17 May 2019

Coffee cups, compost and conservation: Wakehurst’s environmental sustainability

From our pioneering science in the Millennium Seed Bank to using biodegradable plastic packaging alternatives, here are the ways we are boosting our sustainability.

By Katie Avis-Riordan

Millennium Seed Bank solar panels

Contributing to the fight to save our planet and its incredible biodiversity, we are constantly trying to improve our eco credentials.

Environmental sustainability is at the heart of Wakehurst and informs every decision we make.

From making use of solar panels on the Millennium Seed Bank and reducing our waste to switching from single-use plastic packaging to biodegradable alternatives and carrying out scientific research in conservation and sustainability, here are the many ways we are improving our efforts to help the environment.

Our eco-friendly certificate

Wakehurst achieved ISO 14001 accreditation in 2008, successfully maintaining the status every year since. This internationally agreed standard helps us manage and improve our environmental impact and performance through annual assessment, objectives and targets.

By reducing our waste and boosting our efficiency, we ensure we keep our green credentials and continually improve our environmental stance.

Compost Corner at Wakehurst
Plant waste at Wakehurst's Compost Corner to be reused in the gardens © RBG Kew/Ellen McHale

Slashing the single-use plastic

In our restaurant and cafés

We are on our way to becoming 100% free of single-use plastic. Most of our food packaging, takeaway cups, plates and cutlery are made from Polylactic acid (PLA), which is fully biodegradable, recyclable and made from renewable materials such as corn starch or sugar cane.

Wakehurst’s catering company, Graysons, are committed to environmental management and sustainability, always aiming to minimise waste and reduce energy consumption.

In our shop

Our shop has removed all virgin plastic bags (plastic which has never been used or processed before) and only uses paper bags made from recycled paper for purchases. The only exception is for plant sales; these bags need to be waterproof and sealable for biosecurity so are made from completely recycled and recyclable plastic.

Plastic wrapping from deliveries to the shops, including bubble wrap, is reused at the shop’s checkout point.

We are also continuing to work with our suppliers to reduce or replace single-use plastic packaging.

Biodegradable packaging at Wakehurst
Biodegradable packaging at Wakehurst © RBG Kew/Ellen McHale

Coffee cup campaign

A cup of coffee tastes even better when you know you’re helping the environment at the same time.

Our takeaway coffee cups are completely recyclable.

We’re also encouraging visitors to bring in their own reusable coffee cups to reduce single-use cups. As an incentive for visitors to change their habits we have added a 15p charge to our disposable cups.

Buy a Recycled Reusable Coffee Cup

Wakehurst reusable coffee cups
Wakehurst reusable coffee cups, available to purchase in the Visitor Centre © RBG Kew/Jim Holden

No waste goes to landfill

Our waste contractor collects all the general waste produced on site at Wakehurst, with up to 62% recycled and the remainder incinerated for energy recovery. The residual ash is then reused in the building industry. No waste goes to landfill.

All our plant waste heads to our Compost Corner on site. It is composted here and then reused in the gardens.

All our other waste is segregated on site and stored and disposed of responsibly, recycling where appropriate.

Plant waste to be composted at Wakehurst
Plant waste to be composted at Wakehurst © RBG Kew/Ellen McHale

Food to farms

We have a partnership with a company that specialises in the collection of food and biodegradable waste from commercial kitchens. They collect all the food waste we produce on site and transport it to an off-site anaerobic digestion plant or composting facility.

It is then transformed into fertiliser and energy which is supplied to local farms, helping grow fresh, local and sustainable produce. This eco-friendly cycle sees our food waste become nutrient-rich soil and then next season’s produce.

Cakes at Wakehurst
Cakes at Wakehurst

Conserving energy in the Millennium Seed Bank

Since 2012, we have had 50kW solar photovoltaic (PV) panels installed on the roof of the Millennium Seed Bank. To date, these solar panels have produced 400MWh of electricity and saved 193 tonnes of carbon emissions.

The building of the Millennium Seed Bank is sustainable and currently holds an E certificate in sustainability. We are hoping to reduce this to a D status within a year. 

Within the bank’s vaults, the large -20°C cold rooms used for seed storage are extremely energy efficient, utilising modern refrigeration technology and very thick insulation. Each cold room uses only 1kW per hour.

The seed bank is also in the final stages of converting all its lights to LED, which significantly reduces power and maintenance costs. And we are installing a new replacement voltage optimisation unit. This reduces the voltage from 240V to 220V which saves 11% of electricity without having a negative impact on any of our equipment.

Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst
Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst © RBG Kew

Millennium Seed Bank science

As the most biodiverse place on the planet, the Millennium Seed Bank is at the heart of Wakehurst’s efforts towards environmental sustainability and conservation. Our Seed Collection represents the greatest concentration of living seed-plant diversity on Earth and is a global resource for conservation and sustainable use of plants.

International conservation projects from the seed bank help partners globally to protect and re-establish plants in nature. Research covers climate change, food security and other environmental sustainability issues, offering value to agriculture, forestry and medicine.

The genetic diversity held by seed banks will be critical in adaptation to the challenge of climate change.

A scientist in the Millennium Seed Bank vault
The Millennium Seed Bank safeguards wild plant diversity. ©RBG Kew

Educating schools

Environmental sustainability is embedded in our educational offer to school groups that visit Wakehurst, teaching future generations about the importance of conservation, biodiversity and our vital scientific research.

More to do...

There is still more to do at Wakehurst but we have an ongoing commitment to improve our environmental sustainability by increasing our use of eco-friendly methods and products, reducing pollution, waste and energy on site, and using our pioneering science to help fight the issues that our natural world faces.

A seed about to undergo ‘chipping’- this is just as it sounds, the seeds are chipped to allow water to enter which aids germination.

Support our important science and conservation work

You can support our vital science work by becoming a member, donating as an individual or organisation, or volunteering your time.

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