Taking the lead role

9th December 2013


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Author

Joe Ellis

Sarah-Jayne Russell learns how the Ambassador Theatre Group is bringing the curtain down on its environmental impacts

As thousands of excited families yell “He’s behind you!” at pantomimes this Christmas in the New Alexander Theatre in Birmingham, the Bristol Hippodrome or the Liverpool Empire, little will they know that some of the actors are being lit by low-energy LED lights, that none of their empty ice cream tubs or plastic cups will end up in landfill, or that the toilet they visit in the interval is likely to be water efficient.

The Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) is the largest theatre operator in the UK, running 39 venues across the country, including famous West End theatres, such as the Duke of York’s, the Lyceum, the Piccadilly and the Harold Pinter, as well as regional theatres in cities from Torquay to Glasgow. The group employs 3,500 staff, produces hundreds of theatrical shows each year and over the past two years has transformed its approach to dealing with its environmental impacts, cutting overnight energy use by 15% and becoming zero waste to landfill.

The first act

In November 2011, Juliet Hayes was appointed as ATG’s safety and environmental adviser. Hayes had been an ATG theatre manager for 12 years and became increasingly interested in environmental issues. “I’d attended green networking events for years before I started this job,” she remembers. “We talked about what to put on your ‘to do’ list, and I got to the point where I couldn’t do that anymore. I had to start doing something because my list was just getting bigger! Now, in this role, I can make those changes.”

Hayes’ first task was to understand where she needed to start in an organisation with so many sites. “I realised early on, that I’m just one person and I can’t tackle everything in one go,” she says. “It is a case of analysing what the biggest environmental impacts at ATG are, prioritising those and then working my way down the list. If I always remember that, then I’m alright.”

ATG’s most significant impacts are its energy use, specifically electricity, and its waste; in 2011/2012, its 39 theatrical venues consumed more than 19 million kWh of electricity and generated approximately 2,300 tonnes of waste. Early on, Hayes was given responsibility for ensuring the group was compliant with the carbon reduction commitment (CRC) scheme and for submitting the necessary reports to the Environment Agency – no simple task when you’re dealing with data from more than 100 energy meters and a switch of suppliers half way through the year.

“It was an arduous task,” acknowledges Hayes. “But it was really rewarding because at the end of it, I had all this valuable data, which gave me a starting point for reducing electricity use across the group and the reason for doing it. We needed to improve our energy efficiency to cut our CRC bill.”

By working with ATG’s utilities broker, LSI, Hayes began to build up a more accurate and comprehensive system of reporting. “In my first meeting about the CRC, I realised that I was dealing with a lot of estimated data, and that in other cases venues were emailing meter readings to our accounts team who then passed it on to LSI. There was clearly room for information getting lost,” she remembers.

Hayes knew that she had to move to data from actual bills, and during 2012 secured the funding to upgrade meters. Now each of the venues has half-hourly electricity meters and both Hayes and the venue managers receive regular reports. With an accurate handle on how much electricity the group was using, the next challenge was finding a way to cut consumption. “I’ve worked in the theatre all my life and I knew that daytime use is very hard to control. Show producers hire the venues and they have control of the auditorium; they can have rehearsals five days a week and leave the lights on all day, if they want.

“What we can control is overnight usage and so I set a target to reduce ATG’s overnight energy use by 20% in a year, without really knowing if that was possible.” After identifying the eight venues that were the highest overnight users, Hayes launched “project blackout”. She visited each venue after it closed for the night and carried out a torchlight survey with the venue’s manager, its environment ambassador and a member of the technical team, such as a chief electrician or technical manager, who could answer questions on why any equipment may be left on.

“On our visits, we go into every room in the building, every storeroom, office and backstage area, in the pitch dark. It’s the quickest way to see if anything has been left on,” she explains. “We make notes and afterwards the venue gets a feedback form with recommendations on what they should be switching off at night.

