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No time to waste: putting sustainability at the heart of our museums

From turning residual waste into electricity, to minimising single-use plastic, here’s how the Science Museum Group is putting sustainability at the heart of operations at our museums and sites.

In the UK, we send over 15 million tonnes of rubbish from our homes to landfill every year (source: Friends of the Earth). As we face the most pressing challenge facing our planet – climate change – we all need to play our part in taking action to protect the natural world, and each other.

Across the Science Museum Group (our five national museums and two collection stores), we have put sustainability at the heart of our work. As we work towards a Net Zero target by 2033, a crucial part of this commitment is looking at how we operate in the most sustainable ways possible.

We can always do more, but here are some of the steps we’re taking to minimise waste and our environmental impact, to help reduce the pollution of our planet.


Only 7% of all plastic bottles are recycled globally and most end up in landfill where they can reportedly take up to 1,000 years to decompose (source: Friends of the Earth). That’s why across the Science Museum Group we have removed single-use plastic bottles from all our retail and catering outlets, replacing them with recyclable glass or aluminium alternatives and reducing single-use plastic.

Our catering outlets offer china crockery and metal cutlery before disposable options, have discount schemes in place for re-usable cups, and work with suppliers towards more sustainable options across our operations.

The Science Museum Group has a partnership with Life Water and the charity Drop4Drop, which help people get access to clean drinking water from the sales of bottled water at our museums.

Working with the Science Museum’s catering partner Benugo, the museum was the first in the Group to provide a vegan-only offer in the Gallery Café. Across the Science Museum Group, our catering offer focuses on well balanced menus with vegetarian and vegan options widely available. We’ve taken lamb and beef off our menus, which are focussed on locally-sourced and seasonal produce, designed to minimise our carbon footprint.

The Science Museum’s Gallery Café was the first in the Group with a vegan-only menu.

What happens to our waste

Across all of the Science Museum Group’s activities, we are trying to reduce the amount we throw away. None of our operational waste ever goes to landfill.

Recycling points are installed across our museums and we encourage waste segregation for visitors and colleagues. We provide facilities for recycling cardboard, glass, electrical items, batteries, scrap metal, and mixed recycling. At most of our sites, food waste is also recycled and a pilot food digester has just been installed at the National Railway Museum, which is soon to be rolled out groupwide.

General waste is taken to an Energy from Waste (EFW) facility where it is incinerated to create electricity. One tonne of residual waste generates enough electricity to run a fridge for four years whilst the leftover bottom ash is collected and used as a material for road construction.

Volunteers wearing gloves and aprons while emptying a bag of rubbish onto a table to sort through.
Volunteers sorting the Science Museum’s rubbish as part of the 2014 exhibition, The Rubbish Collection.

Mixed recycling is processed by Materials Recycling Facilities, to be used again by manufacturers instead of raw materials. Recyclables can have a second life as a pen, bike, computer component or newspaper.

In trying to reduce waste and our environmental impact, teams across SMG are looking at alternatives such as investing in digital technologies to enable virtual / hybrid events, and investment in LED lighting to replace inefficient lighting.

Recycling and reusing

We reuse and recycle in other ways too: from the materials used in our exhibitions to the refurbishment of our sites.

We’re changing the way we put on exhibitions to reduce the number of single use materials needed. Colleagues now follow robust guidelines in how to deal with any materials that are left over, upcycling and recycling both within the Group and with local communities, institutions and individuals. Our touring exhibitions are also developed with sustainability in mind and our sustainable Blueprint Pack Exhibition portfolio is unique to the Science Museum Group.

A family views the Superbugs exhibition at the Chongqing Science and Technology Museum in China
Blueprint Pack Exhibitions are sent to host venues digitally to promote a more sustainable touring model while reaching wider audiences.

For specialist equipment, we work with suppliers on take-back schemes and, where possible, we donate furniture and other items in good condition to charities, schools or other institutions in need.

A recent example is the refurbishment of the Science Museum’s IMAX: The Ronson Theatre in 2020 to mark 20 years of the cinema, and which had sustainability at its heart. The refurbishment provided an opportunity to support independent and community cinemas by donating the former cinema seats and digital projector. The venue now has seats made from post-consumer recycled fibre, carpets from recycled plastic and new LED lighting, while new 3D glassware material will mean glasses last over four times as long as before. Meanwhile the refreshments bar is stocked with products from local suppliers who share the Science Museum Group’s passion for working towards a more sustainable future.

A cinema projector glowing over seats in the Science Museum's IMAX theatre
The newly refurbished IMAX: The Ronson Theatre features seats made from post-consumer recycled fibre and carpets woven from recycled plastic.

Similarly, when the Science Museum shop was refurbished in 2019, most of the old fixtures and fittings (gondolas, tables and slatwall panels) were donated to the Rennie Grove Charity, avoiding the use of landfill disposal. These were used for their refurbished wedding dress shop in a novel example of the possibilities creative recycling can afford.

Meanwhile, our online retail third-party fulfilment provider has been using, where possible, recycled packaging material to fulfil the thousands of online orders we receive per year.

Sustainable ranges in our shop

Our retail offer is another area where we are focusing on sustainability; in particular, increasing the number of recycled product ranges on offer.

Examples include Pentatonic, a brand dedicated to the circular economy, using only post-consumer waste to create fully re-recyclable products. They have created a unique and exclusive range of gifts, from drinking glasses and bowl made from smartphone screens to wallets and cushions made from plastic PET bottles.

A selection of products made from recycled materials
The Science Museum + Pentatonic range also includes glasses and bowls made from recycled smartphone screens, the most premium grade glass on the planet, but much of which usually goes to waste once devices are discarded.

We have developed a range of exclusive stationery gifting in collaboration with Comisario, including notebooks and pencil cases made from sustainably sourced material and 100% recycled leather.

Other sustainable products include stackable lab stools from King & Webbon, constructed from beech ply, and made and finished by hand in the UK. We have also introduced a range of toys from Green Toys, an eco-friendly toy company specialising in 100% recycled material toys made from recycled plastic and packaging made from recycled cardboards.

We’re constantly looking for ways to improve and find better solutions to the way we work. Keep up to date with our progress through our Sustainability blog and our Sustainability hub page.