Greening the Desert Museum

In 2018 the Desert Museum took a major step along the path to environmental sustainability. The Museum now receives a significant portion of its energy needs from the Sun – about 13% of its annual demand, and as much as 30% of its power draw on a warm sunny day. Added to other efforts to reduce its consumption of materials and energy, the Museum is continually trying to lower its negative impacts on the environment. Here is an update on our progress to date.

Solar Energy

The Sun sends more energy to the Earth in one hour than all humans use in one year! Solar power is one of the cleanest and least impactful ways of meeting our energy needs. As technology improves and costs come down, solar facilities are expanding around the world. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, Arizona currently ranks 3rd in solar energy nationally, with 6.09% of the state’s energy coming from solar. There are about 540,000 homes powered by solar in the state. There are 302 solar companies, employing about 8400 people in Arizona. Solar power is expanding in northern Mexico as well.

Thanks to technical, financial and construction assistance from Tucson Electric Power, NextEra Energy Resources and Trico Electric Cooperative the Desert Museum is now utilizing power from 667 solar panels at the Trico Community Sun Farm, located in Marana, AZ that generates enough electricity to power 3000 homes. Tucson Electric Power has also helped us install 42 solar panels next to the Museum’s Olsen Building, which houses our Herpetology, Ichthyology and Invertebrate Zoology Department. These panels provide 10 Kw of electricity for the building’s energy needs.

Other Energy Conservation Efforts

Did you know that there are two “green roofs” or “living roofs” at the Desert Museum? Green roofs help to insulate the building to reduce heating and cooling needs, and mitigate the “heat island” effect of built infrastructure. They can also sequester carbon and increase biodiversity by providing wildlife habitat. We have also been replacing light bulbs with the most efficient alternatives, as they need replacement. ASDM staff use electric carts for transport around the site. Many staff and volunteers carpool to work, as this part of our day is one of the most impactful in terms of energy consumption and carbon emissions. The Museum also offers electric vehicle charging stations.

Water Conservation

It’s probably no secret that water is one of the not-so-secret ingredients of the beauty of the Desert Museum’s grounds. (The other ingredients are the incredibly talented artists/scientists in our botany and exhibits departments.) Responsible water use is one of our highest priorities, as a desert conservation organization. Ninety six percent of our irrigation water comes from a wastewater treatment facility on the Museum property. This constructed wetland collects water from our aquatic exhibits and uses the natural properties and functions of plants, soils and microbes to remove a wide variety of pollutants. Waste water passes through three treatment ponds where organic matter, suspended solids, and nutrients are removed. The effluent from this facility is used to recharge the aquifer directly below the Museum’s grounds. The Museum currently has 115,000 gallons of storage capacity in underground cisterns exclusively for reclaimed water. This water feeds into our irrigation system.

The Museum’s computer-driven Rainbird Maxicom system regulates 95% of the irrigation systems and allows for daily reports and adjustments to watering schedules. The Maxicom system has its own rain measurement device and adjusts schedules in response to rain. It also detects leaks and notifies staff of problems. Over 90% of our systems are drip irrigation.

Most Museum exhibits feature native and xeriscape plants. Areas within the museum grounds that do not have naturalistic themes are also planted with drought tolerant landscape plants that visitors can locate themselves at their local nursery. The desert garden, cactus, and agave gardens are examples of non-naturalistic themes that encourage visitors to employ water-thrifty plantings. Our newer buildings utilize rooftop water harvesting as well; the Warden Oasis Theater and the new classroom building for the Art Institute. The system for the new Art Institute building captures roof rainwater in a 700-gallon cistern as well as in a shallow detention and recharge basin behind the classrooms. When that overflows, the water moves into a series of planters that spill into each other when full. The planters have the potential to collect 1300 gallons annually. It may not sound like a lot of water, but to desert plants this is abundant.

Waste Reduction

As with many conservation efforts, waste reduction makes a lot of financial sense as well. Desert Museum staff are expert “reducers, re-users and recyclers”. It is rare to find new stuff at the Desert Museum, since making a new product requires lots of materials and energy, from extracting the raw materials, to manufacturing, to transport, and because new items are generally more expensive. If you visit our offices, you will find that our furniture may be a bit mis-matched and our computers may not be the newest models, but they came gently used from businesses in our community.

