Recycling Goes to Movies : Film studios have begun a push to reuse lumber. Officials hope other industries will follow.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; R. Daniel Foster writes regularly for The Times

With a materials budget of about $125 per semester, Leonard Friedman, wood construction teacher at Grant High School, appreciates the value of a 2-by-4. “Our budget, and it keeps on getting cut, doesn’t go very far when a sheet of sandpaper costs 50 cents,” Friedman said.

But thanks to a recent push to recycle lumber at movie studios, Friedman said, his 35 students can continue to build such required shop projects as entire bedrooms, offices and kitchens.

Burbank-based Warner Bros. studios began carting the first of 20 tons of usable, cast-off lumber to Grant High School in September.

“Wood recycling among Hollywood studios has become a very political issue,” said Shelley Levin Billik, Warner Bros.’ recycling and environmental resources administrator. “With the studios’ visibility, we can set examples for other companies.” Warner Bros.’ “Wood to the Schools” program delivers wood only to Grant High School in Van Nuys, although other area schools are invited to peruse the drop-off site for materials.


In late 1991, Hollywood studios got serious about wood recycling when a solid-waste task force was formed by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. Studios began hiring recycling consultants and sending them to the task force’s monthly meetings to compare notes on how to reduce waste.

“We quickly discovered that about 40% of studio waste was wood,” said Leigh Volkland, the alliance’s vice president of public affairs. “So we naturally focused on that.”

About 5% of the city of Los Angeles’ 420,000 tons of wood waste produced each year is generated by the entertainment industry, according to the city’s Integrated Solid Waste Management Office of the Board of Public Works.

The rush to recycle wood, however, was not entirely altruistic. All city municipalities are required by Assembly Bill 939 to reduce waste streams by 25% by 1995 and by 50% by 2000. Los Angeles negotiated agreements with major studios in 1991 to comply with the mandate.


Before Warner Bros.’ lumber reuse program was launched in 1991, the studio annually recovered about 600 tons of wood, but most of it was incinerated, a disposal method that ranks barely above using landfills, say environmentalists. One year later, Warner more than doubled its wood recovery rate and began donating 30% of its wood waste, up from 1% the previous year.

Other San Fernando Valley studios, including the Walt Disney Co. and Universal Pictures, have similar wood-recycling programs to help divert the 41,000 tons of solid waste generated by major studios each year. Disney recycles about 30% of its total waste stream, and Universal recycles about 25% of its cast-offs. Many studios now reuse sets for different projects instead of tossing the wood, and wood scaffolding has largely been replaced by aluminum.

Most studios use the services of wood recycling firms, such as El Monte-based Re-Sets, which picks up wood and sells most of it to pallet manufacturers. About 20% of the lumber is donated to civic groups, such as Habitat for Humanity. Since its wood retrieval effort began nearly three years ago, Re-Sets has recovered 10,000 tons of lumber from the studios.

Dwindling rain forests and pressure by environmental groups spurred the studios to also experiment with wood substitutes. Before 1991, most set walls were constructed of luan tropical hardwood that was routinely tossed into landfills.


Luan, a rain-forest product prized by studios as a cheap all-purpose wood that was light, flexible and smooth, replaced such heavier materials as Masonite and gypsum board in the early 197Os.

Luan is now rarely used by studios, partly because of pressure applied by environmentally minded actors and activists and also because the cost of luan has risen as logging restrictions and export charges have increased. Warner Bros. and Universal have eliminated use of the tropical wood, and Disney has slashed its luan use by 95%.

“This all started with just a few individuals being aware of the need to recycle in their own departments,” Billik said. “Other companies are taking notice, and with the kind of volumes we buy, we can send loud messages to the marketplace to set a standard for recycled products.”