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The Smithsonian Institution

“At the Smithsonian, we study everything including our own waste.”-Dr. Eric Hollinger, Archaeologist in the Repatriation Office at the National Museum of Natural History

The Smithsonian Institution (SI) is the world’s largest museum complex of nineteen museum facilities and galleries, the National Zoo, and nine research facilities. Though the SI is not a typical federal agency with almost 40% of its annual budget sourced from private contributions and business revenue, it nevertheless adheres to federal mandates including the 50% waste diversion target required by Executive Order 13693 (see Toolbox). With nearly 30 million visitors annually, the SI’s Office of Facilities Management and Reliability (OFMR) is charged with the considerable task of maintaining daily operations Smithsonian-wide. Working toward its diversion goal, the OFMR established the Recycling Task Force (RTF) in 2010. In its first year, the RTF tracked waste at seventeen of its D.C. based museums, including the National Zoo, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and the SI campus located in Front Royal, VA and recorded a diversion rate of 17.6%. By fiscal year 2015, the RTF had increased diversion across those same facilities to 46.7%.

The significant increase in diversion stems in part from the wide reach of the task force. RTF members represent various SI units across facilities management, design and construction, Smithsonian Gardens, Smithsonian Enterprises, and museum programs. Members serve as liaisons for their various units, connecting what would otherwise be disjointed services. Dr. Eric Hollinger, Archaeologist in the Anthropology Department at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) and RTF member, emphasized the importance of having the RTF, “it fuels a change in the culture by having this entity that spans the whole institution.” The change begins at the monthly RTF meetings and is disseminated through the force’s quarterly newsletter, “Sustainability Matters” which includes sustainability and recycling news from around the SI, recycling points of contact reminders, and recycling tips and examples. 

View of the National Musuem of Natural History, pilot site for the Smithsonian Institution's composting program. 


Two of the 250 blue bins located around SI facilities and the National Mall.Though the RTF was only created in 2010, the SI has been recycling paper since 1862 and has been participating in the National Capital Recycling program since the 1990s through a General Services Administration negotiated contract. The SI’s program began with basic paper and cardboard recycling, expanding to bottles and cans in the mid-2000s. The delay was largely due to misplaced concerns such as the idea that the public could not be relied upon to pour out sugary drinks before placing bottles and cans in recycling bins and that the bins would then attract bees. At first glance this made sense, but many members of the SI community were not convinced having realized that bees would be attracted to sugary bottles and cans regardless of whether the receptacle was labeled trash or recycling. Hollinger characterized this realization as the last barrier to come down before recycling receptacles were placed outside the museums Smithsonian-wide.

Recycling across the SI, however, still faced some resistant parties and practical considerations. Many of the art museums were apprehensive about the aesthetics of recycling bins in the galleries and the National Zoo had animal safety concerns to consider.  “The Zoo,” Hollinger explained, “requires recycling receptacles that have a flanged lid on top so that they are completely covered. This keeps things from being taken out of the cans by squirrels and raccoons, ending up in an animal exhibit, where an animal might choke on it.” Though the zoo had unique needs, the SI found that the flanged lid also reduced contamination and kept rainwater and snow out of the bins which actually made them easier for facilities personnel to pull. Seeing this added benefit, the SI adopted the flanged lid bins Smithsonian-wide for all outdoor recycling receptacles. Today, there are over 250 bins around the National Mall and Smithsonian buildings and another 200 at the National Zoo. Hollinger added, “We went from less than a ton [of bottles and cans] in 2004 to a peak in fiscal year 2014 of 207 tons of just bottles and cans.”


Introducing bottle and can recycling was a major accomplishment, but at the time of the RTF’s establishment, the SI was still well behind diversion mandates. To better understand how to increase diversion rates, the RTF began by contracting waste audits at their main fifteen museums. The audits revealed opportunities for improved waste management that were both site specific and applicable Smithsonian-wide. Following the initial audits, Hollinger recalled, “We started to understand what was going into our dumpsters. We started to realize, ‘okay, that is a stream we can actually divert to increase our rates.’”  One of these waste streams was acrylics. Grasping that nearly all of the SI entities were generating acrylics from their exhibits and gift shop display cases, the Smithsonian set up a program with the acrylic vendor to take back used acrylics for credit toward future purchases. Today, most SI sites now have cardboard gaylords to collect the used acrylics as pictured.



