Plastic Free July at the Museum: 6 Ways to Reduce Visitor Waste

Over Flow by Tadashi Kawamata, MAAT

Plastic Free July at the Museum: 6 Ways to Reduce Visitor Waste

Across the UK, museums and galleries are reopening their doors to the public during one of the pivotal dates on the climate awareness calendar: Plastic Free July. As the heavy chains on the gates fall, will we see them cut the ribbon on a new kind of museum — the green kind?

There is no doubt that the post-pandemic museum will look and feel drastically different. Yet for institutions housing the world’s oldest relics, they have proven time and time again to be future-facing and adaptable spaces under the right care. Across the country, conservators are increasingly adapting their institutions to be sustainable, despite cuts to administrative arts funding. In 2019, Tate ModernV&Athe British Museum and the Imperial War Museum all sent nothing to landfill — a tremendous feat by the country’s busiest museums with the fullest waste-bins.

Conservation is at the heart of a museum’s identity. This must mean conserving the past and the future. It does not mean tearing down our historic, inefficient buildings to be climate friendly, but making practical steps in reducing waste from the inside. As museums order in the perspex shields and enforce social distancing regulations by any means necessary, will they make similar adjustments to protect our planet this time around?
Here are our favourite strategies for reducing plastic waste in museums this Plastic Free July:

1. Biodegradable Membership Packaging

According to a report by the Guardian, of the 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic produced since the 1950s, only 9% has been recycled. The rest has been discarded — but where to Science Magazine calculated that 8 million metric tonnes of plastic entered the oceans in 2010.

That’s right; somewhere in the spuming, contorting plastic wave of six-pack beer rings is your Tate Britain membership card. In 2018, the Natural History Museum made head-turning strides in reducing their plastic packaging; all membership cards and magazines are now made of 100% biodegradable or recyclable materials. Their wrappings, guest passes and folders are entirely plant-based and compostable; everything is waste-free, from the letter to the envelope. Such initiative demonstrates a willpower within large museum societies to redesign plastic out of the picture with ecological alternatives. No more guilt when the post comes.

2. Canned Water

In an ideal world, single-use plastics would be displayed atop a marble column in the museum itself, gathering dust alongside other strange artefacts of the past.

Replacing the plastic bag with a biodegradable alternative is easy; the brown paper bag hits the spot. However, offering plastic bags aplenty at a cost no longer suffices as long as visitors are willing to pay the ultimate price of 5p. Museums must remove the option altogether.

It is trickier to replace the plastic water bottle, but South London’s Horniman Museum has provided the impeccable solution of canned spring water. These aluminium cans, sold in the café, are easily refillable at the museum’s many refill stations. Aluminium is endlessly recyclable as it retains its properties indefinitely, making it a viable substitute for plastic. Visitors of the Horniman Museum caught in possession of a plastic bag pay a fee which goes towards their coral conservation research. Founded in the 19th century, this museum has been renovated into an iron-fisted spearhead in the battle against plastic.

3. Waste-Free Tuck-In

A dominant source of a museum’s total waste generation is its café, voracious in its plastic consumption. Gone should be the days of providing plastic over metal straws and using plastic food wrappings when returnable beeswax wraps work just as well. Plastic cutlery and plates must be eliminated as low-cost biodegradable alternatives made of bamboo can be provided. The Horniman Museum has replaced all single-use plastics with Vegware, a polylactic acid material that looks like plastic but is biodegradable and fully compostable. Discounts for reusable cup users are excellent, as well as replacing disposable stirrers and lids with metal or biodegradable ones.

In addition is the coveted art of the re-fill; dispenser taps can be installed for refills of coffee, milk, condiments, or anything that usually comes in those inconspicuous plastic sachets. It is a perfect way for customers to take more without binning more.

4. Greening the Gift Shop

Where art and commerce jarringly meet finds the environment caught in a lethal crossfire. Gift shops generate massive plastic waste but also provide as much as a quarter of museum revenue. Necessary evils are not necessarily so evil if the motivation for finding solutions exists; the Association of Independent Museums (AIM) highlights that items made from wood, cotton, metal and natural rubber are climate-friendly alternatives to plastic toys, as well as felt and crochet products. Sourcing items handcrafted by local artisans limits transportation emissions, supports local artists and allows conservators to be more pernickety with suppliers about their ecological requirements. Best Years is an ethical company producing knitted and crochet toys for an increasing number of British museums each year.

Gift shops must be held accountable for the plastic waste they generate. As AIM correctly states:

“if everyone weeded out the worst 10% of their plastic toys, then we would have made a huge step”.

5. Zero Waste Events

Upon reopening their doors to hesitant hoards of socially distanced museum-goers, museums and galleries are making the adjustments for hosting exhibitions and events. If they can reimagine the nature of an exhibition to be covid-conscious, they can also make the rearrangements to be eco-friendly. Endorsing zero-waste events is superb publicity for the cause and drives home the reality that our functions are no different without plastic. The pandemic has spoiled the fun more than going plastic-free ever has; and ironically, is exponentially increasing our everyday use of plastic.

Raising awareness through pieces promoting sustainability is a powerful cultural force to be reckoned with, as museums are increasingly investing in ecologically conscious art. Beat Plastic Pollution at the Horniman’s aquarium replaced jellyfish with plastic bags along with 150 other plastic items; 17,500 visitors witnessed the vulgar yet effective demonstration of the threat to marine wildlife. Our Plastic Ocean by Mandy Barker shows plastic objects eerily suspended like a curling fish in a deep-sea void.

Beat Plastic Pollution, Horniman Aquarium

6. Making the Pledge

In April 2019, the Tate Museum network declared a climate emergency. Better late than never, it joins other such museums as the Natural History Museum in making the declaration. The expression “actions speak louder than words” is never more pertinent than when applied to the climate crisis, but when uttered by large and influential corporations, words speak loud too. Since 2008, Tate has reduced its waste production by 10% annually while expenditure on reducing waste increased by 47%. Declaring a climate emergency is just the first step in a museum’s commitment to going plastic-free, but a fundamental one.

Preventing our planet from becoming an exposition of plastic requires much more work that goes beyond stemming waste. Frida Kahlo once said, “I paint flowers so they will not die”; so too must a healthy, plastic-free planet be painted in the ideology of museum and gallery spaces if we wish to have a history to learn about.

Our Plastic Ocean by Mandy Barker, Impressions Gallery

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