Reading, Writing and Recycling: Go Green Back to School

Back-to-school season is in full swing as an estimated 58 million students are preparing to hit the books this fall. Parents and kids all across the nation are shopping for clothes, shoes and supplies, looking for the best bang for their buck. However, one aspect shoppers may want to consider is how their shopping affects the environment. Buying environmentally friendly school supplies and packing eco-friendly lunches can go a long way toward conserving and protecting our planet’s resources.

Here are some tips to help guide you toward a more “green” back to school experience:

  • Buy 100 percent recycled paper and notebooks – be sure kids use both sides of the sheets whenever possible
  • Write with recycled pencils
  • Recycle while at school – Consider which trash can be saved from a landfill
  • Use refillable pens – each pen can last up to a decade

Small efforts can have big impacts. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), each school lunch generates 67 pounds of waste per school year. That means just one average-sized middle school creates more than 40,000 pounds of waste each year. Packing a waste-free lunch also saves an average student $250.

Here are some ways you can pack a more sustainable lunch this fall:

  • Adopt reusable bag practices – send lunch in a reusable bag instead of a paper or plastic one.
  • Purchase a refillable water bottle – it takes three times the amount of water that’s in a plastic water bottle to create the bottle in the first place.
  • Reach for reusable sandwich bags and containers – consider perhaps a waxed fabric sandwich bag.
  • Compost peels and pits – some students have compost programs at their schools, but for those that don’t, encourage them to bring their apple cores and cherry pits home.

There are many other ways students – with the help of their teachers – can help reach environmental goals. If 133,000 schools switched to recycled paper, they could save about 6 million trees per year, according to The Green School Initiative. America’s schools spend more than $7.5 billion annually on energy – more than they spend on textbooks and computers, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. If school districts worked to conserve 25 percent of that energy, they could save $1.5 billion per year.

Students can also make change themselves by contributing toward green goals through programs such as Michigan Green Schools, which inspires schools to adopt more sustainable practices such as recycling, installing rain gardens and planting edible or native Michigan gardens. Applying to become a Michigan Green School can be pivotal in teaching the next generation essential green practices.

Our future depends on protecting the health and well-being of our children. Educating this generation with the skills to solve the global environmental problems we face is just as important as educating them about math and history. It’s a substantial task to put on such young people, but each small step is one taken toward a more sustainable future.

Preventing Pollution? Rain Gardens are a Solution

An average annual rainfall for Michigan is more than 31 inches, which equates to more than 52 million gallons of rainwater per year. That much rainwater can severely damage downspouts and create pollution. A rain garden is an environmentally friendly and attractive way to filter and return storm water runoff from surfaces such as sidewalks and roof tops, while protecting our groundwater and waterways. They can be created on your own property using just a few steps – ultimately minimizing the pollution that emerges from the rainwater gushing out of downspouts.

First, determine if you have a suitable site for a rain garden. The ideal spot is one that is:

  • Fed by only one or two downspouts
  • Far from a septic tank, drain field, or wellhead
  • Free from trees

Next, follow these easy steps:

  • Find an outdoor space that can absorb water, ranging from 100 to 400 square feet. A rain garden should be about 20 percent the size of the roof, patio or pavement area draining into it.
  • If there are trees in the area, make sure they can handle wet soil conditions for lengthy periods of time to ensure that your rain garden is set up for success.
  • Remove the grass and dig a hole at least 2 feet deep.
  • Lay an inlet pipe used for catching the storm water. These small pipes can be purchased at any hardware store for under $20.
  • Add native vegetation, and you’re all set!

The benefits of rain gardens are tremendous. In addition to being aesthetically pleasing, they are easy to maintain and improve water quality by filtering out pollutants. And perhaps the most magnificent benefit is that they attract wildlife such as birds, butterflies and insects who use the plants as a food source.

