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The connection between human activity and the ecosystem has always been top of mind for Shannon Bart. 

“Sustainability is about the health of our entire society,” says the NBCUniversal sustainability director, who is responsible for implementing the company’s Sustainable Production Program across more than 70 film and TV sets worldwide. 

“We typically think of having a green set with recycling and less water bottles, and the environmental aspect of sustainability, but for a long time we’ve wanted to broaden our view of that with our production teams,” she says. “What this pandemic has really done is given us specific examples of this, and brought it home.”

As productions begin to resume, Bart speaks with Variety about finding the intersection of sustainability and health and safety protocols put in place for COVID-19 — and why reducing our eco-footprint is more important than ever.

What does your work look like now, compared with pre-pandemic?

A lot of the practices we have put in place are not impacted by COVID. If you’re looking at big systematic areas of focus, for example, NBCUniversal has been a champion of LED set lighting for a long time, and that is still moving forward. LED set lighting uses up to 70% or 80% less energy than standard conventional set lighting. It is also a lot cooler. We don’t have to run the AC as much when we have more LED lighting on the stage. And what’s interesting about that with COVID is that there are a lot of benefits. You can change the color and dim them remotely, so it’s a way to have [fewer] bodies close to the set and to have a quicker response if needed. 

Other things that we have been working on that are actually being accelerated by the current crisis is that NBCUniversal has been reducing the amount of hard-copy paperwork that [we’ve used] throughout the production process for a number of years. We are a leader in digitizing workflow. I think we were one of the first studios to implement digital start packets across our U.S.-based TV productions. We are now digitizing additional processes and will be expanding across Canada.

How do you approach new mandates, like the use of PPE on set, from a eco-friendly perspective? 

We do allow and encourage reusable cloth face masks, and a lot of people do use those. But of course there will be single-use PPE used as well. There are some cases where it makes more sense or it’s what the production needs to do. We want to make sure that PPE does not make its way into waterways because it becomes single-use plastic pollution, so I think everyone is being mindful and very careful to properly dispose of PPE when it’s done. In a lot of cases it does go into the trash. There is a way to recycle PPE, but it’s really limited. There is only one company that recycles PPE, and we do have productions that are engaging with that company to collect their PPE and send it for recycling. 

What about catering?

Before, we were able to donate our excess catering food. The way productions are now serving lunch is in prepackaged, single-serving boxes. We are not seeing the same extra food that happened before. That said, we are working to set up donation protocols if, for some reason, we do have extra catering of the single-use boxes, or if a production needed to order more than they can actually use. It will look different because we want to make sure we are not introducing an outside party to our crew that is keeping so safe.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

We had made a lot of progress reducing single-use plastics, especially water bottles on set and using primarily only reusable dishes and mugs in the office and on-set catering. It’s understandable that the No. 1 priority is the health and safety of all of our cast and crew, and in many cases this means that our productions have had to stop using reusables and replace them with single-use beverage containers and single-use food service items. One way we have been managing this challenge is to source items that have been made from renewable materials or materials that are easiest to recycle. 

How do you encourage others to stay environmentally conscious in the face of a pandemic?

I’m starting all of our meetings now with an acknowledgment of the pandemic and how, historically, pandemics and new viruses get introduced to humans because we have disrupted natural systems. We do have a conversation that connects the dots between the pandemic, sustainability, climate change, environmental justice and what we can do in production to make sure that we are part of the solution.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Variety’s Sustainability Resource Guide is presented by Toyota Mirai.