You may have been shocked to see David Letterman’s entire set hauled into a dumpster the day after his final episode aired, but it came as no surprise to Eva Radke. During her 15 years in the film and television industry, she saw plenty of perfectly good stage materials thrown into the trash heap.
One incident involved an expensive mid-century credenza; not sure how to dispose of it, Radke decided to give it away for free on Craigslist. Even though somebody replied promptly to her post, they ended up being hours late to pick up the piece. “It was already five o’clock,” she explained. “I had to be off the stage, and the grips were saying, ‘Sorry, but we’re leaving now.’ And I had to tell them, ‘Fine, fine, just put it in the dumpster.’ I couldn’t believe it. I kept thinking, ‘This is horrible.’”
She has a whole repertoire of stories like this one. They permanently shaped the way she viewed the industry, and inspired her, in 2008, to found Film Biz Recycling, the first and only organization whose declared mission was steering industry waste away from landfills and into the public’s hands.
For seven years, Film Biz operated out of a 11,000 square-foot basement in Gowanus, Brooklyn that was packed with an eclectic array of cultural refuse: a quick glance down one of the aisles might have offered up a birdcage, a life-size reproduction of Michelangelo’s David, a shelf of empty liquor bottles and a Christmas tree.
On June 22, however, the fantasyland had to shut its doors. Money was short and industry support was scarce. Just a few days after the closure, Radke sat in the narrow backyard of her now barren warehouse. Perched in a garden chair, wearing a baseball cap and aviators, she recalled the nonprofit’s ambitious mission.
“We’re sustainability’s wet dream,” she said. “We’re giving back to the community. We’re focusing on a niche industry, educating that industry, making things cheaper and easier for them. And at the same time we’re lighting a fire under the ass of that industry.”
The amount of stage materials dumped into landfills each year is hard to estimate, but some figures run to about 1,000 tons in New York alone. The majority of it is disposed of with no attempt at reuse. The few organizations vocalizing the issue, like the Producer’s Guild of America or the Motion Picture Association of America, rarely if ever handle the waste themselves. Nobody wants to do the dirty work, leaving a big need for street-level initiative.
Film Biz’s clientele was comprised of charities, artists, set designers, filmmakers, theater companies and anybody else who could use the ten tons of materials that piled up in their loading dock every month. Only two to three percent of their intake—enough to fill a few trash bags—ever reached a dump, Radke said. Whatever couldn’t find a buyer was simply given away.
Last year, Film Biz earned a coveted Environmental Quality Award from the EPA. Radke had hoped members of the film industry would be similarly appreciative of her business model. “I just figure it’d be a no-brainer for them to pay attention to someone who’s helping the environment and helping the communities they’re disrupting daily by spewing black smoke into the air.”
But despite contributions from Sony and HBO, the organization struggled year after year to enlist other big names as “Visionary Members.” The allure was supposed to be in the tax deduction, the lifetime discount on Film Biz props and the disposal of their leftover materials, all for a set price of $20,000 a year. “An incredible deal,” says Radke. “What I’m asking for is chump change to these major stakeholders.”
Her offers were largely ignored. “The MPAA told me, ‘Sorry, Ma’am, but we already have a carting company.’ They thought we were a garbage company groveling for a contract,” she said. “They didn’t even look at my website. I don’t get it. No one had anything to be afraid of. We’ve won an award from the EPA. We were featured in Oprah magazine. We’ve been on the White House blog.”
Radke summed up the failure of her venture in one phrase: “It’s like watching a unicorn die.” She remains bitter about the industry’s apathy.
“I’ve spent seven years crawling my way down the address book,” she said. “I’ve gone to every party and meeting and social function, just trying to get the word out. Now I’m like: ‘Fine. Fine. I’ll just make a shitload of money and give it all away.’ I’ll live on a ranch in West Texas and save dogs and horses. I’ll write checks. I’ll do my good works another way, because I don’t want anything from anybody else. They’ve lost the privilege of my love and energy. Fuck ‘em.”
Even if corporate support was too meager to keep Film Biz afloat, it still maintained a devoted core of customers. Many considered it New York’s best resource for set materials and a long-needed alternative to the dump.
“It’s really appalling how much is wasted in the film business,” said Melissa Barnetch, a freelance set designer and regular client. “Nothing’s permanent. Things are used for one day or maybe one shoot. Usually you can’t even donate these things. Nobody wants them: they’re just too weird. But at Film Biz I could donate anything back. That alone was a huge motivation to support them.”
Ventiko, a Brooklyn-based photographer and installation artist, said the organization first exposed her to the industry’s culture of wastefulness.
“They really educated me,” she explained. “And one of the best things about Film Biz was talking to people and sharing ideas. They did on a large scale what we should all do in our daily lives. They definitely caused a ripple. The community has already felt the loss.”
By the end of Film Biz’s liquidation sale, during which it got rid of 90 percent of its inventory in less than three weeks, only odds and ends remained: a framed poster of “Apollo the Oracle,” a dislodged row of airplane seats, some DVDs. When we visited, the staff was taking apart shelves, sweeping, gathering trash.
“Well, going out of business is great for business,” Radke said. “This was our best month ever. Nothing’s left. We had a ‘Name Your Price Week’ and everyone went bananas. People were filling up huge hampers for $10. Others threw us extra money. One guy had a little cart and gave us $200. Netflix came in and dropped eight grand.”
She smiled at the thought, then added with a laugh, “Thanks, Netflix. Where have you been?”
Film Biz Recycling was not Radke’s only attempt at greening the industry. She currently oversees Art Cube, a peer-to-peer collaboration platform for filmmakers and set designers to reduce waste and share materials. From now on all her energy will be directed online.
“If you were on Art Cube and you were like, ‘I need a pink ladder,’ three people will respond with, ‘I just saw one at Bed Bath & Beyond,’ or ‘I have one in my shop,’ or ‘I have one on my set right now. You should come and get it!’ The community is amazing. The world is so large, and there’s enough garbage for everybody.”