Parting With Plastics

March 2017

By Wanda Evans

Disposable plastics are everywhere and can have devastating impacts on wildlife. Since mass production started in 1950, plastics have permeated our world at a frenetic pace with roughly 300 million tons manufactured worldwide in 2013.  It is estimated that between 10 and 20 million tons of plastic debris end up in the oceans each year. Roughly 80 percent of that comes from land sources. Although it seems daunting, there are steps that can be taken to reduce our plastic footprint. Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)-accredited facilities have a unique opportunity to lead by example. The opportunity lies in doing what is right by our conservation missions, educating visitors and initiating change along our facilities’ supply chains.

Vancouver Aquarium Puts Research into Action

In Canada, at Vancouver Aquarium in Vancouver, B.C., reducing the amount of plastic is driven by putting research into practice. The Zoo’s Ocean Pollution Research Lab studies ways that aquatic species are affected by plastic that end up in oceans.

“We know plastics are persistent, we know they end up in oceans, we know they have a really horrible impact on aquatic species. So, we are doing everything possible to eliminate them from our organization to make sure we are not part of the problem,” said Alexis Esseltine Scoon, sustainability manager at the Aquarium.

Vancouver Aquarium also leads the Great Canadian Shore Clean-up Program—a national shoreline clean-up initiative. From materials collected, Aquarium staff can quantify the most problematic disposable items that end up in the environment and then build the case for eliminating those products in the Aquarium’s operations.

Plastic reduction has been tackled in food service, retail and marine mammal feed. Food service operations have eliminated all petroleum-based plastics by using compostable service ware, and plastic straws and lids have been eliminated. The marine mammal feed department has moved to eliminate plastic by purchasing bulk food packaged strap-free.

“It’s important for people to feel like they are accountable and responsible and can do something to lead a change, even if it is as simple as not using a plastic bag,” said Scoon.

Vancouver Aquarium has leveraged its credibility as a research organization to educate and change their supply chain. Retail staff worked with vendors to remove the plastic pellet pouches which are used to keep stuffed animals soft.  They also worked to reduce packaging, resulting in the use of 100,000 fewer polybags annually—and this was working with just one supplier. No plastic bags are offered in gift shops, and a gallery shows jellyfish made out of plastic bags— the goal being to educate visitors about the dangers of plastic to wildlife.

Reducing plastics in the Aquarium’s operations is a tangible and effective way to put research into action. “It’s important for people to feel like they are accountable and responsible and can do something to lead a change, even if it is as simple as not using a plastic bag,” said Scoon.

Working with Service Partners to Achieve Green Goals

Service Systems Associates (SSA) is a retail and food service business vendor serving cultural institutions. With 56 AZA clients, they have a big impact on greening business operations within the community. SSA works closely with their clients’ institutional Green Teams while also formulating their own company-wide Green Team. The SSA Green Team tracks and shares best green initiative practices.

“When we look at initiatives, we are always a bit nervous. We were trying to get better at service; now, are we going to give clients worse service? But, we started hearing the stories about eliminating plastic bags and we picked one of our clients, Houston Zoo to work on this,” said Eric Loyall, chief operating officer for SSA. In 2015, they did, and sales of reusable bags (totes) tripled. They also started getting some good PR. In 2016, SSA expanded the program and now has this program in half of their accounts across the country, and likely by the end of 2017, it will be in all.

“We realized that guests didn’t get angry. For the occasional person that is upset, we can hold the package for them or convince them to buy a tote, but what’s even better is that we created some great messaging. So, when filling out a survey about their day at the zoo and where they learned about conservation—they learned in the retail shop, so that’s great for us,” said Lowell.

Toys are the second biggest item in their portfolio, so SSA investigated how they could change the ways toys are packaged. They now have prototypes on the floor which reduce plastic packaging. By making changes to packaging for SSA retail shops, it will impact how suppliers are selling their products elsewhere. “This change is expected to be cost neutral. In the long run, the cost would go down because there’s a savings in weight and material. In the short-run, you are rocking a boat that’s been in place forever, so there’s some increase in manufacturing costs, but that is negligible.”

Eliminating bottled water is a more challenging issue. When SSA helped Detroit Zoo in Royal Oak, Mich., ditch the bottle in 2015, water revenues did go down, with half as many units sold, but Lowell pointed out that one year is not enough for a full study. “As a company we are game to experiment and learn. Sometimes you just have to take a leap.”

Detroit Zoo Runs with their Commitment to Plastic Reduction

Reduction of plastic is top priority for Detroit Zoo because of their proximity to the Great Lakes, including Lake Michigan. Removing single use bottled water and eliminating plastic bags in gift shops were powerful steps.

A water filling station at the Detroit Zoo © Detroit Zoo

After ditching disposable bottled water in 2015, Detroit Zoo had their first Run Wild Race, a fundraising event for the Zoo that banished single-use bottled waters in 2016. The Green Team filled 4,500 reusable bottles over the course of 2.5 hours with 10 to 20 volunteers at a time. Though challenging logistically, it was successful and inspiring.

“Participants enjoyed the message and they also really enjoyed the souvenir. The success of it inspired and reinvigorated our Green Team and staff,” said Rachel Handbury, manager of sustainability at the Zoo. 

Although revenue from water sales dropped, the commitment is strong throughout the organization. “For the most part, the response has been overwhelmingly positive,” said Handbury.

Plastic bags were eliminated in retail and signage shows turtles confusing plastic bags for jelly fish. In 2017, SSA will install a dishwasher in food service to reduce plastic. The change is expected to return a savings in operational costs.

Initiatives where revenues are affected—or there are costs associated—require special innovation and effort. There are, however, unquantifiable benefits to aligning mission with business operations. Oakland County Parks in Detroit has reached out to the Zoo to learn about eliminating bottled water because they are interested in doing the same throughout their parks. “We are serving as an example in the region and that is exactly what we hoped to do,” said Handbury.

Handbury’s advice to others is “Rip the band aid off. Make the decision and go for it. The public is a lot more receptive than we give them credit for. It is the only way we will get anywhere in sustainability, and it serves as an example in the community.”

Houston Zoo Makes Taking Action Easy for Visitors

In Houston, Texas, one of Houston Zoo’s six “Take Action” initiatives that started in 2015 was plastic reduction.  All actions are based around simple steps that guests can take to reduce their effect on wildlife. Being so close to the Gulf of Mexico, Houston Zoo is witness to the impact of plastic on wildlife, and as a partner with NOAA on sea turtle rescue, they regularly treat stranded or injured sea turtles from plastic pollution.

Working with SSA in 2015, Houston Zoo removed plastic bags from gift shops. Customers can either carry out their items or they can purchase reusable bags. Not only have they eliminated approximately 80,000 plastic bags from their operations since starting the initiative, they have tripled sales of reusable totes and achieved savings from not buying plastic bags. A retailer of this size might spend roughly $6,000 for plastic bags annually. Instead of spending that, they brought in almost $80,000 dollars of revenue from sales of reusable totes.

In 2017, the Zoo will replace bottled water with boxed water. This alternative still contains some plastic, but the containers are recyclable in Houston and will reduce overall plastic in their operations. They are installing fifteen water refill stations as well.

The Houston sea lion department organizes shoreline clean-ups on a jetty, picking up fishing line, trash and recycling from natural areas.

“It is a process. You have to make sure that guests understand why we are making these changes, and it really helps to tie efforts back to animals,” said Mary Kate Kunzinger, sustainability conservation coordinator at the Zoo.

Wanda Evans is the sustainability coordinator at the Saint Louis Zoo

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