Waste Diversion

The Field Museum has an on-going commitment to reduce its impact on the environment.  With programs in place to compost, recycle and reuse, the Museum has been able to divert hundreds of thousands of pounds of waste each year from ending up in landfills, polluting the environment and casting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  This is important as the greenhouse gas methane (CH4) is generated in landfills as waste decomposes, and landfills are a major (the third largest) source of methane emissions in the United States.  Additionally, materials that are reused or recycled require less energy than extracting raw materials from the earth, while creating jobs and having a positive economic impact.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

The opportunity to reduce, reuse and recycle is presented to visitors and staff members behind the scenes alike. Bins are located museum-wide for the recycling of paper, cardboard, metal, plastic and glass. As everything from consumable goods to specimens on loan are regularly being shipped to and from the Museum, packing materials are saved and reused whenever possible. There is an institution-wide database for recycling office furniture and a program for responsibly disposing of e-waste. Additionally, staff recycle eyeglasses, cell phones, tyvek, batteries and laserjet ink cartridges.

In an ongoing effort to reduce the demand for bottled water, filters have been installed in all of the drinking fountains.

Air dryers have replaced the need for paper towels in public washrooms, which saves trees and energy. Likewise, in housekeeping, microfiber cleaning clothes have replaced paper towels. To learn more about the Museum’s green cleaning practices, check out the Indoor Environmental Air Quality section.

The construction of new exhibits often requires the substantial use of wood, metal, brick and glass. These exhibit materials are reused whenever possible. Permanent exhibits are designed to be modular, owing to the fact that even a “permanent” exhibit may be changed, or at least updated, over time. When new flooring needs to be laid for an exhibit, the Museum favors Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood or reclaimed wood.

The Field Museum's restaurants are reducing their environmental footprint as well. Operating under a ten year sustainability program crafted by Greg Christian of Beyond Green Sustainable Food Partners, they are sourcing an increasing amount of their ingredients and supplies from Chicago and Midwest growers and purveyors. Their sourcing is also done with an eye towards zero waste and almost everything in their supply chain can be reused. Vegetable oil is recycled into biodiesel fuel through a partnership with Chicago Biofuels. Compost waste bins have been installed in the kitchens and throughout the Museum’s dining areas.  Biodegradable cups and flatware have replaced petroleum based plastics, and reusable containers are available for staff to utilize. The result is that after the first full year of operation, over 70% of the restaurant waste stream was diverted from landfills.

The Siragusa Center

Though the Museum’s eateries have had recycling and compost bins since 2013, the Siragusa Center - the Museum’s cafeteria space for school groups bringing their own lunches - offered only bins for trash and recycling. In the summer of 2015, the Delta Institute performed a waste audit in order to see how effectively the recycling bins were functioning. They discovered that most of the items being thrown away were not recyclable, but were compostable, and that introducing composting bins into the Siragusa Center could improve the waste diversion rate from its existing 14% to as much as 70%. But in order to reach that 70% potential, kids and chaperones would need to be able to quickly identify which items belong in a compost bin, in addition to the more common practice of separating waste into landfill trash and recycling. As composting is not yet mainstream in the Chicago region, and school groups are used to eating and disposing of their garbage in a very short timeframe, this presented a bit of a challenge.

To ensure that the new waste separation system would be rolled out as effectively as possible, the Delta Institute designed an experiment by which they introduced 6 treatments over 3 days, testing how varying signage and information could minimize contamination and improve waste separation.  The results were conclusive and have now been incorporated into the Siragusa Center: a combination of informational handouts for chaperones, simple, clear signage, and customized openings on the bins themselves detailing what lunch items can be composted or recycled (the items were selected based on results from the waste audits).  With 80,000 school kids utilizing the Siragusa Center each year, the Museum will improve its own waste diversion efforts, but more importantly, will serve its mission as an educational institution by reinforcing other composting efforts in the region aimed at children, such as the Chicago Public Schools Commercial Composting & Recycling Initiative, which is a partnership between Seven Generations Ahead, CPS, and Lakeshore Recycling Systems. The 14 participating schools in this program have seen an 82% percent diversion rate of all of their cafeteria and kitchen waste, keeping over 2,700 lbs of materials out of landfills every day.


Removing Organic Material From Our Waste Stream

Although many large institutions like The Field Museum recycle paper, plastic and e-waste in order to reduce their impact on the environment, food waste is often overlooked, even though it is one of the largest components of the waste stream. The Museum’s composting program collects and diverts large quantities of organic material produced by Museum staff and visitors every day, and in 2016 kept 112 tons of waste – over 246,000 pounds – out of local landfills.

The Museum began composting waste in 2009 on a small scale, when its Corner Bakery restaurant staff began collecting coffee grounds in reusable pickle buckets, which were then worked into compost and local edible garden operations managed by Growing Power. In 2013, with the guidance of Greg Christian and Beyond Green Sustainable Food Partners, Aramark Parks and Destinations began operating new Museum restaurants, with waste diversion one of the top-level goals in a formal Sustainable Food Operator program. The Museum’s composting volume increased dramatically, as it encompassed all restaurant food waste as well as biodegradable packaging and flatware.

