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Susan Barton, director of facilities management, has been a champion of sustainability at Shedd for more than 20 years. She explains how Shedd conserves the “big three”—water, energy and waste.

Sustainability has always been a focus at Shedd. Our early aquarists may not have recognized the term, but they certainly would have recognized the importance of avoiding waste, especially when they had to import their seawater all the way from the Gulf of Mexico.

In recent years, though, sustainability has become a core Shedd value. We’re always looking for ways to limit our impact while ensuring clean, healthy habitats for animals. In 2012, Shedd’s Sustainability Steering Committee went even further, committing to an unprecedented plan to reduce by half—or more—Shedd’s footprint for water, energy and waste.

A couple leans against the glass handrail ringing the Abbott Oceanarium, peering down into the blue waters of whale harbor.

Water: Reduce and Reuse

Because an aquarium relies on water, the notion of reducing use seems unlikely at first. But maintenance of the animals’ habitats accounted for a relatively small percentage of our water use; the building’s cooling system turned out to be the biggest water consumer. In 2009—three years before we set our “stretch goals”—we tasked ourselves with cutting in half our intake of new water from the city and the lake by 2018. Water savings took on priority status during the Abbott Oceanarium renovation in 2008-2009, when some of the life-support upgrades and improvements got under way. Additionally, until 2011, the aquarium wasn’t paying for water. When water bills started showing up under a new city administration, that was even more encouragement for improvements. Spending money would help us save money in the long run.

We rebuilt the penguin life-support system to stop using lake water in this exhibit. That amounted to an 80 percent reduction in intake—close to 8 million gallons! We constructed a transfer system that now allows us to reuse water from several specific aquarium exhibits. In prior years, this water would have been considered unserviceable, but now it’s safely integrated into the 2.5 million gallons of Oceanarium water. Speaking of reusing water, some 400,000 to 600,000 gallons of rainwater is collected annually and sent to the cooling towers on the roof.

Cooling towers can be seen on the rooftop of Shedd Aquarium, nestled atop the south side of the Oceanarium's roof. The cooling towers consist of three large metal cylinders and are used to cool water for animal habitats during Chicago's cold winters.

Some 400,000 to 600,000 gallons of rainwater is collected annually and sent to the cooling towers on the roof

A magellanic penguin stirs up bubbles as it paddles along the water's surface.

We rebuilt the penguin life-support system to stop using lake water in this exhibit.

We’d been using city water to cool small refrigeration units around the building—freezers in both the restaurants and the animal kitchens—but after the installation of a tenant closed-loop system, we saw a savings of 7 million to 8 million gallons. The existing cooling tower on the roof was replaced with a much more efficient system, and the building chillers, which keep both animals and people comfortable in their respective areas of the aquarium, were also replaced. During the Oceanarium renovation, we installed motion sensors in bathroom faucets as well as dual-flush toilets. The water features enhancing our landscape, like the “Man with Fish” sculpture, were updated to operate more efficiently.

Equipment upgrades account for some but not all of our improvements. We worked on changing staff behavior too. Together the Facilities and Fishes staffs figured out that backwash cycles to clean our huge sand-and-gravel filters didn’t have to run quite so long. By knocking off a few minutes per cycle, we’re saving 7,000 gallons weekly. This procedure is still being honed, as we look for maximum efficiency without compromising the animals’ well-being.

We met our water conservation goal a year early: Our savings right now hover between a 50 percent and 52 percent reduction. This 2 percent fluctuation is due to weather situations—think evaporation—or animal treatments requiring more water changes. All in all, this remarkable reduction is a testament to our conviction to use resources wisely.

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: Watt Counts in Saving

Think about what it takes to heat and cool a 471,396-square-foot building, half of it constructed in the late 1920s, to keep it well-lighted and continually circulating 5 million gallons of water to a collection of 32,000 animals. Let’s not forget that it’s operational 24/7 and open to the public 364 days a year.

With that in mind, it’s staggering to think that we can manage, let alone reduce, energy use! But we made a commitment to cut energy use in half by 2020.

It’s happening—but not overnight: Indeed, our energy conservation efforts began more than 20 years earlier, in 1996. That’s when we started replacing many incandescent light bulbs and 40-watt fluorescent tubes with energy-stingy T8 tubes and CFL bulbs. More than 75 on/off light switches were switched out for motion sensors. A building-automation system was installed to maintain consistent exhibit temperatures, and an outdated and inefficient boiler plant was replaced in 2006.

