A Royal Shade of Green?

In an exclusive interview for Organic Gardening, I talk recycling, renewable energy and carbon footprints with Bob Sweet, the key decision-maker behind the Royal Horticultural Society flower shows, including the 2008 Chelsea Flower Show.

By John Walker. Published in Organic Gardening, May 2008.

‘RHS shows go even greener’, the statement released by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in January, raised the eyebrows of many organic gardeners. It talks, among other things, of better recycling of show waste, a ban on patio heaters, and local sourcing of show food.

But there was no mention of using renewable energy to power these transient horticultural jamborees, of whether skips would be banned, or whether, in the light of climate change, show gardens and their makers would no longer be flown in from the other side of the planet.

To dig deeper into the RHS’s apparent green epiphany, I talked to Bob Sweet, the Society’s Head of Shows Development. Bob’s job is to look at the type of shows staged by the RHS, to determine their look and feel, develop show policies, and decide what is and isn’t acceptable in a show. His remit covers all RHS-run flower shows, including the ‘big three’ – Chelsea, Hampton Court and Tatton Park.

I started by asking Bob why the RHS has launched these ‘green’ initiatives now, bearing in mind that the sustainability of shows has been under scrutiny for several years. Has the RHS reached an environmental ‘tipping point’?

“The RHS, in common with gardeners, has long been carrying out good environmental practice. In our gardens we have recycling and composting policies, and have been minimising peat and herbicide usage. There’s been quite a lot of action towards a more environmentally responsible approach. On the shows we’re probably lagging behind just slightly, but even so, in 2002 we introduced a policy of allowing only certified timber at our shows, which was fully effective by 2004. What we’re seeing this year is a much more geared-up approach, perhaps to progress things faster than we have been.”

On show waste and recycling…

Recycling of many materials has been around for decades. Should the RHS not have grabbed this one a bit sooner?

“The difficulty with a show is that it is on a piece of ground for literally a few days, and the whole way in which activities are managed is very different from a permanent site. We have been actively promoting recycling policies at our shows for several years. Waste removed in skips is sorted and separated off site in order to meet our recycling objectives, and we are working very hard to get our recycling figures better.”

Waste collection at the 2008 RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

Waste being collected during the build-up to the 2008 RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

Across its shows, the RHS claims an average of 70 per cent recycling of all waste generated, although this doesn’t include any materials removed by exhibitors themselves. “This is a tricky area, but we have announced very publicly that in 2008 we are photographing, recording, monitoring and measuring how much waste is generated in addition to the skips we’re taking off site. By the end of this year we will have a very full view of the amount of material removed at the end of each show.” 2008 will see better separation of waste, both during the build-up and breakdown of the shows and during the shows themselves, to make overall recycling easier.

Will exhibitors and tradespeople be told to use the new facilities, and will they face sanctions if they don’t?

“We will be seeking their co-operation, and RHS staff will be monitoring it. The eyes and ears of the show are pretty good, and we’ll know whether or not things are working. I can’t believe any exhibitor wouldn’t know that we take waste disposal waste seriously.”

Cost, too, is a factor. “It would be intolerable for us to accept landfill charges for everything that came out of a show. It would cost us a huge amount if we were to be reckless like that.”

“On the shows we’re probably lagging behind slightly. What we’re seeing this year is a much more geared-up approach, perhaps to progress things faster than we have been”

Exhibitors have a key role to play in reducing waste, and this year Bob’s message is clear: they need to design for reduced or zero waste. “There’s no simpler way of saying it. If we can get waste designed out of schemes, and out of the way we build and approach a show, it will reduce the amount of waste at the end.”

At last year’s shows the bins were full of mixed visitor waste, including food. Is that sorted and recycled?

Food and other waste in one of the bins at the 2008 Tatton Park Flower Show.

Peeking into a waste bin at the 2008 Tatton Park Flower Show suggested that the RHS still have some way to go on dealing effectively with the waste generated by their flower shows.

“In previous years this waste has been separated post-show. This year we’re going to the next stage, with plans for separate bins for food, glass, plastic and so on. Food waste is difficult, and we need to get smarter. Food brought into a show is a potential contaminant and makes recycling difficult.”

Will you ban skips?

“We’ve got to be practical. There has to be a certain amount of realism about running an event in an environmentally responsible way. It doesn’t mean there won’t be some waste.”

On renewable energy…

At this year’s shows, are you planning to use any renewable energy, such as wind or solar power, or biofuels to run generators?

“I’m told it’s not doable or a practical way forward, but I would love to think we could do it one day. We’re hoping we’ll substantially reduce fuel consumption this year.” Is there any chance of running the diesel generators on recycled vegetable oil? “Along with others wishing to generate electricity in an environmentally responsible way, we’re in the hands of an industry that isn’t quite there yet.”

On banning materials and products…

What prompted the ban on patio heaters?

“In 2007, an audit highlighted a range of products which were questionable in terms of environmental responsibility, and patio heaters, we felt, were quite easy to ban. We’re also following the garden centre trade, which has agreed to stop the sale of gas patio heaters.”

You’ve banned ‘fossil’ stone, such as ammonites, but does that also include quarried stone and rock?

“Quarried stone is usually very controlled and monitored, and it certainly is if it’s UK-sourced. We feel quite comfortable about that. There is always the argument about whether you should quarry or not, but those decisions are taken in the areas where the activities take place.”