“Some of the common things left on are fridges and coffee machines,” she says. “A large coffee machine can use the same amount of power as five oil heaters overnight, so they should definitely be switched off.”

Emergency lighting was another challenge, because some venues believed it had to be left on when the building was empty in case of an emergency call out. “What you actually need is a safe way of getting back into the building and turning lights on,” says Hayes. “You do a lot of myth busting with an exercise like this, helping people to understand that just because something has always been done a certain way, doesn’t mean that it is the right way now.”

Hayes approach has worked, with the group cutting overnight electricity use by 15% in 12 months, and cutting its electricity CRC costs by £6,000 year on year. “Project blackout has now become the tagline for energy management,” says Hayes. Alongside cutting energy use, the ATG has committed to sourcing its power sustainably, with its electricity coming from 100% renewable, biomass sources through supplier Haven Power.

Waste ye not

In addition to getting to grips with the theatres’ energy use, Hayes started to look at what was happening with ATG’s waste. “I started looking at it for fun,” she said. “I would often find myself by the stage door looking at the bins and I started thinking about where our waste was going. I discovered that we had 12 different waste contractors, providing different levels of service at different costs. Aside from any environmental concerns, it didn’t make financial sense.”

Hayes told her senior management team that ATG could save money and improve its environmental credentials by moving to a single supplier for the whole group. She was given the go ahead to put the contract out to tender and made a decision early on that the new contractor would not send any waste to landfill.

“In my first month, I was sent on the NEBOSH general certificate in environment management course and I had to draw a through image of a landfill dump showing what goes on underneath the ground. I went home that night and dreamt about landfill,” she recalls. “I came back from the course and told the senior management team that we could not be associated with landfill sites anymore because they are so bad for the environment.”

With the backing of the ATG leadership, Hayes began an audit of the different waste contracts the group held. “We had recycling in a lot of our venues, but it was quite haphazard. Our London venues, for example, had four types of bags for waste and separated the waste themselves, but it inevitably went wrong when people got confused between the glass waste bag and the plastic bag, for example. In total, around 25% of our waste was being recycled.”

In April 2013, ATG started a new waste management contract with First Mile, a small London-based company that sends no waste to landfill and offsets its carbon emissions. Now the recycling process is simpler, with just one or two bags for dry mixed recyclables, and all venues are recycling at least 69% of their waste, with the remainder being used to generate energy. Some venues, like those in London and the New Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham, have achieved recycling levels of 97%.

First Mile provides each ATG venue with a monthly report on how much waste is being collected, recycled and used for energy. Becky Charles, the environment ambassador at the New Alexandra Theatre, says: “Each report also tells us how many trees we are saving by recycling our waste, which is important to us because we support a local tree charity.”

After getting a handle on where the theatres’ waste has been going, one of Hayes’ next projects is to work with her procurement team on getting to grips with ATG’s supply chain and preventing as much potential waste as possible coming into the theatres. “We had to get the infrastructure in place first,” she says, “but now I’ve started by breaking our supply chain down into categories. First, I’m concentrating on our retail suppliers, who provide our drinks and snacks, and looking at packaging.”

Hayes is also supporting the group’s business development director and head of learning and access, to develop ATG’s corporate social responsibility credentials. 2014 is looking to be another busy year for the ATG. Alongside putting in place a new integrated health, safety and environment policy, the group will be going for an environmental standard or certification and designing its own environment training course for all theatre staff.

“The course is going to be aimed specifically at the operational staff in the theatre and what they really need to know about our environmental impacts,” says Hayes, who is tasked with developing the course. “It’s really exciting because we’ve never had something like this before I don’t think anyone in our sector has.

“People think they know about the environment, but they don’t. They disregard recycling and energy-efficiency initiatives because they think it doesn’t matter. It’s really important to educate them, so we can all work together to be green.”


To read more about how ATG's participated in Earth Hour and the important role of their environmental ambassadors efforts click here


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