Two men standing on Shedd's Oceanarium roof holding a solar panel between them and gently lowering it onto tracks to be mounted to the roof.
Solar panels were installed on the terraced roof of Shedd's Oceanarium, set in curved rows.

The new goal of cutting energy use in half by 2020 sparked a new audit of building equipment and operations. The audit led to the creation of projects under the heading of an “Energy Roadmap.” Those projects have included but are not limited to a retrofit of 1,000 light fixtures to LED bulbs (including nearly 500 bulbs in the four iconic foyer chandeliers); replacement of a 42-year-old cooling tower; the installation of 913 solar panels on the Abbott Oceanarium roof; replacement of the dome’s old glass with insulated thermal panes; tuck pointing of the marble exterior; installation of a sub-metering system to monitor and manage energy consumption in real-time, and implementation of monitor-based commissioning, which puts all systems into a computer-based management system to analyze and streamline efficiency.

“What could you do to reduce energy use at home? Here’s my personal list: Invest in a programmable thermostat. Not home? Heat down!”

To date we’ve seen an 11 percent to 12 percent reduction in energy use. Furthermore, by installing a 1-megawatt battery in 2016, the aquarium will join the PJM frequency regulation market, providing stored energy to help keep the grid in balance while availing itself of backup power during emergencies. With this implementation, alongside plans to add more energy-efficient technologies, we should see Shedd energy use continue to diminish.

What could you do to reduce energy use at home? Here’s my personal list: Invest in a programmable thermostat. Not home? Heat down! My ceiling fans help move air around without having to fiddle with the thermostat. I’m diligent about changing my furnace filters and buying LED bulbs. I use power-saving mode on electronics and timers on lights. And I’m grateful for my building’s storm doors and windows.

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.

As the Shedd “Waste Queen,” I was asked to work toward a landfill diversion rate of 90 percent by 2018.

Waste: Not

Waste, as the third area to tackle, involves everything left over, and I mean everything! It’s either waste that can be recycled or reused, or plain old landfill waste. As the Shedd “Waste Queen,” I was asked to work toward a landfill diversion rate of 90 percent by 2018. Considering that in 2012 our diversion rate was 27 percent, this goal seemed more like a carrot dangling in front of us to ensure we take a hard look at everything that comes into our building and keep challenging everyone—staff members and guests—to take waste sorting seriously.

Our current diversion rate hovers between 40 percent and 45 percent. In 2012, we sent 518 tons of waste to landfill; by 2016, we’d reduced that to 311 tons. This 60 percent reduction can be attributed to a number of modifications and recycling initiatives we created in-house. In the past, several commodity collection points were scattered behind the scenes; consolidating these into “Recycling Row” along a hallway with high staff traffic increased visibility and continues to encourage participation. Here anyone can drop off metal, light bulbs, textiles/clothing and styrofoam, the last being sent out to be densified and repurposed. But we also recycle paper, glass and plastic bottles as single-stream recycling, meaning it all goes into one heap, as well as cardboard, batteries, e-waste and printer cartridges. Used kitchen grease is reconstituted as biofuel, and one of our kitchens is equipped with a food digester.

When landfill material is added to our open-top receptacle outside, it’s all sorted at the end of the run. Construction commodities like wood or concrete are passed along to other companies for recycling or reuse, also adding to our diversion rate. In the public areas, new waste sorting containers furnished with photos help guests identify where their leftovers should be deposited.

Plans are under way to replace our outdoor receptacles, holdouts from before we recognized the positive impact that waste sorting can have. Right now, landfill and recycling items all end up in the same containers. The contents end up in landfill because it’s such a mishmash of everything; recyclable materials can be contaminated by the landfill elements. Replacing the old trash containers with a dual set of recycling/landfill units presents a big opportunity to keep slicing away at that landfill percentage.

As you can see, the success of sustainability at Shedd is a group effort, involving the entire staff and volunteer corps as well as our members and guests. Watch for ways in which you can help us meet, or even beat, these water, energy and waste goals on your next visit.

—Susan Barton, director of facilities management, aka the Waste Queen