Amazon released the much-awaited series The Rings of Power this year, receiving mixed reactions from fans and critics alike. The Amazon Prime series is a prequel to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was directed by Peter Jackson.
Amazon's The Rings of Power showcases breath-taking scenery. Each scene is captivating, the same way the original trilogy created a gorgeous setting. In The Lord of the Rings trilogy, there are icy mountain ranges, lush forests with eccentric features, and riverbanks that lead to a ruined city.
In Amazon’s The Rings of Power, there are tree trunks against a dark soil, with leaves dappling like golden coins. Another moment shows a swirling of white flakes carried by the wind. There are cliffs covered in snow.
These scenes are gorgeous on-screen, but beneath the surface, these are only artificially made.
This month, The Guardian wrote an article on Amazon's The Rings of Power, focusing on its environmental impact in New Zealand. The article states that those involved in the creation of Amazon’s The Rings of Power say that there are serious concerns behind the industry’s glamour and cash flow, particularly when it comes to its impact on the environment.
Carbon dioxide emissions and waste abound. The tree trunks in Amazon’s The Rings of Power are installed and made of polysterene. The dappling leaves are woven polyester. The dark soil is made from plastic and bark chips. The white flakes are also made from polysterene, while the cliffs will be destroyed and taken to a landfill.
The true environmental cost
Workers interviewed by the Guardian say the true enormity of the environmental cost is hidden by studio walls. Crew members are afraid of speaking out because they do not want to risk being blacklisted. Yet, the industry is partly funded by the New Zealand government.
The team had some success with some initiatives. They recycled office paper and batteries. They installed an electric vehicle charging station at the studio, introduced reusable water bottles, encouraged crew to eat vegetarian once a week, and worked with disposal companies to recycle 3,490 cubic metres of waste.
However, the size of the environmental impact was still the same.
By July 2021, the first season of the show had produced about 14,387 tonnes of carbon dioxide, five times what the British Film Commission estimates an average blockbuster film would produce.
One vendor collected 11,433 cubic metres of landfill waste. A second vendor collected 30.5 cubic metres of soft plastic and 1,885 cubic metres of landfill waste. Lastly, a third vendor collected about 355.5 tonnes of landfill waste, which is as heavy as 25 London double-decker buses.
In a written statement, Amazon said that “the sustainability practices of The Rings of Power either met or exceeded industry standards.” They said the production “made every effort” to follow New Zealand environmental regulations and laws.
Amazon said the sustainability staff aided the production to successfully achieve a carbon footprint that was lower than industry benchmarks.
An industry-wide problem
Unfortunately, the issue with sustainability among films and shows is an industry-wide problem. The Producer’s Guild of America has implored the industry to face up to its “massive carbon footprint.”
According to the Sustainable Production Alliance, big-budget feature films produced a carbon footprint of more than 3,000 metric tonnes each. This is equivalent to more than 7 million miles driven by a regular car, the Environmental Protection Agency said. Meanwhile, small films produce at least 400 metric tonnes, which is equal to 1 million miles driven.
The same report by the Sustainable Production Alliance says that TV shows account for 60 per cent of the emissions for one-hour scripted dramas and a half hour single-camera scripted shows.
Amazon, Disney, Netflix, NBCUniversal, and Sony Pictures Entertainment are all part of the Sustainable Production Alliance. The organisation has enabled its stakeholders to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, including hybrid and electric cars, and battery powered generator technology.
Should we be concerned about the environmental impact of shows like Amazon’s the Rings of Power?
The answer is yes. The carbon dioxide emissions caused by movie and show productions are linked to deforestation. According to a study by UCLA, a single soundstage can lead to 4,000 hectares of deforestation. This is because most productions use “lauan,” an easy-to-work-with lightweight plywood, but is often unsustainably harvested from rainforests.
Let’s use a sports field as an analogy. A common sports field is about 1 acre, and 1 hectare is 2.47 acres. One soundstage can destroy an area of rainforests equivalent to about 9,000 sports fields.
People don’t often think about how the film industry contributes to biodiversity loss and how we can help lessen the negative effects. But much like the sustainable initiatives done by the sustainability team of Amazon’s The Rings of Power, there is still something that movie making companies can do.
What must be done?
New Zealand has one of the largest film subsidies in the world. When it comes to The Rings of Power, if in-country expenses reached about $650 million, New Zealand would pay $130 million.
In an interview with the Guardian, Craig Gainsborough, a spokesperson from sustainability organisation Greenlit, says that New Zealand is lagging on creating standardised sustainability practices. He said that New Zealand does not have any reporting or monitoring of waste or carbon emissions.
Gainsborough said that although it is easy to point the finger at big productions, it is also the New Zealand government’s responsibility to develop standards and empower sustainability teams. He added that these must be embedded from the start of productions.
The situation will not change if the status quo is not shaken. New Zealand must take steps to create legislation and demand accountability from film companies, not just from Amazon. This is a step towards real sustainability.