The audits also revealed that restaurant waste at many of the museums significantly contributed to the total waste streams. To educate themselves, the Smithsonian team visited several universities and federal facilities with composting programs including the Department of Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency at the Potomac Navy Yard, and the National Geographic Museum. The RTF then piloted a composting program at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in 2011 and followed-up with programs at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) and the National Museum of American History (NMAH). The Smithsonian Institution Building, better known as the Castle, also participated in the composting program for a period, but ceased operations when the RTF was forced to switch composters.

Compostable cutlery and soufflé cups at the Atrium Café at NMNH. The use of bulk condiment dispensers saves 33,000 ketchup packets from going to landfill every week. 

Members of the RTF confirmed that composting was one of the hardest programs to launch. Not only did they have to gain approval from Smithsonian administrators and Smithsonian Enterprises, but they also had to convince the third party contractors responsible for restaurant operations. The task force first went site by site evaluating current practices and performing site-specific cost-benefit analyses to convince the appropriate parties. According to Hollinger, “It took about two years at each site to go through the process of trying to advocate for [composting programs], to study what they were previously doing, and to evaluate the options.” At NMNH in particular, the task force had to look into material substitution. Thomas Serra, Co-Chair of the RTF, explained, “This is the only building that has the public actually deciding which container to use because we do not have dishwasher facilities here. Everywhere else there is a tray return and the back of house staff are the ones who sort it.” The RTF identified non- compostable materials, eliminated straws and lids, and found compostable substitutes for items like plates, cups, and cutlery.

Because the public is responsible for choosing the appropriate bins, NMNH takes additional steps before hauling. First, the bags of landfill, recycling, and compost are taken from the restaurant seating areas and the kitchen and are placed into a storage and sorting room next to the loading dock. Restaurant staff then open the bags and sort the materials, ensuring that every type of waste is handled properly. Landfill waste is weighed, recorded, and placed into a locked compactor, whereas compost waste is placed into 96-gallon toters, weighed, recorded, and stored overnight in a room equipped with bug lights, pest traps, and ventilation. Recycling is also weighed and recorded.


Eric Hollinger demonstrates where the sorting takes place at NMNH.

Composting facility closure

Material substitution and elimination of unnecessary items were critical to the composting program because, as Serra noted, “Quality has been an ongoing issue.” The SI initially used a composting facility that accepted a 10% level of contamination. This contamination eventually contributed to the facility’s closure and, more significantly for the RTF, to the development of bad composing habits at the SI. The RTF did find another composter in the area, but one that has a zero contamination tolerance. Habits developed during the SI’s time using the initial compost facility coupled with restaurant staff turnover made quality control especially difficult. The Castle had to discontinue its composting in part because of this zero contamination policy. Unlike at NMNH, where every bag is ripped open and its contents verified, the Castle did not have the space to sort the waste before pick-up.

The change of compost facility also affected the initial cost-benefit analysis. Previously, the restaurants used inexpensive, clear polyethylene bags. Clear bags allowed for contamination spot checks which were especially helpful at the facilities that did not have the space for full contamination checks. The new composting facility, however, does not allow plastic bags, so the restaurants had to begin using compostable bags that cost almost $1.00 each. Fortunately, to maintain the program in the face of higher costs, the OFMR actually interceded and began paying for the bags and providing them to the third-party restaurants.

Internal Resistance

In addition to contamination concerns, the RTF also had to address the challenge of the instinctual aversion to composting that many people have. There is a common conception of compost as a pile of odorous, pest infested food waste. Hollinger and the team anticipated this thinking following several site visits to other agencies, “Everyone who was doing it ran into the same issue that there was resistance from their staff who assumed that were would be smells and flies and it would be composting before their eyes.” Hollinger pointed out the contradiction that the same trash, “the same apple core,” would sit for two days in a trash bin without incident, but as soon as it was placed into compost, people would complain about the smell.  “Psychologically people anticipate that it is okay for trash to smell, but once you have something labeled recycling or composting, people watch for any sign of those characteristics and protest them.”

There was the added concern, as a museum complex, that composting inside the facilities would attract pests which might damage the collections. Hollinger noted, “Our conservators and collection management people are very, very tight on trying to control the environmental space. Pest management is critical here because they can devastate collections that are hundreds of years old and irreplaceable.” To address both the pest concerns and the psychological barriers, the RTF arranged daily pick-ups with their waste hauler, ensuring that compostable organics are never inside the museum buildings for more than twenty-four hours. 

Space Constraints

Even with the daily pick-ups, however, the toters require designated storage space. Unsurprisingly, most of the SI buildings were not designed with composting operations in mind. The castle, for instance, built in 1855, was never intended to have a modern restaurant, let alone a sorting room for compost and recycling programs. While the task force has made due with the small spaces available to them in the hard to modify older facilities, they were able to incorporate waste management into the design of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). Serra confirmed that the task force provided guidance during the museum’s construction on some of the layouts, predicting how many toters NMAAHC will likely need based on expected daily services. With plans to compost, NMAAHC included a large refrigerated area for sorting and storage and a pulper to reduce the volume of the compostables and make storage easier

Pictured right: layout of the compost holding room at NMAH at maximum capacity.



