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Fstoppers Interviews the Team Running One of the Most Sustainable Film Labs

Fstoppers Interviews the Team Running One of the Most Sustainable Film Labs

Reduction of single-use plastic is increasingly on the minds of conscientious consumers, and the practice of shooting with physical film in preference to digital does bring with it considerations in the area. But fear not, Ikigai Film Lab is here to recycle, reuse, and repurpose, to put our anxiety at ease and help us keep shooting with a clearer conscience. 

The main source of plastic waste in question here is something that long time film photographers will be all too familiar with, while many of the young among us may remember them from their childhood. My first memory of the plastic canisters 35mm film comes packaged in was accompanying my mom to the mall to get our family snaps developed.

Empty 35mm Film Canisters and 120 spools. Image courtesy of Ikigai Film Lab. 

Creepy fun fact: my mom kept my baby teeth in these canisters too, so 90’s. Perhaps your cat enjoys rolling these little cylinders on the floor paw to paw, or your toddler seems to always find them lurking under the sofa or in the car door, inevitably playing with them as a toy. Whatever you do or don’t do with these plastic film canisters, there is one place they are usually destined for: landfill. 

More single use plastic waiting to be recycled. Image courtesy of Ikigai Film Lab 

When we look at the amount of plastic waste generated each year, the numbers are simply staggering. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that of the 14.5 million tons of plastic and packaging generated in 2018, only 13.6% was recycled. 

We are all aware of the great evil that is single use plastic, and while we have seen some film be manufactured without this plastic tube to house it, it seems this is the way it's going to stay for at least the foreseeable future from the major manufacturers. Enter, Peter Davison, owner of Ikigai Film Lab in Melbourne, a reputable film lab producing some of the highest quality scans you’ll find in the Southern Hemisphere. 

Ikigai Headquarters in Melbourne, Australia. Image courtesy of Ikigai Film Lab.

For the last six months, the team at Ikigai headquarters have been working on a recycling program for film industry plastic, the first ever in the world to be done in house! Not only that, this project is entirely powered by solar to further reduce their carbon footprint. We can applaud such a mindful approach to the future of both film and our planet. 

After seeing the announcement on the lab’s Instagram page, I was curious to know what prompted this innovative idea. Davison told me that it was a customer of theirs, Jake McKeown @sniffgruff, “that first put us onto Precious Plastic, a community driven open source project from the Netherlands built around making recycling easier and making use of plastics already in circulation.” Davison explained to me that as their lab had been growing, they had become more mindful of “the vast amount of waste we’re responsible for disposing of and realized we’re not alone. There’s no Australian recycling program for film plastic, and given the amount of companies making products with virgin plastic, it feels silly not to reuse it”.

Machines ready and waiting to melt empty 35mm film canisters. Image courtesy of Ikigai Film Lab.  

Starting this program off with an eye-watering 20,000 plastic film containers, Ikigai had contributors from around Australia get involved in their fight against single use plastic. They have extended an invitation to any film shooter or lab to get involved in this free service. As great as this program is, it makes me wonder where we would be if small businesses like Ikigai didn’t choose to tackle these issues. Furthermore, this issue is layered, and it’s not just as simple as recycling and re-purposing. I asked Davison about the responsibility major manufactures in the film industry had towards conscientious use of resources, and he explained that he believed the companies producing these plastics “likely don’t give their disposal much thought.” He elaborated: “It has been quite difficult to find out what plastics some of these products are made from. More often than not, companies will use mixed plastics to produce things like disposable cameras, bottle caps, and 120 spindles.”

So, not knowing a lot about plastic myself, I was surprised to learn how complex it can be to recycle and reuse the different types. “The manufacturers of film definitely need to take more responsibility for the waste they’re creating and where it’s ending up,” Davison explained, while elaborating that, “recycling mixed plastics is substantially more complex.” On a positive note, he told me: “Thankfully, HDPE and LDPE (lids and containers) are fairly easy to work with, but this is just the start”. 

Lids and containers are separated by the team to enable recycling. Image courtesy of Ikigai Film Lab.

Ikiagi Film Lab isn’t alone in their innovation. Last yea,r we saw London-based photographer and YouTuber “Ribsy”, launch a 35mm film stock packaged in an eco-friendly tube made from recycled paper. I haven’t had the opportunity to try out Ribsy’s film stock yet, but it did make me ponder why more film manufacturers don’t switch to this sort of packaging? A cost issue perhaps, an ignorance to the issue, or a reliance on individuals and small businesses picking up the pieces at the other end? Whatever the reason, I hope this initiative provides a push and sets an example to the big players in the game to influence them to rethink what they are putting out there into the market.  