In terms of recycling, you will have noticed the recycling cans all over the Museum grounds. Our Custodial Department continually educates other staff about any changes to recycling protocols and collects recyclables separately. The Mammalogy and Ornithology (M&O) staff are recycling heros! Many of the animal supplies received by all of our animal departments come in Styrofoam coolers. M&O keepers hated to see these go to the landfill, so when the two facilities that were recycling Styrofoam stopped taking it this year, they got creative. One of our keepers reached out to Sam Levitz Furniture, and they agreed to recycle the Museum’s Styrofoam waste. M&O collected and delivered 323 lbs of Styrofoam for recycling in the last year!

Keepers also collect the plastic bags used in their animal and human kitchens as well as veterinary facilities, and deliver them to recycling stations at local grocery stores, approximately 2 lbs of plastic bags/week. In the animal kitchen, they use empty grain bags for trash. Since their trash must be disposed of daily, they have avoided using 300+ large plastic bags each year. When cleaning exhibits, keepers also use reusable buckets instead of plastic trash bags.

Many departments no longer use disposable plates, utensils and napkins internally or for most events. Compostable items and “chicken food” are collected in buckets and taken home by various staff members. Across the Museum, you’ll also find staff members using the back side of paper for internal documents, or cutting up half-used paper for notes and memos. Items consumed by our copiers, fax machines and printers (cartridges, toner bottles, etc.) are sent back to Konica Minolta’s Clean Planet Program for re-use and recycling.

In addition, green waste is kept separate and used to support in-house composting. Excess green waste goes a private composting operation. Bubble wrap, air pillows, and packaging paper is saved and reused. Cardboard is also baled and recycled.

In terms of e-waste, the Museum attempts to upgrade computers wherever possible, but if not, they are sent to an e-waste recycling facility.

Food and Catering

The Museum’s food service provider, Craft Culinary Concepts, is also a partner in greening the Museum. They have worked diligently over the last few years to greatly reduce the use of plastic. The facts about plastic water bottles are startling! Currently, 1 million bottles are bought around the world each minute! Placed end to end, the bottles sold in a year would stretch half way to the Sun! Less than half of the bottles bought are sent to be recycled, rather ending up in landfills or in the ocean, where plastic pollution is a major wildlife threat. For water-conscious desert dwellers, it also is important to know that it takes more water to produce a plastic water bottle than the water they contain.

Understanding all this, Craft Culinary Concepts was able to accomplish an 80% reduction in plastics. They eliminated single-use plastic water bottles, instead selling recyclable aluminum bottles from Waterforkids.org, a non-profit company utilizing proceeds to develop water sources in developing countries. The restaurant and gift shops sell refillable water bottles and cups, and the Museum provides water-bottle filling stations around grounds, as alternative to single-use bottles. The restaurants have also stopped providing plastic straws, lids and condiment cups. All packaging for on-site consumption is now compostable.

Additional conservation actions taken by Craft Culinary were installation of new dishwashers which reduced water consumption by 65+% and local sourcing of craft beers, spirits, tamales, tortillas and other products to reduce the carbon footprint from transportation. Craft Culinary Concepts is also a partner with Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Program, with a 100% commitment to using only sustainably sourced seafood products on their menus.

Chemical use

Chemical pesticides are rarely used at the Museum, and must be approved by veterinary staff. Biological and cultural control are our first choice in addressing pest problems. The use of predominantly native plants lessens the need for artificial controls and reduces the overall number of problems. The cleaning/custodial products we use are eco-friendly, while still maintaining disinfectant capabilities. We reduce the use of chemical fertilizers by using our own compost.

Responsible Investing

The Desert Museum’s retirement plan for staff includes four environmental, social and governance (ESG) focused investment funds for plan participants to choose from, among others. What began years ago as socially responsible investing, has evolved to a selection of companies focused on doing the right thing for the environment, for their employees and for society in general. A staff Retirement Plan Investment Committee chose investment options in the plan that may better reflect the values and concerns of plan participants.

It’s not always easy being green …

Many of these sustainability actions are accomplished due to the dedication of staff and volunteers. Others happen naturally as the result of budget limitations. Still others are accomplished only with help from our community, like our recent acquisition of solar power. Your continuing support helps the Museum continue on this path.