Working to be Plastic Free

The Virginia Zoo has always been dedicated to the conservation and preservation of the earth, its flora and fauna. 2018 is the year the Zoo is taking its plans to cut out waste and began actually turning goals into tangible actions. In the spring, the Zoo did away with all single-use items and switched to reusable, recyclable and compostable items including straws, plates, utensils and cups. Instead of thousands of paper maps, guests can now download the Zoo’s app and help save the environment even more. With all of these guest-focused initiatives, Zoo staff felt a responsibility to cut out waste in their everyday lives, starting with the items they use during their work day.

The Calgary Zoo and Columbus Zoo and Aquarium created the Plastic Free July EcoChallenge, and invited all AZA-accredited zoo, aquarium or museum to participate by encouraging staff to sign up for daily challenges. Each organization created a team and each team member picked daily tasks they personally felt would challenge them to save the environment from plastic and other waste items.

Challenges could include picking up litter, signing petitions, ditching shampoo bottles for plastic-free bars, skipping the straw, composting pet waste and taking their own reusable container for restaurant leftovers. With more than 40 challenges to choose from, plus the option to create your own challenge, there was no excuse for every staff member not to participate.

Virginia Zoo made their presence known immediately, with 151 staff members and volunteers from all departments signed up for the challenge. Over the course of 31 days, staff earned points from their hand-picked challenges and checked in every day to check off which tasks they completed. Staff kept the momentum going over the course of the month by posting to the team feed with posts of encouragement, exciting news about organizations like Disney and Starbucks going straw-free, and ideas for how to complete certain challenges.

Out of 78 teams, the Virginia Zoo finished in sixth place overall with 51,678 points! The Maryland Zoo finished in first place with more than 85,000 points! There were also mini-challenges from other zoos and aquariums, and the Virginia Zoo topped its competitors – the Calgary Zoo, Virginia Aquarium and Monterey Bay Aquarium.

There were 5,242 participants for the Plastic Free July EcoChallenge, and the impacts were even greater:

—————————– Virginia Zoo All Teams
Plastic Cutlery saved 1691 37,174
Plastic Bottles saved 1310 28,166
Volunteer Hours 220 2,672
Plastic Containers saved 724 17,776
Public Officials Contacted 23 844
Conversations with People 26 535
Petitions signed 152 2,212
Documentaries watched 28 659
Pieces of litter picked up 2963 56,758
Straws saved 1565 35,383
Disposable cups saved 595 14,776
Community events attended 10 314
Waste audits conducted 20 354
Minutes spent learning 2690 62,293
Zero-waste meals consumed 252 9,827

The challenge isn’t over! Staff are committed to continuing their actions, whether through a similar challenge or personal initiative. Staff also aren’t the only ones who can make a difference. Virginia Zoo fans can check out the Plastic Free website to scope out ideas on how to become plastic free at work, home or on a trip to the Zoo!