New research effort aims to accelerate carbon neutrality at U-M's botanical gardens, arboretum

Researchers from the University of Michigan (U-M), Eastern Michigan University, and Duke University have begun analyzing data from the Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum (MBGNA) to find efficient ways to recycle organic waste from the gardens and neutralize their carbon footprint. The research is funded in part by the U-M Graham Sustainability Institute’s Carbon Neutrality Acceleration Program, with the team at MBGNA receiving $200,000 for their research.

Anthony Kolenic, director at MBGNA, explains that the project was born from another developing effort to install elevated solar panels at the gardens, which would allow for plants to grow beneath them.

"As it turned out, the research team at the U-M Institute for Energy Solutions was already doing this kind of work," says Kolenic. "It was a pretty fortunate set of interactions."

The project is being headed by U-M Mechanical Engineering Professor Margaret Woolridge. She, university researchers, and MBGNA staff will determine what kinds of waste are being produced at MBGNA, how much waste is being produced, and ultimately how that waste can be recycled to avoid going into landfills, where it produces methane gas.

According to The United States Environmental Protection Agency, methane is "at least 28 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere," and landfills are the "third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the United States." This sustainability initiative aims to keep waste from MBGNA out of landfills to reduce the overall emissions from the gardens and recycle waste into usable materials for the gardens, thus bringing them closer to carbon neutrality.

"At this stage, it’s a lot of lab-based work," Kolenic says. "That’s going to take time, and eventually we hope to do some things more publicly, or on a different scale."

Kolenic notes that MGBNA's mission is to "be a force for social and ecological transformation" by educating people on the natural world and their relationship with it. He hopes that the new initiative will allow for opportunities for on-site education on greenhouse gases and recycling, as well as for volunteer opportunities and student-led inquiry through internships.

"We have 525,000 annual visitors," Kolenic says. "To me, that means we have 525,000 opportunities to move the needle of public understanding on some of the most urgent challenges our society faces."

To learn more about this initiative, visit the MBGNA website. The botanical gardens are open Tuesday through Sunday, and the arboretum is open seven days a week, both with free admission.

Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.

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