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) is working to protect storm water on the grounds of the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center. We built a rain garden near the Ford Education Center, which collects rain water from the roof of the 38,000-square-foot building and is maintained throughout the entire year, incorporating native Michigan plant species. The downspouts drain into the garden through a pervious pipe located 3 feet below the surface. We’re in the midst of creating a second rain garden near American Coney Island. Native, drought-resistant plants have already been planted and we plan to build a mock house with gutters and rain barrels. Signage will educate guests about how they can incorporate rainwater collection and rain gardens at their homes. In addition, we have incorporated permeable pavement within parking lots and public walkways, which also reduces storm water runoff and improves water quality by filtering out pollutants.

We all have an impact on the planet – projects like these are simple steps we can take to make sure it is a positive one.

Trim Your “Waste” at Home

Americans produce a staggering 258 million tons of garbage every year, with each individual throwing out nearly 4.5 pounds per day, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2017 Infrastructure Report Card. What’s even more mind-blowing is the fact that Michiganders are among the biggest culprits – our recycling rate is just 15.3 percent, according to the Michigan Department of Quality. We can do so much better than that.

Solid waste has contributed greatly to the rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions, which is having catastrophic impacts on wildlife and wild places around the world. Moreover, many creatures mistake unnatural waste as food and can end up swallowing or becoming trapped in it, which often leads to serious injuries or deadly consequences.

If we all did our part to be more mindful in the choices we make in our daily lives – including reducing the amount of waste we produce – we could lighten our impact on Earth. Consider the following actions:

  • Switching from single-use items (disposable water bottles, cutlery, plates, etc.) to reusable items such as wood, metal or glass.
  • Recycling items properly to prevent them from sitting in a landfill.
  • Only purchasing foods you know you will eat.
  • Choosing a reusable fabric bag for grocery or leisurely shopping.
  • Opting out of receiving magazines you no longer read, or junk mail.
  • Composting food waste to naturally fertilize your soil.
  • Reusing items you already have. For example, save that old pickle jar to store loose change!

An important aspect of the Detroit Zoological Society’s mission is to lessen our impact on the environment and create a more sustainable future. To do this, we have made it a priority to reduce the waste we generate at the Detroit Zoo and Belle Isle Nature Center. As a part of our award-winning Greenprint initiative, we are keeping 60,000 plastic bottles out of the waste stream annually by no longer selling bottled water on Zoo grounds. We are also selling reusable animal-themed bags in lieu of providing plastic bags at Zoo concessions. We do not provide plastic straws with fountain beverages, and we have made the conscious effort to use eco-friendly cutlery at the Arctic Café, which is one of only four restaurants in Michigan that is “green-certified”. In an effort to turn waste into energy, we were the first zoo to construct an anaerobic digester, which converts more than 500 tons of animal manure and food scraps annually into renewable energy to help power the Zoo’s Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex. The byproduct from the digester is used to create compost called Detroit Zoo Poo, which is available for purchase at Zoo concessions.

Our annual 21-and-older fundraising event, Sunset at the Zoo, is part of this zero-waste journey. The VIP Party and champagne welcome have been waste-free for the past two years. We also have volunteers stationed at various locations throughout the Zoo during the event to help guests learn what items that might otherwise go in the trash can be recycled or composted.

Becoming a waste-free organization is a journey, and these are just a few steps we’ve undertaken, with many more to come.

Be Green by Eating Clean

There are many simple ways you can turn your lifestyle into a more environmentally friendly one, right down to the food you eat. But eating clean is about more than just buying and consuming fruits and vegetables. It’s about finding the food that is beneficial to both our bodies and the environment.

Take a look at some clean-eating tips:

  • Eat Local. Be the “locavore” that you know you are, by consuming food grown within a few miles of where you live. Locavores make frequent trips to farmers’ markets and purchase fresh produce within a local range. A great place for locavores in Michigan is Detroit’s Eastern Market, which is just 13 miles away from the Detroit Zoo. Other farmers markets are popping up all over the metro Detroit area including in Royal Oak, Birmingham, Clawson, Farmington, Grosse Pointe Park, Northville and Plymouth. Check your local websites for farmers’ markets near you. This simple change can not only lighten your carbon footprint because there are fewer miles for the food to travel and less gas being used to get there, creating less pollution on its way to your table. There’s also a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions during the production, packaging and transportation of your food, and it helps local farmers stay in business. There’s also something special about meeting the people who grow the food you put on your table.
    • Tips from a locavore:
      • BYOB (Bring your own bag). When visiting a farmers’ market or grocery store, bring your own reusable bags to cut down on the amount of plastic being used
      • Recycle any packaging that was on the foods you bought
      • Save gas by taking public transportation, a bike or carpool with family or friends
      • Make a genuine connection with the farmers whose produce you purchase
      • The produce at farmers’ markets are what is in season
      • If you’re buying non-organic, make sure to thoroughly wash your produce

