I took a trip to the Cincinnati Zoo this past Friday. Not just because it’s Penguin Days (although penguins are pretty awesome), but I wanted to see some of the conservation efforts the zoo has been implementing.
Back in 2010, the former governor of Ohio, Ted Strickland, called the Cincinnati Zoo “the greenest zoo in America” after it had received Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certifications on four of their buildings. I read about all their initiatives online, but I wanted to see firsthand what is making the zoo leaders in sustainability, and while there are many, many green projects that the zoo is responsible for, the three below are, in my opinion, the most innovative and unique.
3. Water Conservation
Storm water runoff is a huge problem in Cincinnati. Our sewer system is one of the oldest in the country, and with the growing urban population, it’s no longer built to handle the city’s needs. So when it rains, things get messy. To handle the overflow issues, the Cincinnati Zoo decided to try a few methods, one is the pervious pavement that soaks up water when it rains instead of letting it flow into the sewers. The others are literally green: rain gardens and vegetative roofs.
Rain gardens are planted in low areas with local, water-thirsty plants. They collect rainwater as it falls and runs off the pavement, reducing flooding in the zoo’s neighborhood. It’s an ideal garden for urban living as it also functions as a habitat for wildlife and it doesn’t need much space. The benefits from a rain garden also include reducing pollution and erosion and the fact that the plants’ roots will purify rain water as it runs deeper into the soil. The zoo hopes that their rain gardens in the Go Green Garden and just outside the Education Center will serve as an example to other large, urban facilities on how they can begin conserving water.
Vegetative roofs serve the same function as a rain garden, holding up to 75 percent of rainfall. They also are useful for reducing the urban island heat effect which increases the temperature of cities and suburbs by up to 7 degrees more than rural areas, not to mention it cuts back on pollution by filtering the air. Just like the rain gardens, the two green roofs at the zoo, one on top of the giraffe barn and the other at the Primate Center are designed as a test to see what works and what can be improved.
2. Composting and Recycling
I’ve always seen the green recycling bins scattered around the zoo whenever I visited, but I saw something new this time, and being the nerd that I am, I was really excited to see it: a solar trash compactor. I’m not sure how popular or widespread these are, but it’s the first time I’ve ever seen one. From BigBelly Solar, it’s a literally a smart trashcan. It goes beyond recycling to reducing the amount of waste. It uses miniature solar panels to power the compactor on and crush whatever is in it. The best things about this is that it is an on-site compactor, so it can hold up to five times a normal trashcan’s capacity, reducing the number of times it needs to be collected and taken to Rumpke. Less exhaust, less pollution.
Composting is another project the zoo is working on. With that many animals, there’s going to be a lot of waste. Not just the kind of waste I know you’re all thinking, but food scraps and bedding need to be replaced as well as leaves and grass trimmings from maintenance, and that old material needs to go somewhere. So instead of wasting it, the zoo composts it. About 7 tons of organic material are composted each week. The zoo actually is in a partnership with Marvin’s Organic Gardens, a landscaping company who only uses organic material. More than 2,700 pounds of animal waste is composted daily at Marvin’s Organic Gardens totaling up to more than 1 million pounds every year.
1. Solar Panels
Solar panels aren’t exactly new technology, but the way the zoo is using them is unlike anything else. A solar canopy sits in the parking lot, sheltering cars and generating energy to power zoo. It’s made up of 6,400 panels and is the largest publicly accessible, urban solar array in the United States. The winter sunlight is really weak, but even when my friend Rachael and I visited, the zoo was operating on 75 percent of power harvested by the solar canopy. Now imagine in the summer on a really sunny day how much solar energy the zoo collects. On those really sunny days they can operate off the grid. Not only that, but any extra energy collected on those days can be stored and saved for another time.
(One other good thing about the solar canopy: it protects your car. That becomes really helpful to visitors in the summer when there’s no other way to avoid getting in a stifling car with seat belt clips just waiting to burn your hands. Also, almost all of it was locally made!)
The reason I admire the Cincinnati Zoo so much is because they’re so focused on conservation efforts with wildlife and ecosystems, they are very green energy savvy, they encourage sustainability and because they prove that even a large, urban facility can operate in an earth-friendly, eco-conscious way with little strain on the environment. There are so many more green initiatives there, and I encourage everyone to go check them out.
And of course go see the penguins:
For more information on the Cincinnati Zoo’s green initiatives go to: http://cincinnatizoo.org/conservation/go-green/green-initiative/