Reducing environmental impact at the Horniman Museum and Gardens

– Written by Brad Owen, Head of Commercial at Horniman

Our recent report with Arts Council England ‘Sustaining Great Art and Culture’ showcased the many brilliant organisations responding to the climate emergency across the creative sector. One of these was the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

Here, Brad Owen, Head of Commercial at Horniman, inspired by our recent event ‘In the Loop: Circular Innovation and Plastic Waste in the Creative Industries‘ delves deeper into the myriad ways they are reducing their footprint across their operations, with a key focus on single-use plastics.

The Horniman Museums and Gardens is an inspiring, surprising, family friendly, free attraction in South London. It connects us all to global cultures, and the natural environment, encouraging us to shape a positive future for the world we all share. 

We’ve been open since Victorian times, when Frederick John Horniman first opened his house and extraordinary collection of objects to visitors. Since then, our collection has grown tenfold and includes internationally important collections of anthropology and musical instruments, as well as an acclaimed aquarium, a Butterfly House and natural history collection. We welcome almost one million visitors to our site annually.

Climate and Ecology Action at the Horniman 

We have had a cross departmental group since 2012 – our Climate and Ecology Action Group – working on reducing the impact the Horniman has on the environment, from improving our building’s energy efficiency, to recycling water from our Aquarium and composting our Cafe and garden waste.

Following our declaration of a climate and ecological emergency in July 2019 we are about to publish our Climate and Ecology Manifesto which outlines our commitments and actions to mitigate the crisis over the next several years. This builds on previous and ongoing work, including in our commercial operations.

Greening our commercial offer 

We have already made significant in-roads in our commercial areas over the past few years, particularly around reducing single-use plastics in our Café. This is an extension of our Café’s existing green credentials, which include turning all our food waste into liquid compost, used to fertilise the Horniman’s 16 acres of Gardens. We’ve also been working hard on their supply chain, so the Café uses only sustainable fish, fair-trade tea and coffee, free-range eggs, and local suppliers for organic and free range meat and other products such as beer. We have also extended our vegan and vegetarian options to around 30% of our menu, including replacing our popular beef burger with the vegan alternative Beyond Burger halving the red meat consumed on site.

Where to start?

We all have busy jobs, and for most of us looking at ways to reduce our impact will be an additional project. If it’s not your area of expertise it can be daunting, and you might feel overwhelmed by the different options and sometimes conflicting information on what to do for the best. I’ve found, if you break down your aims into manageable chunks, it is achievable.

Our greening so far of the Horniman Café has taken three years of us making a series of manageable changes ensuring they are viable, financially-sustainable and permanent. 

For us, an obvious area where we could have a big impact was takeaway food packaging so we focused our efforts there. While we are not going to solve the climate crisis by focusing on plastics alone, they have a significant environmental impact, and they are a very obvious and visual way of getting your audience to think about the choices they make on your site and elsewhere. 

In 2018 we replaced 26 items of single-use plastic with Vegware a commercially compostable plant-based alternative to plastic. In the first six months of 2019, this meant we removed 100,000 individual pieces of single-use plastic from circulation, including 28,500 coffee cups and 15,000 sandwich bags.

If you are considering a change like this, I recommend you speak to your current supplier and get a historical record of orders placed by your caterer. If you don’t directly place the orders, you might see a takeaway coffee cup here and there, but you may not have a true understanding of the volume of single-use items your caterer is purchasing, this was a serious eye-opener for me.  

Another useful exercise especially for getting people on board with your plan is gathering one of every single-use plastic item you currently use and inviting your stakeholders and decision makers to come and look at it. The impact of this will surprise you and help win over anyone reluctant to change. Given that the majority of our customers consume on site, the volume of takeaway plastics we were getting through was quite shocking.

Reduce your usage in a financially-sustainable way

There is no getting away from it, reducing your environmental impact costs money. This could be in the cost of materials, or in loss of sales from making tough decisions on products.

You may be in a similar situation to us, where catering is contracted out. If change is not managed directly by your organisation, then you have to influence your contractor’s business to work well for your site. Hopefully you will have suppliers who share your values and already work in partnership, so that if you can explain the benefits to them for their business including secondary impacts like increased marketing opportunities because you have something to talk about publicly, they will agree to bear the extra costs of making these changes.

In the case of bottled water at the Horniman, when we looked at this in 2018 there were still not many commercially viable alternatives. Bottled water was one of our top 10 bestselling products at this point, so removing this product line without an alternative would have impacted on our income and financial sustainability. Instead we focused on reducing sales in a more organic way by increasing other free water sources on site, and decreasing our reliance on that income whilst continuing to look for alternatives. 

We signed up to the Refill app to publicise that free tap water is available from our site, in particular in our Café, to try to encourage the reduction of water purchased at the Horniman.

We now have two drinking fountains and also provide free refills of tap water in the Café. Ninety Per cent of the water visitors and staff consume on site is now from free sources. This, and the increase in alternatively packaged water available at competitive price points, meant in April 2019, we replaced bottled water with canned. We knew from the sales figures that it was not viable to remove packaged water completely – not everyone is happy drinking South London tap water –  so we are still offering an alternative but one with a much lower impact since cans are infinitely recyclable compared to plastic which degrades. This move has led to 24,000 single-use plastic bottles per year not being sold.

Keep moving forwards

Once you have made your first change you’ve already reduced your impact on the natural world, but of course you are not finished. Ultimately we want to remove all single-use plastic items, and ideally not just by replacing them with other single-use items made from a different material. 

I don’t have the answers yet as to how we get there, but that should be the level of ambition we all have.

So my final advice is to make the best decisions you can at any given point. What is the best solution or compromise now, might not be in 12 months’ time. There are new products and services entering the market all the time, so don’t be afraid to make the best choice for your organisation now but to do something entirely different further down the line. And don’t stop with that decision. Think about not only changing your products, but how you can change the behaviours of your staff and visitors so that they choose to refuse, not just reduce and recycle.

Photo credit Laura Mtungwazi

Share this page