  • Eat less meat: Try choosing veggies over meat; it’s healthier and you can help the planet. Perhaps try eating meat twice a week instead of four times, or even just once a week. Varying studies indicate the animal agriculture industry causes anywhere between nine and 51 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. This means that by eating less meat, you can lower the amount of greenhouse gas emissions – and you can save water! Did you know that by skipping one burger, you can save enough water to shower with for three weeks? There are also health benefits to eating less meat, such as a lower risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, among others.

The Detroit Zoological Society is a leader in environmentally sustainability, with all operations guided by our award-winning Greenprint initiative. As part of our Green Journey, we are working to create a healthier environment for all animals, visitors and the planet. Offering options for visitors to eat clean at Zoo concessions is just one of the ways we’re working to create a more sustainable future.

The Detroit Zoo’s Pure Greens Café has a 100 percent vegan menu, offering items such as the “impossible burger”, made from simple ingredients in nature such as wheat protein, coconut oil, potato protein and heme. Visitors can also try our Mexican burrito bowl or vegan tofurky sausage. All of the vegetables come from Michigan farms, solidifying Pure Greens’ “locavore” status. Vegetarian and vegan options are also available at the Artic Café and American Coney Island, including a vegan burger basket, soups and salads.

Roses are Red, Smartflower is Green

A 16-foot, metallic flower is now blossoming among the plants at the Detroit Zoo. This innovative ground-mounted solar panel system is called smartflower.

This high-tech addition is just another step on the Detroit Zoological Society’s (DZS) Green Journey to create a more sustainable future by using innovative practices that minimize our ecological footprint. It is the first of its kind to be installed not only in Michigan but in any zoo in the country.

Sunflowers turn their blossoms to face the sun to make optimum use of the light, increasing its growth rate. Since mother (nature) knows best, the creators of smartflower based the technology of this revolutionary system to function similarly to an actual sunflower, through the use of a GPS-based dual-axis tracker. The system features 12 solar panels – shaped to mimic petals – that follow the sun across the sky throughout the day. When the sun rises in the morning, the smartflower unfolds and aims its panels to the sky to begin producing energy. The petals will automatically close again when the sun goes down, storing the excess energy.

Since the smartflower is always at an optimal angle to the sun, it can generate 40 percent more energy than a traditional solar-panel system. The smartflower converts enough energy in one day to run an electric car for 62 miles, wash 17 loads of laundry or run three air conditioning units. The system at the Detroit Zoo is expected to generate more than 4,000 kilowatts of electricity annually, enough to power the Carousel and other areas of the Zoo.

The smartflower will be in full view during the DZS’s annual pre-Earth Day celebration called GreenFest at the Detroit Zoo on April 14, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The first 1,000 guests to visit the anaerobic digester educational display will receive a token for a 5-gallon bucket, courtesy of The Home Depot Foundation, to be filled with free Detroit Zoo Poo – an herbivore compost processed in the DZS’s anaerobic digester and produced in partnership with Detroit Dirt. The digester – the first in Michigan and the only zoo-based system of its kind – annually converts 400 tons of animal manure and other organic waste into a methane-rich gas that helps power the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex.

The event will also include a sustainability tour as they learn about the DZS’s many green initiatives. Guests can learn about permeable pavement, composting, recycling, preventing bird strikes, making a home more energy efficient and building backyard wildlife habitats. They can also explore farm-to-table food options at Pure Greens Café, widen their science knowledge during chemistry demonstrations, and take a green pledge, committing to joining us on our Green Journey.

