Testing Design Strategies for Waste Diversion at The Field Museum

Guest post by Delta intern Kelly Hof

Each day, Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History welcomes thousands of students and tourists into its historic building. For most visitors, trips involve spending time getting lost in exhibits, learning about the world around us. They may even be there long enough to share a meal in the Museum’s lunchroom or restaurants. Once the meal is done, trash, uneaten food, and other items get pitched.

One design used marked pathways that led to three types of bins.

One design used marked pathways that led to three types of bins.

As part of the Field Museum’s longstanding commitment to sustainability, its two restaurants both compost leftover food waste via the We Compost Program, which is made possible by the Illinois Food Scrap Coalition.

To improve their food waste diversion efforts even more, the museum enlisted Delta’s help to conduct a three-day waste study, focusing on the lunchroom used for visiting schools and large groups.

Before the study, the Delta team spent time researching and observing the lunchroom to understand the current behaviors of students, and how well they were sorting their recyclables, compostables, and waste. We took that information back to the office and developed multiple designs to educate and encourage proper composting and recycling methods.

The proposed design strategies included:

  • Marked pathways on the lunchroom floor leading to the proposed bins,
  • Signage posted on and above the bins, and
  • Interactive diagrams on the lunch tables that showed common lunch items and whether they can or cannot be recycled or composted.

The team set up different combinations of these designs and observed their effectiveness during busy lunch hours. It became evident that more signage and interactive educational tools led to better sorting by students and visitors.

How did we reach that conclusion?

Delta's Brian Bonanno sorts through compost, trash, and recycling.

Delta’s Brian Bonanno sorts through compost, trash, and recycling.

Each day after lunch the Delta team sorted through all of the waste generated, tracking how much waste was sorted to be composted, recycled, or landfilled, and if there was any contamination present (e.g. a plastic bag in the compost bin, which is not compostable).

Among our key findings, we noticed that compost and recycling rates doubled when information was shared with group leaders (e.g. teachers and chaperones), and when all three of the designs were installed.

It was both exciting and encouraging to see these young students approach the stations, engage with the signage, and at times work as a team to make sure they sorted correctly. The whole experience was positive for the students, as it allowed them a time to think about their food waste and to start discussions with their teachers and group leaders on the importance of diverting valuable resources from a landfill.

Delta will build on these findings as we continue to research and test ideas that improve recycling and composting for large spaces. Both Delta and the Field Museum hope that the conversations we observed continue and even inspire similar efforts at the visitors’ schools and institutions.

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