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Editor’s note: For our celebration of Earth Day, now 50 years strong, Susan Barton, director of facilities maintenance, has updated her 2017 blog on sustainability practices at Shedd Aquarium. During her 25 years at Shedd, she has become a champion of protecting the environment.

When we talk about sustainability at Shedd Aquarium, we break it down into the “Big 3 Combo”—no, not a fast-food entrée—but energy, water and waste. In 2012, we created stretch goals to make significant reductions in those categories, with a target completion date of 2020. My 2017 blog focused primarily on energy and water reductions, and I’ll revisit those statistics. But I want to focus on the progress we’ve made in the area of waste diversion. That’s the big story for 2020.

Staff members Susan Barton and James Clark sand betwixt three large crates filled with sorted recycled items -- soda cans, plastic bags, and e-waste -- behind the scenes at Shedd.

Waste: A goal of zero

I’ve been overseeing and tracking data related to recycling and diversion since 2012. That year our diversion rate—what we keep from being added to landfill—was a mere 27 percent. In 2017, our diversion rate hovered between 40 percent and 45 percent. Last year, we averaged better than 80 percent diversion for the year, with a couple months coming in well over 80 percent. That’s a substantial uptick—think four-fifths of the contents of your garbage bag not going into the dumpster and landfill. Here’s how we got there.

We maintained our basic single-stream recycling receptacles (glass, paper and plastic) in the public and behind-the-scenes areas; photos above the openings help people identify how to sort these items. Around the building’s exterior, we now offer the opportunity to sort leftovers into landfill or recycling using new side-by-side but separate containers.

As part of our initiative to reduce single-use plastic, a dozen drinking fountains were upgraded to offer a refill option for personal beverage containers. Our guests and staff know that they’re part of our sustainability mission because these units digitally count the number of plastic bottles we’ve kept out of landfill. As of this writing, it’s well over 527,478!

We continue to encourage our staff members and volunteers to visit the behind-the-scenes “Recycling Row,” where they can drop off anything from used textiles and clothing to outdated electronics and light bulbs. Recycling Row is also home to collection boxes for metal, Styrofoam and a new commodity: used latex and nitrile gloves. In early 2018, we started collecting used gloves after realizing how many departments utilize them and that they were being added to landfill. Throughout staff areas, we also collect used batteries, ink cartridges and empty snack packages, all shipped out for recycling.

A tray sits in the rotating tray return in Shedd's Bubblenet Cafeteria, filled with the detritus of a finished lunch; a plate, crumpled napkins, and an empty chocolate milk carton.
Hardy fall cabbages are surrounded by a blanket of colorful autumn leaves in Shedd's gardens.

Our partners in food service and retail operations are a big part of our success. From the kitchens we collect used grease, which is reconstituted as biofuel; in the Bubble Net kitchen we house a food digester. When guests’ trays are returned, any food waste is ground up and processed by this digester into nothing but gray water. All other food waste, as well as landscape material, has been collected as part of the compost initiative that we began in 2002. Within the last year, everything guests use during meals—paper napkins, plates, utensils—was converted to compostable items in both restaurants.

Our retail partners in the aquarium’s stores have been sorting incoming packaging to remove cardboard and Styrofoam and now something new: They’ve joined forces with food service to collect shrink wrap from incoming pallets so that it can be processed through a major grocery store chain.

I would be remiss if I didn’t add that our increased diversion rate is due to our working with a waste management company that shares our passion for a healthy environment. When landfill material is added to our open-top receptacle outside, we know that it’s all sorted once it’s back in the company’s shop. Construction commodities like wood, drywall and concrete are passed along to other companies for recycling or reuse.

Everything we send to them is weighed. I receive a monthly tonnage report, broken down by commodity, showing me diversion and residual (nonrecyclable) tonnage. To this report I add the weights of those other miscellaneous items we collect. I’m a demon for data because it really helps me share the impact of our collective efforts.

A woman draws out zero-waste infographics on an illustrated wall

Of course the best way to reduce waste is to stop it before it starts. Throughout the aquarium, we eliminated 47 printers, five copiers and four fax machines, saving 200,000 sheets of paper.

As more companies move to cut back on the waste they produce, they refer to this more frequently as a “zero-waste” initiative. A diversion rate of 90 percent is considered zero waste, so we’re not far from that. Yet those last percentage points, between around 85 percent and 90 percent, represent a big challenge. That means really digging into material that is not currently being recycled or reused and investigating alternate “end results.”

