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posted 25 September 2019

- by Melissa Kerschen, senior comms manager

"I would like to see Glass Door rejecting all plastic cups, spoons, etc," a volunteer wrote in a recent  feedback form. Fifty percent of our volunteer coordinators reported they were "very concerned" about Glass Door's environmental impact.

And it isn't just volunteers voicing concerns about the quantity of plastic waste in the shelters. For years our caseworker Anna has been chastising us about the use polystyrene cups; she would bring in her own compostable alternatives to use in our women's group.

Of course they are right: we can and should do better. Surely we have a responsibility to care for people in a way that minimises our environmental impact.

While taking steps like recycling, reducing consumption and reusing products seems like a no-brainer, how far should we go? All charities have a responsibility to use donations to further their stated charitable aims. Does an environmental stance that requires an investment have a place in a charity's budget?

Should non-environmental charities spend funds on environmentally friendly initiatives like replacing fossil-fuel burning vehicles, building more energy efficient buildings and using only eco-friendly materials?

Trustees rightly asked: can an environmental programme be justified, or does it take away resources from getting people off the streets and into shelters?


The thinking

The Charity Commission's advice allows trustees to weigh-up considerations. A 2013 report provides an example of "a charity with objects for the 'relief of poverty'" may be "delivering environmental projects because they have evidence that the effects of climate change are contributing to the poverty in certain parts of the world and that their efforts can help to reduce these effects."

While Glass Door clearly is in the business of relieving poverty, any connection to our reducing plastic waste in the shelters and its impact on climate refugees or the quantity of plastic shipped to Malaysia is far fetched at best. Or is it?

Glass Door is only one small charity, and we know what we do means very little in the scheme of the climate emergency. In some ideal scenario, we would not use any single-use plastics in our shelters, recycle, encourage local churches to use shelter-generated compost in their gardens, grow more vegetables in these gardens and reduce the volume of meat served. We could shuttle food grown without carbon-based fertilisers and eco-friendly cleaning supplies in vans powered by decarbonised electricity. And still the difference made would represent less than a drop of water lost in the ocean. 

But as we know from our work with people experiencing homelessness, doing something is always better than doing nothing.

Since 2013, conversations about climate change have become even more relevant and urgent. Advice emerging from United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicates that limiting man-made global warming will require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”. According to the IPCC, the world has just 12 years to limit climate change to 1.5°C.  

We stand with the poor and marginalised. That means that at the very least, we cannot in good conscience add to the accumulation of plastic waste choking our oceans. We know climate change uncontested will flood low-lying places and displace tens of millions of people, and it will be those with the least that suffer the most.

What we do next

Without spending anything, we can do simple things like turn off lights and computers when they are not needed, be more prudent about paper consumption and encourage more washing up to reduce the use of disposable products in the shelters.

We don't expect perfection. Shelters will still need to rely on some disposable products. Guests often leave with take-away containers filled with leftover food. This may be the only meal they have before the next night’s shelter, and we have yet to discover a reusable take-away container that doesn’t need washing.

Likewise, disposable hot cups serve a purpose in a shelter. Our guests wait outside before the shelters' doors open at 8pm. On bitterly cold nights, a cup of cocoa, tea or coffee served outside warms the hands and tells our guests that we haven't forgotten them. Some churches are under instruction not to serve drinks outside in mugs that shatter when dropped.

Eco-friendly disposable cups were trialed in the shelters last winter

Eco-friendly disposable cups (seen in upper right corner) were trialed in the shelters last winter.

But disposable products don't have to be made of plastic of course. New lines of eco-friendly products are being made from plants using renewable, lower carbon, recycled or reclaimed materials. They are even compostable. Many look just like plastic, so you may not have noticed the countless high-street cafes that have adopted these types of greener products.

The first step we took a year ago was to research options and explore cost implications. My colleague Caroline volunteered to work with colleagues across the charity to keep track of how much disposable goods we used. She researched alternatives, and we then trialed various eco-friendly cups and containers in one of our shelter circuits.

Not all products tried turned out to be fit-for-purpose. The first takeaway containers we used weren’t hardy enough to withstand the weightiness of a beef stew, for example. And the hot cups were deemed too small: one volunteer pointed out that guests ended up using two cups rather than one.

After making adjustments, we feel we have the right products, the right plan, and the costings made. Bottom line: eco-friendly disposable products can do the job without costing the Earth, but they are more expensive. Eco-friendly take-away containers cost a full 6p more than its 7p polystyrene equivalent, for example. On average, eco-friendly alternatives cost 60% more.

Collaboration is key

When we work together, we can be challenged to improve, propped-up when we stumble and supported in our achievements.

Our volunteers challenged our way of doing things. But true change doesn’t happen without adoption across the board. We only get things done when we take bold action and take people along with us.

We need our volunteers, our church partners, and our supporters to question us and join together to find better ways of doing things.

In many ways, we are not doing too poorly. We already are at the receiving end of food that is being recycled. Most of our volunteer teams wash dishes and eschew disposable plates and cutlery during the dinner service. Many are already making big efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle.

most shelters use crockery when possible

Across all our shelters, volunteers ensure crockery are cleaned and ready to use for the next time.

One volunteer passed on her top tip: writing a guest's name on a disposable cup means it's more likely to be used for refills. And as Starbucks has discovered, this approach can also offer a bit of personalisation.

This kind tailored approach -- which also recognises some solution is better than no solution -- feels like the Glass Door way forward.

Do you want to partner with us, or do you have a suggestion? email [email protected]