As the Sustainability Manager for Ocean Wise’s Vancouver Aquarium, I often confront tough facts on the job, from climate change to species extinction. The annual Association of Zoos and Aquarium (AZA) Mid-year Conference and Green Summit is where I go to rejuvenate and re-inspire. This year, I flew south to Jacksonville, Florida and filled up on some sun, too.
At the Green Summit, the dual mission of sustainability and conservation often collide. After all, polar bears are threatened by global warming, global warming is caused by rising greenhouse gas emissions, and greenhouse gases are produced when we power, for example, our buildings.
But when we reduce energy use, we support some very iconic species in the wild. That is why Oregon Zoo has a Net Zero building that produces the same amount of energy as it consumes through an impressive rooftop solar array. That is why the Toronto Zoo’s 20-year sustainability plan has a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 95%. It is also why Seattle Aquarium employees plant enough trees each year to offset their 350 Co2 equivalent carbon emissions. And conservation is also what motivated Cincinnati Zoo’s Light Up Avondale campaign, which is transitioning the zoo’s neighboring community of Avondale to LED lightbulbs.
Saving animals in the wild does not stop with reducing energy. The landfills that accept our trash can encroach on animal habitat,
and produce greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. In Houston, TX, landfills are affecting bobcat habitat, so Houston Zoo is implementing extensive recycling programs to keep waste out of their landfill. Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, WA is setting a zero-waste goal, while meticulously reviewing the varying definitions of zero waste to get it just right. Back at the Toronto Zoo, they are rolling out a Phone Apes program to ensure that the metal ore Coltan, used in cellphone batteries, is recycled, which alleviates the pressure Coltan mining has on wild ape habitats in the Congo.
Energy and waste have always been big topics at the Green Summit, but this year plastics struck a very loud chord. Protecting animals in the wild now also means thinking about your organization’s plastic use, by curbing the plastic entering the ocean and threatening everything from zooplankton to sea turtles. Ocean Wise’s Vancouver Aquarium has long made this a priority, by eliminating plastic bags, straws, single-use water bottles, and more recently launching its #BePlasticWise public engagement campaign.
The Aquarium is not alone. Utah’s Hogle Zoo gives all new employees a reusable “spork.” Palm Beach Zoo gives employees reusable straws to help reduce disposable plastic use. Monterey Bay Aquarium in California has assessed the packaging on over 4,000 items in its Gift Shop, so it can work with its supply chain to reduce or eliminate plastic packaging.
Zoos and aquariums do not always get the recognition they deserve for such efforts. But truly, the sustainability goals achieved by these largely non-profit organizations is beyond what I have seen in any other industry where I have worked. Zoos and aquariums live and die by their mission to save animals in the wild. And we’re discovering more ways we can live that mission every day.
Alexis Esseltine Scoon is Ocean Wise’s Sustainability Manger.