As a global community, we are becoming increasingly conscious of our carbon footprint, and many of us want to see companies not greenwash, but actually make a genuine change in this area. Seeing disposable cameras still on the market and even new ones being released only months ago by Kodak seems baffling considering today's environmental crisis. While still criticized for being throwaway plastic items, the reloadable camera options from companies like Ilford, Kodak, Dubblefilm and Agfa at least have the potential to be reused more than once. With film cameras having a moment but increasing significantly in price, these types of novelty items could be something that ends up in thrift stores or worse, the trash. Only time will tell.    

So, how much does something like this cost for a small business to get up and running, and how viable is it for other labs to get on board and start turning this plastic into a usable product? Davison explained that it wasn’t quite as costly as I had imagined: “in the grand scheme of things, the cost involved is quite low. The difference between buying some more scanners and building a basic recycling facility is negligible. These are basic machines that shred and melt plastics. We’re the first lab in the world to invest in doing this in house, but other labs internationally have started to donate this plastic to recycling companies already.” 

A look inside the film lab itself. Busy days developing and scanning by the small and dedicated team. Image courtesy of Ikigai Film Lab. 

Davison shared an alarming figure that makes me all the more proud and happy that my regular lab is making this program a priority: “To put it in perspective, in 2017/18 Australians used 3.4 million tons of plastic and less than 10% of it was recycled.” Australia has a much smaller film photography community in comparison to America and Europe, but it’s one that is certainly growing. Local labs are popping up all over the country. If you are developing any amount of film and not considering donating and offsetting yours and your customers’ plastic, then check yourself! 

A free community driven option is the perfect way to entice others to get involved and take responsibility where we can for the by-products of shooting film. For any lab in Australia that wants to dispose of this waste, it’s actually now free to do so through Ikigai, even including transportation costs. A network of recycling hubs like this one should make the barrier to entry extremely low, and Davison has already been in discussion with some International labs to get this going. Shredding and melting this plastic is just the beginning of the idea, though. Turning it into a new product is the more creative but perhaps challenging part. 

Owner of Ikigai Film Lab Peter Davison. Image courtesy of Ikigai Film Lab. 

Knowing what the community needs, uses, and ultimately will purchase is something the team at Ikigai would surely be in tune with. Living and breathing film photography and having a clear passion for delivering a streamlined service on their website and also a dedication to making every frame from your rolls of film look the best they can, I'm sure they have an exciting surprise in store for us. 

Davison told me they have “a few ideas in the pipeline, but our first is due around September. We wanted to make something with utility that would stand on its own regardless of what it was made from, and we’re super excited about it. Of course this new product will be thoughtfully packaged to align with the ethos around this program, and I really think this could be setting the bar for the type of innovation we need to see in the photography community and beyond. Using no virgin plastics is a huge bonus, and everything down to the packaging will revolve around re-usability. We’re working with some amazingly talented people in Melbourne and can’t wait to share some more”.

The labs Noritsu scanner. Arguably the best film scanner for the job. Image courtesy of Ikigai Film Lab.

For anyone looking to get involved with Ikigai’s recycling project, they can be contacted through recycling@ikigaifilmlab.com.au. Follow Ikigai Film Lab on socials to stay up to date with what they will create and to see some truly amazing work from film shooters down under, all developed and scanned by the team, of course!  

Lucy Lumen's picture

Lucy Lumen is an avid analog shooter and content creator on the sunny Gold Coast of Australia. Lucy spends most of her time sharing her adventures in film photography on her YouTube channel and has now ventured into the world of podcasting, where she interviews fellow photographers about their creative process and inspiration.

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I shot film from 1988 to 2003. Since 2003 I've shot about 2000 weddings in digital. I think I have saved a lot of plastic. Not to mention what is in all that chemistry that will go right down the drain. I am surprised by how many otherwise pretty green people don't shoot digital just to help the planet out a bit.

Thanks for reading Adam. You bring up some good points here about film vs digital in terms of the environmental impacts. I read a good article the other day that shed some light on the manufacturing side of digital cameras and how that also has issues when it comes to sustainability. https://urth.co/magazine/analogue-versus-digital-photography-eco-friendly feel free to check it out if you like. Have a great day Adam.

Digital cameras do have electronics inside but so do newer film cameras. To get an all manual film camera you have to go back pretty far like the Hasselblad 500c I used to shoot weddings on in the 90s. But then I guess I had a digital light meter to go with it so it's hard to do photography 100 percent analog. If you only shoot a few rolls a year I guess it would be better to shoot film on a camera from the 70s vs buy a new digital camera.