O’Hare Goats are Just the Tip of the Sustainability Iceberg

O'Hare goats are just part of its sustainability planGoats were big news last week when Chicago’s Department of Aviation announced that O’Hare International Airport is getting its own herd of goats to help manage vegetation, so even though the pilot project hasn’t even gotten off the ground yet it’s already a whopping success. That’s because, although the airport does expect to realize some concrete bottom line benefits from goat-powered landscaping, one goal of the project was to raise public awareness about environmental stewardship.

That might seem to be a curious message for a massive, sprawling, energy-sucking facility like an airport to promote, but take a look at O’Hare’s other activities and you can see how just about any business can seize the initiative and transition its operations to a more sustainable future.

O’Hare goats are a hit

The goat contract for “sustainable management grazing services” was awarded to a Chicago company called Central Commissary Holdings, LLC, which already has a grazing herd of about 25 goats at the ready near the city. Once enough spring foliage fills out at the airport, the goats will be moved there.

For now, the pilot project consists of just 120 acres (the airport covers more than 7,000 acres in all), but these are key acres. They include creeks, streams and roadways where hilly areas create obstacles for motorized equipment.

The goats are tasked with trimming down densely growing scrub, including poison ivy and other noxious or invasive species, while helping the airport to save fuel, cut down on herbicides and greenhouse gas emissions, reduce the potential for soil erosion, and of course, “naturally recycle nutrients as fertilizer.”

The publicity hits have ranged from traditional media including the Chicago Tribune and a healthy dose of television network affiliates to national media, online-only news sites such as Huffington Post,  Mother Nature Network and Slate (and of course, TriplePundit) and the news service UPI among many others.

O’Hare puts sustainability front and center

If the goats succeed in drawing attention to some of the other sustainability efforts at O’Hare, so much the better. We’ve been following the airport off and on since 2011, when FedEx installed a massive green roof the size of three football fields at its O’Hare facility. The airport itself has also installed almost 340,000 square feet of green roofs at 12 facilities.

Also in 2011, a company called Sweet Beginnings was enlisted to install a 40-hive apiary in a conservation area at the airport, where it provides training and job opportunities for local residents as well as boosting the local population of urban pollinators.

The airport also sports “the first aeroponic garden at any airport in the world,” a high tech setup where plants grow on nutrient-enriched mist instead of soil. The garden, which uses about two-thirds less water than a conventional garden, produces about 20 different kinds of herbs, vegetables and edible flowers that are used in restaurants at the airport.

Among other now-familiar sustainability efforts such as energy efficiency and clean vehicles, O’Hare has a comprehensive wetlands restoration project in the works and an aggressive water-conserving landscape toolkit that includes native and drought-tolerant plants, rainwater harvesting, graywater recycling and high-efficiency irrigation.

Several restaurants at the airport also collect pre-consumer food waste for composting, and all of the Starbucks have signed on to compost their coffee grounds.

Solar power is going to play a big role at the airport, too. Back in 2006, the O’Hare fire department installed a solar thermal system at its station, and the airport is looking to install about 50 acres worth of solar panels under a power purchase agreement, which construction is expected to begin later this year.

One effort particularly worth noting solves a waste problem at security checkpoints where passengers are required to dispose of beverages before passing through. Previously, passengers had to dump partly-filled bottles into the general waste stream. Under the new system, passengers empty their bottles into a drain before disposal. They can also keep their empty bottles and replenish them at a refilling station after they pass through security.

Not too many facilities could support an entire laundry list of sustainability programs like this, but it does demonstrate that businesses today have a wide range of options they can exercise to run their operations with an eye to the future.

[Image: Goat by mikebaird via flickr]

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Tina writes frequently for Triple Pundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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