PVC piping is a good example of a nonrecyclable product that we use that isn’t recyclable. It’s a safe, economical material for carrying water throughout the building. But it can’t be recycled or reused, so when it wears out, it ends up discarded as landfill material. Maybe one day PVC can be processed into a new, useful product.

We will keep pursuing other means of whittling down our landfill totals. A newly created Sustainability Advisory Team will promote proper sorting and recycling among the staff while investigating new initiatives.

The ripple effect of environmental stewardship was evident in August 2019, when our Auxiliary Board decided to promote BLU, its annual fundraising party, as a zero-waste event. Their first-time effort resulted in an evening event with 75 percent diversion—an impressive start! We can use what we learned that evening to adjust training and operations among volunteers who participated in this waste audit to achieve a higher percentage at future events.

Shedd's main foyer boasts several original large chandeliers carved and painted with images of aquatic animals.

Part of Shedd's "Energy Roadmap" included the retrofit of 1,000 light fixtures to LED bulbs (including nearly 500 bulbs in the four iconic foyer chandeliers)

Energy: The kilowatt diet

In 2012, a long-range sustainability plan established an ambitious goal to reduce our demand for energy by 50 percent by 2020. We’d achieved a reduction of about 12 percent by 2017, and that figure has remained pretty much the same for the last three years. By utilizing an online energy management platform, we hope to knock off another 2 percent this year.

Keep in mind that our doors are open, the lights and HVAC are on, and every other guest amenity is operating almost every day of the year. And we manage the proper temperatures for and filtration and circulation of more than 5 million gallons of water. All of that requires a tremendous amount of energy.

We’ve made many improvements along the way: replacing all incandescent light bulbs with LEDs, using motion-sensor lighting where possible, upgrading to more energy-efficient equipment like the boiler plant and cooling tower, installing 913 solar panels on the Abbott Oceanarium roof and replacing the dome glass with insulated thermal panes. With those big-ticket items accomplished, we’re now in more of a fine-tuning phase, using a submetering system to monitor and manage energy consumption in real time.

Solar panels were installed on the terraced roof of Shedd's Oceanarium, set in curved rows.
A screenshot of a line chart showing the energy levels in the Aquarium

On each shift around the clock, our building operators are given an allowance of kilowatt hours to use for that 8-hour time frame. In the above photo of the management monitor, one chart line represents an average of kilowatt hours used for several similar weather days. Every half hour the chart plots itself to update the operator on energy being used. The operators are charged with staying under or near the baseline, requiring them to tweak equipment here and there without affecting life-support systems.

If you’re a ComEd customer, you can see your own version of energy management in the usage report that is part of your monthly bill. By lowering your thermostat when you’re not home and investing in ceiling fans and LED bulbs, you knock off a small part of your overall electrical demand while lowering your bill. Because we’re using our TVs and computers more and more, connecting them to a power strip will lessen the draw these electronics create when they’re left on.

Nunavik, a beluga whale, spits water at a trainer in Shedd's Oceanarium. This behavior is used in the wild to uncover clams hiding in sand on the ocean floor.

Water: Reduce and reuse

We achieved a 50 percent reduction in water use by 2017, and with minor fluctuations, we’ve maintained that. A big contributor to this accomplishment was a rebuild of the life-support system for our penguins, reducing lake water intake by 80 percent, or a whopping 8 million gallons. Creating a water-transfer system, allowing us to move and reuse water among aquarium exhibits and integrate it into the 3 million gallons of Abbott Oceanarium water, was another means of saving water.

Mechanical improvements in how we chill the water for the belugas, penguins and other cold-water animals accounted for even more water savings. Our operators continue to hone backwashing procedures to flush the filtration systems. By reducing the time by just a minute, they save hundreds of gallons of water.

We consumers too can help reduce our use of water with a couple of simple steps, from not running the water while we brush our teeth to installing water-saving faucets, fixtures and appliances. And I won’t use one of those yard sprinklers that waves back and forth, sending water into the air to evaporate instead of totally onto the plants to sink into their roots. Consider buying a single-focus sprinkler, or better yet, a soaker hose that allows water to seep right into the soil. Be sure to check the washer inside the hose where it connects to your house spigot; a snug washer prevents dripping wasted water.

It’s taken years for us to achieve everything I’ve talked about. Nothing happens overnight. I hope our success inspires others to act for the good of our environment—and to stay with it. Each of us plays a part. Each of us can make a difference. In my book, every day is Earth Day!

In 2017, when I wrote my first blog, I was identified as the “Waste Queen.” This time around, I’m signing off as…

Susan Barton, the No-Waste Queen