Jeremy Peplow, advisor for the Advanced Videography course at St. Petersburg College in St. Petersburg, Fla., admits that before helping his students make the documentary “Away: A Story of Trash” last spring, he was as naïve as the passersby interviewed at the beginning of the film: “Where does your trash go? We don’t really know. I assumed a guy picks it up and it goes and they throw it in the ground. That’s kind of what everyone’s perception is.”
The students in Peplow’s spring semester 2011 class came up with the idea for “Away…” on their own, a first, he says. The course works in partnership with WEDU, a central Florida PBS affiliate, which serves as an advisory committee of sorts. Students pitch documentary ideas to WEDU personnel, who identify the most likely subject. The station also broadcasts the finished films, as it did with “Away…” in August.
Peplow says he and his students were excited about showing people what happens to material that is forgotten the minute it leaves their sight. “We thought this was an amazing opportunity to enlighten everyone. What really happens when you take that plastic bottle and you throw it away versus recycling it? [We were] doing a hands-on, inside, behind-the-curtain look at waste management — that place that no one really wants to go to, but is actually kind of cool when you get there.”
The filmmakers reached out to the Pinellas County Department of Solid Waste Operations, which hosts a range of waste processing and disposal operations, including a waste-to-energy (WTE) plant. Peplow says it took a week of filming at Pinellas County to capture all the different aspects of waste handling, including WTE operations, yard waste mulching/composting, landfilling, and even the facility’s “swap shop,” which allows the public to browse and claim salvaged but still useful household products like paint, weed killer, and fertilizer for free. “We had a really good time,” says Peplow. “It’s really fun to hang out around a bunch of trash.”
He notes that Pinellas County was extremely cooperative, allowing virtually unrestricted filming access without requiring any sort of final approval. To balance the viewpoints, filmmakers supplemented interviews with Pinellas personnel with commentary from sustainability experts and academics, including professors from the University of South Florida.
“I think the biggest thing we learned was that it’s a very complicated process and it’s very time consuming,” says Peplow. “It kind of makes you appreciate or think a little bit more conservatively about recycling or throwing something away or even reusing it.”
“Away...” has been well received, according to Peplow, with companies like Wells Fargo expressing an interest in sponsoring wider distribution. Should that happen, it will be put on a satellite feed for broadcast by PBS stations around the country.
Peplow is excited by that prospect, hoping the film will act as a subtle inducement to people to think more about waste reduction. “We’re just trying to bring a little bit of awareness,” he says. “We’re not trying to hit you over the head like the Al Gore movie or anything.”
You can watch the film in its entirety below: