Greening the Field Museum: SUST Major Laura Miller Hill Reports on Her Summer Sustainability Internship

During the summer of 2015, several Roosevelt University students majoring in Sustainability Studies did internships or pursued study abroad opportunities in various locales around the world, from Chicago to Hawaii and from Schaumburg to Scandinavia. We’re posting their reports from the field on their activities, adventures, and advocacy work in the service of environmental conservation, sustainable development, and social justice.

Here’s another post from Laura Miller Hill, a senior SUST major who interned at Chicago’s world-renowned Field Museum along beautiful Lake Michigan.

As a Keller Science Action summer intern, my initiation into sustainability at the Field Museum began with an introduction to the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design certification system, more commonly known as LEED. As I sat in his office on the third floor of the Museum, Sustainability Manager Carter O’Brien proudly detailed the long journey that he, the Museum’s facilities staff, the Museum’s green team (A Greener Field) and the Delta Institute took to earn the Museum a LEED Gold certification this spring. Carter is justifiably proud of the Museum’s accomplishment, for in order to achieve LEED certification, a team of dedicated individuals must work very hard to make both a physical building and working environment more sustainable.

Stanley Field Hall at the FMNH (L. Miller Hill)

Stanley Field Hall at the FMNH (L. Miller Hill)

The task of greening a 94-year-old, historically significant, landmarked building with strong cultural ties to the community and 26 million specimens and artifacts in its collections requires a huge amount of creativity to overcome structural- and age-related challenges. The age and design of the Field Museum meant that it was built long before concerns about climate change and energy efficiency were on any one’s mind, so the focus of sustainability was on both internal and external changes to the building’s operations and landscaping.

In addition, programs and policies would need to be developed to modify staff and visitor behaviors to further reduce environmental impacts without jeopardizing the climate requirements of the collections. As a result of their efforts, the Field Museum is one of only two museums in the world to achieve LEED-EB O+M Gold certification and possibly the oldest museum to receive LEED certification.

A large part of the Field’s sustainability efforts have focused on the reduction of waste produced by staff members, volunteers, interns and visitors who move in and out of the Museum every day. Although the Field Museum has increased its waste diversion rate by recycling paper, plastic and e-waste, since 2009 the Field has been on a mission to compost food and other compostable organic waste. As a part of my sustainability research, I was introduced to Hanh Pham and Greg Christian, two people who were instrumental in guiding the Museum’s efforts at reducing food waste.

The FMNH's Veggie Oil Van (photo: L. Miller Hill)

The FMNH’s Veggie Oil Van (photo: L. Miller Hill)

Hanh, Compost Coordinator at Loyola University (and according to Carter O’Brien, “the first person in Chicago I ever saw get the word compost in her job title”), helped in many ways to expand the Museum’s composting operation. Hanh facilitated a connection with Loyola’s Compost Collection Network and organized site visits of various non-profit and for-profit composting operations in the City of Chicago. While meeting at an Andersonville café, Hanh and I talked about the importance of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Food Recovery Hierarchy and actions that individuals can take to prevent and reduce wasted food. Although a bit more time and effort may be required to change food purchasing and disposal habits, the following strategies can do a lot to reduce the massive amounts of food that is wasted and ends up in landfills:

1) Begin at the source and be smart about how much food you are buying and ordering, 2) join Zero Percent or start a Gleaning Program, 3) donate excess food to animal/wildlife shelters, 4) turn food waste into fuel by Anaerobic digestion and used vegetable oil into biofuels, 5) demystify compost so people see how easy it is to compost their own waste, and 6) be an advocate by patronizing restaurants that are We Compost Partners or encouraging your favorite restaurant to join the program. In addition, you can check out this great video about composting that Hanh and Loyola University created to spread the word about the importance of doing your part to reduce food waste.

The museum provides healthy & sustainable food at the Field Bistro (photo: L. Miller HIll)

The museum provides healthy & sustainable food at the Field Bistro (photo: L. Miller HIll)

Greg Christian, owner of Beyond Green Sustainable Food Partners as well as a sustainable foodservice consultant, chef, and author, was hired by the Field Museum in 2009 to help make the restaurants in the Museum more sustainable. In keeping with the Museum’s conservation goals around the world, Greg’s 10-year Environmental Strategy set goals and timelines to improve the quality of food, reduce restaurant waste, and increase education and awareness on healthy living, with a goal of reducing energy use, improving overall water and air quality and producing zero waste. Greg is passionate about using data to inspire others in the food service industry to become more sustainable and reduce food waste, and he took time out of his busy schedule to have lunch with me at a Chinatown restaurant, where we had a lively discussion about his current role at the Field Museum.

Greg shared with me that he uses simple and common sense solutions and relationship-building to reject old and unsustainable systems and create new, more sustainable systems to reduce waste. He continued to stress the phrase “measure to reduce” to describe how incorporating the weighing of food waste into a restaurant’s routine can lead to a zero-waste kitchen. Greg continues to work with the Museum’s restaurants, Field Bistro and Explorer Café, as a consultant and a third-party monitor to implement the Museum’s Environmental Strategy.

Because of the dedication and innovation shown by the staff members that make up a Greener Field and with support from the Delta Institute, Greg Christian and Hanh Pham, environmental sustainability at the Field Museum has become a natural part of day-to-day operations and an ongoing goal for future operations. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, 40% of the food produced and 15-20% of the food that individuals in the United States purchase for household use are wasted every year.

The Museum’s composting and food waste initiative is on track to keep 100 tons of compostable waste out of landfills by the end of 2015, and has helped the Museum improve its overall waste diversion rate from 18% in 2013 to 34% in 2014, and up to 42% through August of this year. Since receiving LEED certification (which must be renewed every 5 years), the Museum is currently working with the Delta Institute on integrating composting into the school group cafeteria, with the intention of creating a system design that can be adopted by other institutions and schools.

When a large and historic institution like the Field Museum is able to set sustainability goals and make significant changes to meet those goals, it’s proof that a sustainable future is possible and that any business, organization, or individual can make the necessary changes to lessen their impact on the Earth.

Laura Miller Hill M15Laura Miller Hill is a returning adult undergraduate student at Roosevelt University, where she is a senior Sustainability Studies major. She spent her 2015 summer working as a Keller Science Action Center intern at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago under the supervision of Sustainability Manager Carter O’Brien. Miller Hill’s primary job was to take facts, stories and general information regarding sustainability initiatives throughout the museum and consolidate them into webpages that are both educational and easily understood by people who visit the Museum’s A Greener Field website. In a previous RU course, SUST 240 Waste, she authored this waste and environmental justice essay about Town of Pines, Indiana, for the Schaumburg’s Sustainable Future website.

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One Response to Greening the Field Museum: SUST Major Laura Miller Hill Reports on Her Summer Sustainability Internship

  1. karenannm says:

    What the Field Museum has accomplished is very impressive considering the age and historical significance of the building; the delicate, irreplaceable items housed there; and all the visitors they host. The added benefit is that they also provide education to the public so hopefully these accomplishments will inspire visitors to incorporate some of these practices in their own lives. Very informative article!

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