for materials that they would otherwise have to do without,” said Executive Director Bill Wilson, who founded the organization last year.

A private recycling company, El Monte-based Re-Sets, picks up used sets and props and recycles or stores them for future use.

“Most of our wood is sold to pallet manufacturers, but about 20% is donated to groups,” said Re-Sets President David Isaac, who founded the company in 1991. “We collect wood from 10 studios and about 30 independent production companies.”

In December, for example, Re-Sets recycled 1.1 million pounds of wood collected from just two studios, Sony and Culver.

“Culver was the first to start using us,” Isaac said. “Two years ago, we couldn’t get on a studio lot. Now they’re calling us constantly to come haul away their wood.”

The third major recycler is Material for the Arts in Los Feliz, operated by the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, which has diverted 400 tons of studio waste from landfills since its creation nine months ago. More than 2,000 nonprofit arts and cultural groups are eligible to register and “come down to our warehouse and shop around,” said the group’s director, Bert Ball.

“We’ve given 700 groups about $2 million in materials,” Ball said. Among the recipients, he said, have been dozens of area equity-waiver theaters, low-budget theaters of fewer than 100 seats where performers are permitted to work for wages below Actors’ Equity scale.

“We’re now creating a set storage library made of old studio set pieces that can be loaned out to theaters,” he said. “Small theaters have big problems with storage space, so this will fill a real need.”

Ball said that the set of 20th Century Fox’s film “Jack the Bear” (scheduled for release later in the year), provides an example of what studio recycling can accomplish.

The set was a replica of a 1970s Oakland street replete with manholes, 11 houses, five garages and sidewalks, built on a Los Feliz soccer field last year. When filming was finished, the set was boxed up and trucked to South-Central Los Angeles to help rebuild areas damaged in last spring’s riots, said Gretchen Lewotsky, Fox’s executive director of environmental operations. The cache included 200 windows and doors, a few patios and yards of aluminum siding and gutters.

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South-Central Los Angeles may also benefit from a proposal, backed by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, to create a South-Central wood recycling facility stocked with studio wood. The Trees of Life Wood Recycling Project, created by Santa Monica-based Earth Service Inc., an environmental advocacy group, is now searching for funding.

“We plan to employ disadvantaged kids to clean up the wood for use in housing and to produce usable goods, like toys, furniture, particle board and soil amendments,” said Peter Kreitler, executive director of Earth Service.

Kreitler’s project has received $20,000 in start-up funding from Arco and the Alliance.

Development of suitable substitutes for lauan plywood is another Alliance project. Studio representatives now meet monthly to swap ideas on wood substitutes.

Smith, Sony’s environmental consultant, said two products, Medite and Gridcore, have emerged as favorites after recent Alliance meetings in which members reviewed mill studies of wood alternatives.

Medite, made of pressed pine chips, matches lauan’s smooth texture but weighs more and lacks the imported wood’s flexibility. Gridcore, composed of recycled paper waste, is flexible and lightweight, “but we’re a bit concerned about warping,” said Smith. “We believe that can eventually be overcome.”

Smith said the entertainment industry is “waiting with great anticipation” to see which alternative proves best, but she added, “We’re not going to find the one miracle replacement for lauan.”

Developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Gridcore is now licensed by Gridcore Systems International in Carlsbad, Calif., and manufactured in Wisconsin. Gridcore representatives have worked closely with studios to tailor product to their needs, Smith said.

“The entertainment industry is the perfect place to launch this product,” said Gridcore Chief Executive Officer Bob Noble, who plans to build manufacturing sites in Long Beach and San Diego. “The studios’ visibility will help deliver an important message: Wood is not the only way to build a wall.”


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