Zoo is Ground Zero for Net Zero

Posted April 22, 2022

This Earth Day, Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is thrilled to announce that it’s on track to become the first Zoo to achieve net zero energy, waste, and water status.  In fact, the Zoo is set to surpass the goal it announced in 2018 when it made its net zero plan a key component of the More Home to Roam capital campaign.

Photos | video

“For a long time, we assured people that 100% sustainable is attainable,” said Mark Fisher, Cincinnati Zoo’s VP of facilities and sustainability. “It is, but why stop there if we know we can do better?  We can produce more than 100% of the energy that we need and share the additional power with our neighbors”

The Zoo has enjoyed many days “off the grid” since it installed a 1.56-megawatt solar array over its main parking lot in 2011.  It plans to build another solar array over a new surface lot this summer and install a battery storage system that will create an energy microgrid for the Zoo.  A 25-megawatt array, that’s 16 times the size of the Zoo’s parking lot structure, is being erected at the Zoo’s Bowyer Farm and will move the Zoo from net zero to net positive in the energy bucket.

“These long-term investments end up paying for themselves and ultimately save us money,” said Fisher.  “They also reduce our environmental impact and help us model sustainable practices.  When our neighbors and peers see the benefits of what we’re doing, they are likely to do it too, and that is what has to happen in order to move the needle.”

Forming partnerships and collaborating with area businesses and organizations has greatly increased the impact of the Zoo’s green initiatives. The Zoo partnered with local institutions – Cincinnati Reds, Procter & Gamble, and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center – last summer to create an Urban Learning Garden at Rockdale Academy in Avondale, where the Zoo is located.  Its Plant for Pollinators program, sponsored by Simple Truth, has inspired 2,400 people in 36 states to plant and register pollinator gardens! Great news for butterflies, bees, hummingbirds, moths, and humans!

The Zoo’s conservation efforts have also been good news for humans in Avondale, where the Zoo is located.  Catching and storing rainwater has kept water and sewer overflow out of neighbors’ basements and has also saved the Zoo $10 million on its water bill over the years.

“On our journey to achieve net zero water usage, we’ve saved money and 2 BILLION gallons of water,” said Fisher.  “We’ve been able to cut our water costs by 80% in the last 10 years through our water reclamation efforts.”

Water covers two-thirds of the Earth’s surface, but only a tiny percentage of it is available as clean, fresh water. The Greenest Zoo in America®, supported by its official water sustainability partner Roto-Rooter, continues to seek new ways to use less of this precious natural resource.

Stormwater retention tanks buried under Africa and Roo Valley can hold up to 500,000 gallons of water, enough to provide most of the water that’s used in habitats and pools around the Zoo.  Massive stormwater retention tanks to be installed under the Zoo’s new Elephant Trek habitat will increase storage capacity by 1 million gallons, enough to satisfy all the Zoo’s water needs.

“We’re overachieving in the energy and water savings buckets, but the third area included in our Net zero goal – waste – has been tricky,” said Fisher.  “We’ll get there, but it’s a difficult task at a facility that attracts more than 1.5 million guests annually and has thousands of plants and animals that produce organic waste.”

The Zoo has been trialing an aerobic bio-digester to turn organic waste into a soil amending product that it can use in its gardens. The plan is to get the internal logistics figured out before installing a much larger unit in 2023 as part of Elephant Trek. It will be able to handle most of the Zoo’s organic waste, including food waste and poo from elephants, rhinos, zebras, and even Fiona!

“Ultimately, the Zoo will spread the love by selling the soil enhancer produced by the biodigester,” said Fisher. “Once our organic waste processing and reuse system is working, we’ll be 90% of the way to net zero waste.  The rest will be accomplished via a robust recycling program.”

Earlier this year, Mallory Geresy, the Zoo’s net zero waste manager, spent the day working with Hamilton County R3Source to collect, sort, and categorize the Zoo’s trash.

“We performed a waste audit in order to collect data that will help enhance our mainstream, specialty, and organic waste recycling efforts,” said Geresy. “We are working to create a list of hard to recycle items, or items that cannot be sent in mainstream recycling to Rumpke, in order to develop a specialty recycling program.”

The team discovered that paper waste that could have been recycled was going to the landfill, so the next step is to educate visitors and staff about where to put certain kinds of trash.

The Zoo opens at 10 a.m. and closes at 5 p.m.  Members may enter at 9 a.m., another perk that makes membership “worth your wild”!  Memberships are on sale now – April 30