Engagement and Education, Engineering, Environment

Getting the sustainability message out through film

Over the past few weeks I’ve been involved in the organisation of public screenings for the 2011 SCINEMA Festival of Science Film.  The festival showcases science dramas, docos, animations and shorts, and in 2011 SCINEMA received over 400 entries from 35 countries including entries from professional filmmakers, amateurs, and student-groups, making it one of the foremost science film festivals in the world.

For me three films in particular stood out, and this blog post is based on their message – that we are way too wasteful, and unless things change things are going to get far worse.  Worse not only in terms of resource availability, but also in an economic sense that we’re getting ripped off by some very shrewd business people.

It is no secret that we are a wasteful society.  Humans now produce more waste than ever before, and while much of this can be recycled and reused, much is not.  Take for example metal, and iron in particular.  In 2008 the worldwide crude metal consumption was 1.4 billion tons, twice what it was in the 1970’s and nearly seven times the level of the 1950’s.  That makes sense, populations are increasing and just from an infrastructure point of view more metal needs to be used to support these increases.  However, despite the fact that metals can be recycled indefinitely around 70% of metals are used only once then discarded.  As a result of this rate, after 5 cycles only 0.25% of metal is still in circulation.  The rest forms the billions of tons of scrap metal around the world.

Such is the extent of our disposal of metal, we throw away enough iron and steel to supply all the carmakers in the world on a continuous bases.  Aluminium however – Americans dispose of enough to be able to rebuild their air force every 3 months.  When looking at environmental and energy efficiency, aluminium which is recycled uses 95% less energy than making the metal from scratch, meaning 20 aluminium cans can be made from recycled material for the energy cost of a single can being made from new material.

Taking all that into account, surely it makes sense to recycle metals more than we currently are. It doesn’t make sense to keep mining and refining all this metal given we already have so much available and able to be reused.

But why is our consumption increasing so quickly? Well partially it is a result of planned obsolescence.  Believe it or not, the lifespan of a light bulb in 1920 was longer than it was in 1950.  The humble light bulb was the originator of planned obsolescence, when manufacturers make products wear out quickly so that people have to purchase more.  In fact during the 1920’s and 30’s, there was an international cartel of light bulb manufacturers who banded together and deliberately set a limit on the lifespan of the light bulb for this very purpose.  Should any of the member companies exceed this life span they were fined heavily.  This cartel also controlled distribution and sales, increasing prices and ensuring competitors would not gain market share.

There is another type of planned obsolescence though, not through technical means like artificially shortening lifespans, but through marketing means.  Quite often manufacturers seem to release new model products with little or no improvement over the outgoing model, and through marketing convince the consumer they need to upgrade to this newer product.

This is done purely for economic purposes, to boost sales and company income.  However it has the flipside of increasing the production of waste.

So what can we do about increasing recycling?  It requires both an industry action to reuse more metals in manufacturing processes, and also consumer action to recycle and provide more access to materials which can be recycled.  In Australia only around 50% of recyclable waste is actually recycled.  However, in South Australia that level is closer to 80%, with the reason being that SA has a recycling deposit scheme – consumers are paid to recycle.  Manufacturers have previously fought against such schemes, and recently when SA increased their scheme several multi-national companies resisted the move.  However, it cannot be argued that providing a minor incentive does improve public behaviour.  50% of our recyclable waste is a considerable amount of needless landfill. Surely being smarter about what we throw away is only a benefit?

We as people can do so much to reduce consumption and landfill.  Just improving our own recycling and disposal of goods can make a huge difference, and it takes minimal effort and little or no cost.  But increasing sustainability can also go beyond just what we throw away, and again it is only beneficial.  Growing a small amount of vegetables or herbs will be cheaper than buying them from the supermarket, and will probably be tastier too, while the effort to maintain them will probably be less than having to duck out to the supermarket when you realise you’ve forgotten to buy something.

The public can make a significant effort through making basic changes to our lifestyles.  However these changes won’t take us backwards, in fact they’ll take us forward into a society where we have the same quality of life but produce less waste and spend less money.  Surely that is an improvement.

So which three films from SCINEMA did I find particularly interesting and were the inspiration for this blog post?

The winner of the 2011 SCINEMA Best Film was The Light Bulb Conspiracy, by Cosima Dannoritzer of-Spain.  An investigative piece, LBC details how “planned obsolescence” is incorporated into just about every product we buy.  This includes not only a technical planned obsolescence – where products deliberately have a limited lifespan to make customers purchase more and more products, but also a psychological planned obsolescence, where customers are induced to buy the newest product, despite being in some cases no better than their old product.

Going right back to the 1920’s and using the humble light bulb as an example, LBC follows planned obsolescence throughout its history, and shows how manufacturers are contributing to the wastefulness of society solely to make money, including revealing insights from one of the Philips family members – the family which established the Philips electrical goods manufacturers.  But, as LBC shows, the public is starting to fight back.


Despite not winning any prizes, Waste Not by Ruth Hessey of Australia, is a fantastic film about recycling and sustainability in our everyday lives. With some fantastic cinematography – they even make the processing of rubbish a visual spectacle – this 25 minute short film talks with people involved in every step of the sustainability movement, from scientists and policy advisors, to the garbo’s who collect our household rubbish and those people who actually work at recycling plants, and even the head chef from one of Australia’s top restaurants, Tetsuya’s.  The overriding message from all of those people is that we need to improve the way we recycle and reuse, because what we’re doing at the moment is just so wasteful, and making those improvements does not have to be difficult, or expensive.  As one of the interviewees remarks, “saving the planet is not about going back and living in a cave… this is actually about progress.”  And while documentaries on this topic in the past have been, to be honest, boring, Waste Not is captivating; the story is told by regular people and really does inspire the viewer to make a change.

Not taking anything away from the sheer power in the way it delivers its message, or the winner for Best Cinematography at 2011 SCINEMA (Where the Wild Things Were, Amber Cherry Eames, Scotland), this would in fact have been my pick for that award.


Another film which hits hard and delivers its message particularly powerfully is 99% Rust, by Nenko Genov of Bulgaria.  Using a very simple narrative style, black and white photographs with captions and haunting music courtesy of New Order, it rams home how wasteful society is.  Just why do we have so much scrap metal lying around when it could easily, cheaply and efficiently be recycled and used indefinitely?

99% Rust by Nenko Genov

99% Rust from Nenko Genov on Vimeo.


On a completely unrelated topic, one of the most popular films shown during our screenings was Worm Hunters, produced by Chris Carroll of Australia, and winner of the Special Jury Prize.  Taking a light hearted look at several groups of scientists, the film follows the groups as they travel the world literally hunting worms, hoping to find species that have never been seen before.  While that may sound dull, we received more comments from filmgoers about this film than any other, it comes together into a really great fun film which children in particular enjoyed immensely.

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