Indian sandstone on display at the 2008 RHS Tatton Park Flower Show,

Indian sandstone imported for use in our gardens by Marshalls, who were the sponsors of the 2008 RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

Does the quarrying and importation and use of stone from India by Marshalls, the company sponsoring this year’s Chelsea show, sit comfortably? “We have debated whether to permit the use of Indian stone in show gardens. We’re monitoring it. Marshalls have satisfied us with their ethical procurement policies and documentation. I think our attitude will continue to be that a show like Chelsea brings a worldwide experience to people. Provided that elements like the use of imported stone are kept in moderation, we can feel comfortable with that.”

On carbon footprints…

You say that food at shows will be ‘locally sourced’ to cut food miles. How locally?

“Hopefully 90 per cent of all food will be sourced from within the UK, with obvious exceptions like oranges and bananas, and our caterers have assured us that they will source as close to the shows as possible. Our caterers will also be using biodegradable food packaging.”

How do you respond to the charge that Chelsea is not only the greatest, but also the most polluting flower show on earth?

“We consider it one of the least polluting events that takes place in the UK, in terms of a carbon footprint. Nearly all visitors use public transport, making it a much more sustainable event than many others. We would like to measure our carbon footprint, but there are many factors and we don’t yet have the information necessary. As a start we will be tracking all exhibitors’ plants not sourced in the UK or EU, and we’re asking exhibitors what percentage of peat they are using in their compost. We’re gathering a broad range of statistics.”

'Wildlife Garden in a Skip' designed by Ruth Holmes.

Some show garden designers are themselves addressing the issue of post-show waste. Ruth Holmes’ ‘Wildlife Garden in a Skip’ at the 2007 Hampton Court Flower Show could be picked up and moved to different locations after the show.

So exhibitors are to some extent being asked to carry out their own ‘ecological audit’? “Yes. This has featured very much in the initial selection process, and we’ve been tenacious in following up the information exhibitors have given us. We will get better at asking questions, and once we feel confident we understand exactly how we can manage our events in an environmentally responsible way, we can look at how we measure our carbon footprint and publish the results.”

On show gardens from overseas…

Fleming’s Nurseries, from Australia, are staging another garden at Chelsea this month. Given the environmental damage done by air transport, particularly in relation to climate change, is it ecologically or morally defensible to fly in show gardens from the other side of the planet?

“It raises several questions. This year Fleming’s are shipping their equipment in two sea containers, which in the scheme of things isn’t going to make any massive environmental impact. Fleming’s have been very sensible in sourcing as many materials and plants as possible from the UK. As for the people involved, there are probably about 12. When you look at the millions moving around the world in aeroplanes, are those dozen going to make a significant difference if they didn’t come?

“Exhibitors are to some extent being asked to carry out their own ‘ecological audit’”

“There are a lot of people who derive great enjoyment from seeing an Australian garden in the UK, and I’m sure many will say ‘that’s saved me going to Australia’. We can play the fiddle both ways.”

Would the RHS not send a more positive message about the need to drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions by banning air- and sea-freighted show gardens? Should it not, instead, be celebrating British and European gardens and promoting the need to relocalise the way we enjoy gardening?

Fleming's Nurseries' show garden at the Chelsea Flower Show 2008.

Can flying in the people and shipping in the resources to make a show garden for a few days in May really be justified environmentally? This is the garden built at Chelsea in 2008 by Fleming’s Nurseries. Would seeing it really dissuade you, as Bob Sweet suggests, from flying to Australia yourself?

“Fleming’s 120-square metre garden at Chelsea is the tiniest pinprick in the scheme of things. If you want to deprive the gardening public of seeing how gardens are built, how gardeners cope with a different climate to ours, and how a palette of plants can be used in a different way, I think that’s a false way of understanding horticulture.

“If what we’re saying is ‘let’s ground everyone’ and ‘no one can ever see these gardens again because of the environmental issues’, I think horticulturally we would find that quite difficult. In terms of scale, is this a major issue? How does it compare with millions of cars imported into the country from Japan every year? If there are directives that say we need to cut out international travel and the importation of goods of any sort, then we’ll obviously follow policies and guidelines. In the meantime, we feel justified in giving hundreds of thousands of people the satisfaction of seeing international gardens, without them needing to travel to the other side of the world.

So will the RHS ever ban the importing of international show gardens?

“We will not move Chelsea to a point where it is substantially international exhibits. We feel justified that each year we can have a couple of international gardens. We hand-pick the exhibits for each show. There’s no need for a ban on lots of things which we get applications from potential exhibitors for – we just don’t accept them.”

Will you be introducing an award for the most sustainable show garden?

“It’s something we are considering. When, hopefully in the next couple of years, we do introduce an award of that nature, we want to give designers the opportunity to explain how they’ve approached their design, how they sourced the elements of the garden, and how it will be maintained with minimal future inputs.”

The 'climate change dome' at the 2008 RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show.

Would the RHS ‘engage better with the climate change issue’ by rethinking the environmental impact of their flower shows?

What are the environmental highlights at this year’s shows?

“At Hampton Court we will have a number of climate change gardens to show us the palette of plants we might need to be growing in 50 or 100 years’ time, as temperatures rise and perhaps rainfall reduces. We’re also having a special climate change feature at Hampton Court, which is being staged by the Met Office, who will be giving talks and demonstrations alongside our own scientists and advisers. It will see us becoming engaged with the climate change issue.”

With thanks to Richard Ellis.
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