Partnering with the Illinois Food Scrap Coalition and Loyola University’s Compost Collection Network, the Museum was able to expand on their composting program and selected independently owned Collective Resource to compost all organic waste produced by the new sustainable Field Bistro restaurant. When the Explorer Café opened in 2014, the amount of the Museum’s compostable waste stream surpassed all expectations, so Lakeshore Recycling Systems was brought on to handle the ongoing annual volume of 100+ tons of compostable waste. In 2015, a staff composting program was established within the Museum, with compost bins now located near designated staff and volunteer eating areas, as well as in areas easily accessed by custodians. In 2017 the Museum restaurants stopped giving visitors lids and straws. Although they were compostable, the vast majority of single-use straws in use are plastic, and a major source of pollution in rivers, lakes and oceans. The Museum strives to lead by example, and joining an effort by cultural institutions nationally, and here on the Museum Campus locally ("Shedd the Straw"), was the right thing to do.

A November 20, 2015 blog piece from the Delta Institute, Testing Waste Diversion Design Strategies at The Field Museum, describes the scientific approach the Museum is taking as it continues to look for opportunities to expand its composting operations.

Composting Keeps the Soil Healthy and Reduces Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Composting is nature’s way of recycling organic materials, like fruit and vegetable scraps, into a dark, earthy smelling product that improves the soil. The resulting product is so full of nutrients and beneficial to plants that it is sometimes referred to as black gold.

While recycling as much of our waste as possible reduces the need for more landfills, perhaps an even more compelling reason to compost organic waste is to help in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. Many people are aware that anthropogenic or human-caused carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions have contributed significantly to our changing climate, but landfilling organic waste instead of composting it produces methane (CH4), a greenhouse gas that is over 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. In the United States, methane is the second most common greenhouse gas. In 2013, methane comprised almost 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, and 18% of those emissions were from landfilled organic waste produced by households and businesses.  Learn more about the role of methane in climate change by visiting the EPA's Overview of Greenhouse Gases. As a member of the community and a leader in conservation, we hope this information can help you get started composting your own waste and keeping the planet cool!

Doing Your Part to Reduce Household Food Waste

In the United States, 40% of the food produced and 15-20% of the food that individuals purchase for household use are wasted every year. According to the Natural Resources Defence Council, this is an increase of 50% since the 1970’s and 10 times as much food waste as is produced by other countries. By making a few changes in our lives, each person can do their part to reduce food waste and make a significant impact on the environment. Starting at the beginning, source reduction can help each person become smarter about how much food they purchase from stores and order from restaurants. Purchasing only food that you know you will be able to eat and understanding sell by dates can help reduce household food waste. Individuals can help reduce industry food waste by encouraging local stores to join the U.S. Food Waste Challenge and asking stores to carry imperfect produce so that it does not get disposed of before reaching store shelves.

Composting at home is a great way to further reduce food waste and put valuable nutrients back into the soil. When organic waste is left on the ground, the decomposition process can rob the soil of valuable nutrients, but when organic waste is composted it is turned into a well-balanced nutrient rich product. Using a home composting bin can recycle your fruit and vegetable scraps and yard waste into a dark brown and earthy soil builder for your garden.

Supporting restaurants, businesses or institutions that are partners of the We Compost program (The Field Museum restaurants are Founding Members and Gold Partners) and encouraging your favorite restaurant to join the program can also do a lot to reduce food waste in your community. Linking restaurants to food pantries through Zero Percent and starting a Gleaning Program in your community are both great ways to support the donation of surplus food. The EPA’s Food Recovery Hierarchy prioritizes actions that individuals and organizations can take to reduce and divert food waste:

  1. Source Reduction → Buy the right amount of food
  2. Feeding People → Zero Percent or Gleaning Program
  3. Feeding Animals → Donating food to wildlife shelters
  4. Industrial Use → Anaerobic digestion and biofuels
  5. Composting → We Compost and home composting
  6. Landfill/Incineration → As a last resort after source reduction, reuse and composting

As the Museum continues to find new ways to conserve the environment that is studied and showcased within its walls, the example it sets forth strives to inspire action, on whatever level, by individuals. Already the Museum is making huge strides. The graph below illustrates multiple changes made to institution-wide operations, with the purple jagged line indicating a steady improvement in the Museum's waste diversion rate, with the red bars showing a steady decrease in the amount of material the Museum is sending to landfill. In 2013, the Field Museum’s waste diversion rate was 18%. In 2014, with the addition of composting in late 2013 (the green bars) and the Museum's formal registration for building-wide LEED certification, 36% of potential landfill waste was diverted. The Museum has continued to improve upon this rate, diverting nearly 70% of its waste in 2020.