Greenprint: Reducing Harmful Litter One Drink at a Time

Twisty straws, crazy straws, straws with little umbrellas on them – these may seem fun and convenient but the environmental impact of plastic straws far outweighs the benefits of sipping drinks without having to lift them. In fact, the statistics behind straw usage and plastic pollution can be difficult to digest.  According to the National Park Service, Americans alone use 500 million straws every day. Plastic straws are non-recyclable and non-biodegradable, which begs the question: Where do all these straws go?

As a part of the 91 percent of plastic waste that does not get recycled, these straws either sit in landfills or become litter that contaminates the environment. This is of special concern for an institution providing care to animals because this piece of litter can be extremely dangerous. Straws can be blown by the wind into animal habitats and ingested by the inhabitants, causing significant harm.

For many, this issue was brought to life in 2015 when a video of a scientists removing part of a straw from a sea turtle’s nostril went viral. The eight-minute video is quite painful to watch, which is why it garnered so much attention and sympathy. The video sparked several movements to reduce straw (and plastic in general) usage, but many efforts were in place long before the internet brought it to mainstream attention.

The Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) stopped providing straws and plastic lids at Detroit Zoo concessions more than 10 years ago, not only preventing some 242,000 pieces of waste from potentially entering animal habitats annually, but also keeping these out of the waste stream. Because for us, this goes beyond animal welfare – it’s about sustainability too. By cutting down on plastic usage, we contribute less to landfills and pollution while preserving oil, a depleting resource. Eight million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean each year and at this rate, by 2050 there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste in landfills. We’ve kept more than 2 million straws out of landfills in the last decade by removing them from our concessions.

Other straw-banning movements have sprung up worldwide, including London’s Straw Wars, Straws Suck, and The Last Plastic Straw Movement, asking people to reject using straws and encourage restaurants to do the same.

Animals are not the only ones who suffer.  Toxic chemicals from plastic waste seep into groundwater and flow into lakes and streams contaminating the water that is eventually consumed by humans and animals. Every piece of plastic waste comes with a negative consequence. When one part of the ecosystem is disrupted, all life suffers.

As an organization dedicated to creating a more sustainable future, the Detroit Zoological Society has taken many steps that yield a big impact on saving the environment. In 2017, the DZS received the Keep Michigan Beautiful award for our environmental contributions. We are keeping 60,000 plastic bottles out of the waste stream annually by no longer selling bottled water at Detroit Zoo concessions. Reusable bottles are available for guests at an affordable price. We are further reducing our plastic waste by no longer providing plastic bags at our gift shops. Instead, guests can purchase reusable animal-themed bags.

When we walk on this Green Journey together, it can make a big difference for the animals and the Earth. So, without a straw, let’s raise a glass to those dedicated to the cause. No litter goes unnoticed and neither do your efforts for a more sustainable planet.

Stay tuned to the Detroit Zoological Society Blog to learn more about our award-winning Greenprint initiatives and what you can do to help.

Detroit Zoological Society Honored for Environmental Contributions

In recognition of our ongoing efforts in environmental sustainability, the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS) recently received the Keep Michigan Beautiful award. This honor, bestowed by Keep Michigan Beautiful Inc., highlights contributions we’ve made to preserve the land around us and create a better future for all.

This includes building an anaerobic digester, which will annually convert 500 tons of animal manure and organic food waste into a methane-rich gas that will power the Detroit Zoo’s animal hospital. We are also keeping 60,000 plastic bottles out of the waste stream annually by no longer selling bottled water on Zoo grounds. As part of this effort, we have free refillable filtered water stations throughout the Zoo and offer affordable reusable water bottles for guests. We also encourage visitors to purchase wildlife-themed reusable bags at our gift shops as we no longer provide plastic bags for purchases in order to reduce plastic waste. We’re incorporating permeable pavement into new visitor walkways – and even a parking lot – reducing storm water runoff and filtering pollutants. All of these efforts contribute to keeping Michigan beautiful.

All of these actions are guided by the Greenprint, a green roadmap that helps us refine and improve our facilities and daily practices, develop new policies and programs and improve green literacy and action in our community. Join us on this Green Journey! Download the Shades of Green Guide and learn how you can lighten your impact on the Earth.