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Toward a More Sustainable Arboretum

In every building, every garden, every office, and every tree collection, Rachel Novick, PhD, sees opportunities to make The Morton Arboretum even greener.

As the Arboretum’s first director of sustainability, she is working to improve all of its operations to be easier on the Earth and contribute less to climate change.

Sustainability is not a new idea at the Arboretum. “There has definitely been a lot going on at the Arboretum to be more sustainable, and there have been a lot of people interested,” she said. But until she started her job in July, she said, “there hasn’t been anyone to pull it all together.”

In 2020, the Arboretum adopted a new strategic plan that made sustainability a central concern. Novick’s position was created to turn that concern into action, establish concrete goals, and figure out how to achieve them. She was most recently director of the sustainability studies program at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, where she taught classes on botany, sustainability, and marine biology. Her degrees are from Cornell University and Yale University.

Her first tasks in her new position were to learn about the many different kinds of work that have to be done to keep the Arboretum thriving, to assess the current state of its operations, and to decide on priorities to move the sustainability initiative forward.

One consistent priority is energy conservation, such as fine-tuning heating, air conditioning, and lighting systems for maximum efficiency. “The greenest kind of energy is the energy you don’t use,” Novick said. Her office is in the Curatorial and Operations Center, built in 2017 with energy conservation in mind. Almost all lighting at the Arboretum, from offices to parking lots, has been switched to energy-efficient LEDs. She has hired an engineering firm to look for additional opportunities to make the Arboretum more energy-efficient.

When energy must be used, electric power is usually the cleanest option. For example, when a horticulturist rides a rechargeable electric golf cart rather than a gas-powered pickup truck to work in a faraway tree collection, it’s a little more sustainable.

Waste is another concern. The Arboretum was already recycling food waste, containers, and paper, but Novick has already been able to find a new waste hauler that recycles a greater diversity of materials.

Longer-term plans may involve installing solar collectors and shifting to electric vehicles. However, the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, with its long-term effects on workplaces, supply chains, and the environment still unknown, is complicating Novick’s task. For example, she estimated that from 2019 to 2021, the Arboretum’s total carbon footprint fell about 16%. The decrease was due to many factors, including energy conservation efforts, but some of it is due to remote work that cut vehicle emissions from most employees’ daily commutes. It’s too soon to tell how much of those savings will continue.

Improving operations is just one part of Novick’s job. Another major purpose is education: developing ways that the Arboretum can help guests and members of the community be more sustainable in their own lives. “People want to be more sustainable,” she said. “They just aren’t sure how to get there.”

Asked to define sustainability, Novick has two answers. First, she says, sustainability means “supporting Earth’s carrying capacity,” living within its resources. Second, she says, sustainability is “an overall effort to harmonize the relationship between people and the Earth.” There can be no better place to start that effort than with a 1,700-acre, tree-filled landscape that so many people love.

Five Ways to Support Sustainability at Home

Many of the things the Arboretum does to be more sustainable can be done at home. Here are a few: 

  1. Recycle. Follow your municipality’s recycling rules. Properly dispose of light bulbs, cell phones, batteries, computers, televisions, and other electronic waste so their components can be recycled. 
  2. Compost food waste. When food waste decomposes in landfills it emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Compost your fruit and vegetable waste to make a rich soil amendment for your garden. 
  3. Choose electric. Use electric tools such as lawnmowers, leaf blowers, and snowblowers, rather than gas-powered ones, or do the work by hand. When you are in the market for a new car, consider the advantages of electric vehicles. 
  4. Save energy. Use LED light bulbs and fixtures. Turn off lights when they are not needed. 
  5. Conserve water. Fix dripping faucets and plumbing leaks. Use low-flow fixtures. Water the lawn only when necessary.