Skip to content

Circular Economy for Museums

Why are circular economies important?

Current global manufacturing and consumption practices are wholly unsustainable for our planet. From the initial extraction of raw materials to the shipping and packaging for the final consumer, it is a process which has significant environmental downsides with many products designed to be used once or replaced regularly, this has a great cost to the environment. This degradation is now endangering the very systems on which our way of life and future depends on and the need to change is becoming clearer and more urgent. 

This is clearly demonstrated by the projection that, should the global population trends continue (9.6 billion people by 2050), it would require the equivalent of three planets to provide the natural resources needed to sustain current lifestyles. 

We need to move away from these linear, extractive, single use centric production and consumption behaviours and this change is something we can all contribute to. Ideas around more sustainable development, production and consumption have gained wider recognition and attention over the last few decades. The clearest example of this is with the adoptions of the U.N Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 which include Goal 12: 

“Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns” 

How can museums support circular economies?

As these are global goals, processes, and issues it is easy to feel powerless to help make progress on them. However, every individual and organisation consumes to some degree and can make changes to their own patterns and behaviours.  

Museums have a responsibility to preserve our shared history, culture and heritage for future generations. They also are responsible in ensuring their current actions are contributing to preserving the present world for the future.  

One area where museums can have an impact is looking to ensure their own consumption of goods and materials is as sustainable as possible. A simple basic tenant which can help guide behaviour for this is to look at reducing what you use, reuse what you can and recycle what is no longer of any use. The most environmentally friendly product is the one that never has to get made in the first place. However, it is obviously impossible to never use anything ever again and so for the things we do use it is best practice to get something which can be used more than once and when something inevitably must be thrown away, it should be recycled.  

It is also inevitable that there will be some goods and materials which can only be used once and for which there are no recycling opportunities available. While it most likely cannot be wholly avoided, museum teams should work to ensure that these kinds of items make up as little as possible of their consumption.  

Platforms for museums

Platforms for circular economies have been growing over the last few years with more available for the selling, buying, giving away and sharing of second hand, perfectly usable goods getting more and attention. This is a great way of avoiding throwing out perfectly fine resources and similarly, it can be a great resource to buy goods for cheaper which are still of high quality. Doing this means something new doesn’t have to be manufactured and shipped and it stops more waste being produced.  

As these platforms have grown there are offshoots being developed for specific sectors, including the museum and wider culture sector. These include: 

These specific sites specialise in goods and in some cases, services, relating to museums, arts, theatres and anything related to the culture sector. While you may not find exactly what you’re looking for straight away, it is completely worthwhile to keep looking. There are also more generic ones which may still have something for your museum: 

If sustainability becomes a core operating principle for your museum and everyone becomes committed to it, it can change how you think about your projects and exhibits. These could be designed and wrapped around a sustainable approach, for example if you can only get a certain kind of display cabinet or currently have a certain size of exhibition board then think about how you can design the exhibit around those parameters rather immediately going to buy something new.  

The idea of a circular economy for museums is just one approach to the issue of sustainability in museums and tackles one aspect of it. But it’s a fantastic tool to have. 

Further information on how some museums have approached this issue can be found in the following links: 

If you have any questions or want to get in contact to talk about carbon management or any other environmental issues, please contact MGS’s Climate Officer at alexs@museumsgalleriesscotland.org.uk 

This is the exterior of the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, which is the entrance as you arrive, showing part of the roof, with an exterior wall and grass at the front.  the
Related guide

Environmental Sustainability: Robert Burns Birthplace Museum

This is a case study on the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway that helps to show that by adopting a sustainable agenda, it has been possible to create a museum which successfully balances conservation needs alongside environmental needs, creating a better space for its collection and for its visitors.

Find out more