Another significant challenge the RTF faces is simply visitor education. Visitors are responsible for choosing to use the proper receptacles inside and outside of the museums. At the locations that also compost, there is the added selection of compost versus landfill versus recycling. Pictured below are receptacles located in the Atrium Café at the NMNH (left) and outside of the LeRoy Neiman Café at NMAH (right). The bins at NMNH have extensive signage, pictures, and descriptions and are different colors, whereas the NMAH bins are plain with barely visible signage. According to Hollinger and Serra, this was an example of the aesthetic push-back overruling functionality. Unfortunately, with no guidance on the bins, the public invariably misplaces waste and contaminates compost. The more conspicuous bins, however, do not guarantee zero-contamination.  Even with the additional signage at NMNH, people still struggle to properly sort waste, especially if it is from outside of the museum. “We have pictures on the bins,” Hollinger noted, “but the problem is that none of their stuff matches because we only have pictures of what we give out in the restaurants and the most common forms of trash that we see. There is too much diversity in what they bring and they will throw it just about anywhere.” This is why the NMNH has a restaurant employee double check the bags and correctly sort out mistakes.  Kendra Gastright, Director of OFMR, also expressed concern about appropriately informing SI visitors, “I honestly think for the most part our visitor is desperate to be what we want them to be: sustainable. But we don’t always take the right opportunity with the right educational materials.”


Despite the many challenges, the RTF has enjoyed significant success since piloting the composting program. One key to this success was continual monitoring and adaptation. The RTF is very cost conscious, always trying to minimize costs and maximize savings or revenues. By strict monitoring of the compost toters, the RTF easily tracks the savings associated with fewer compactor pick-ups.  In the first year of composting at NMNH, the increased waste diversion saved $17,000, reducing compactor pick-ups from 129 to 9, a 93% reduction. Composting companies also usually charge by the toter and not by the weight, so being able to predict how many toters the museums use every day is of critical importance. Hollinger explained, “You get charged for the toter whether it is full or empty every day, so it behooves you to manage and monitor your use. We have been tracking every single toter every day since 2011 at the NMNH.” During peak season, March through August, NMNH uses up to twenty toters a day, whereas in the winter they rarely use more than thirteen. The seasonal removal of unused toters saves NMNH up to $1,200 annually.


The RTF is a small, enthusiastic group of SI employees from all backgrounds. While cost savings are an effective way to promote sustainability measures, the RTF made clear that they were personally motivated to reduce the SI’s impact on the environment. Cutting corners, as Hollinger pointed out, was not an option, “We [the task force] realized that really with the Executive Order, they are talking about everything generated by the agency and it doesn't matter if we subcontract it to an entity that lives in our house. That is part of our waste that is leaving the building and we should pay attention to that from the start.” The McDonald’s at the National Air and Space Museum, for instance, is the largest waste generator in the Smithsonian network, producing around 400 tons a year. Rather than seeking to exclude the McDonald’s waste from its calculations, the RTF instead took ownership of it and began to look at ways in which they may be able to recycle and compost there in the future.

The impressive work of the RTF is exemplified by the annual SI Folklife Festival. The festival is a two week event on the National Mall hosting 400,000 to 1 million visitors each year with various tents and food concessions put on by the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Over the years, the RTF has offered their fiscal and logistical assistance, conducting a pilot program then assisting with resource recovery stations for volunteers to sort waste and providing training and advice. The stations and engagement with food vendors has resulted in diversion rates of over 93% at the festival since 2014.

While the Folklife Festival demonstrates what an impressive force of organized and committed volunteers can do, sometimes the actions of a single person can have significant impacts. The RTF team members with whom the George Washington University (GW) team met to discuss SI’s waste management practices were all passionate contributors to the program, but Dr. Eric Hollinger stood out among the rest. “He is the only one here who has nothing to do with facilities,” Gastright explained, “He is an anthropologist, but he gives a crap, which is huge. You need that to really be successful. You need your grassroots community helping you with the mandates and he is a great driving force for that.” With that driving force and the support of the RTF, the SI has certainly shown significant progress toward meeting its waste diversion goals, but will likely continue to strive for higher and higher diversion rates. After all, Chair Steve Nelson did say, “Where we are going, I have lots and lots of big dreams.”

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