Sustainability Master Plans are Catalyzing Action at Zoos and Aquariums

This week at the annual conference for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), I hosted a panel of zoo and aquarium leaders from Dallas, Seattle, and Omaha that are each at different points in their journeys to create and implement Sustainability Master Plans. But regardless of their place in the process, they are all seeing meaningful improvements in their organizations.

Sustainability Master Plans are strategic planning documents that prioritize strategies to lower greenhouse gas emissions, divert waste from landfills, and reduce water and energy use — all while engaging the public along the way. But these documents are not meant to sit on a shelf. Verdis Group works with many zoos and aquariums to co-create tailored Sustainability Master Plans that can be put into action and benefit every level of the organization.

Some of the improvements that zoo and aquarium leaders discussed in our AZA panel include:

Employee engagement: At the Seattle Aquarium, which plans to finalize its Sustainability Master Plan next month, employees are “re-energized,” said Jesse Phillips-Kress, the aquarium’s Director of Facilities. Staff members hold those in leadership accountable to sustainable practices, so “in writing down this plan, they see a path to help them do that. … People are saying, ‘Finally, we’re going to really do this,” Phillips-Kress said. It’s not only the plan that has spurred conversations and action, added Erin Meyer, the aquarium’s Director of Conservation Programs & Partnerships, it’s the process of creating it together.

Waste diversion: The Dallas Zoo had just finalized its Sustainability Master Plan when the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020. Sean Greene, the zoo’s COO and Executive Vice President of Park Operations, said the pandemic “stopped us at the top of the roller coaster,” slowing momentum from planning process. Still, he said, the zoo has made serious improvements in reducing waste throughout the pandemic, and currently diverts roughly 36% of its waste from the landfill since forming a partnership with Silver Creek Materials in Fort Worth.

Cost savings: Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium began creating its Sustainability Master Plan in 2012. Nearly a decade later, COO and Senior Vice President of Operations Dennis Schnurbusch said the organization is preparing to update its goals a second time after steadily progressing to become a sustainability leader within the industry. In the process, he said, the zoo has saved millions of dollars thanks to community partnerships while implementing incentives and subsidies for active commuting programs and other employee resources.

Sustainable building design: The Seattle Aquarium’s new Ocean Pavilion intends to run entirely free of fossil fuels. Its heating and cooling systems will run completely on electricity. In the past, that bold decision might have required “a whole lot more back and forth,” said Phillips-Kress, “but because we were having this conversation, we were making decisions with sustainability in mind as a leader in the thought process.”

(Photo by Zachary Spears on Unsplash)

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