Toss Out Your Old Spring-Cleaning Routine and Bring in the Green

The grass may always be greener, but you can be too! As you begin your annual spring-cleaning routine, consider making some changes that will impact the environment in a positive way. Some simple modifications will help keep your home fresh and clutter-free while also creating a sustainable future for people and animals. From choosing the right cleaning products to watching your water usage, here are some helpful tips you can adopt to clean the green way:

Purchase environmentally friendly cleaning products. Popular cleaning products often contain chemicals that are harmful to you and the environment. Next time you purchase your spring-cleaning necessities, double check the ingredients for harsh chemicals, including phthalates or triclosan, which can poison our bodies and our aquatic ecosystems. Phthalates can cause disruptions in our endocrine system while triclosan is an antibacterial that kills algae in more than half of the streams in the U.S. Instead, look for eco-friendly, plant-based products. They offer the same cleaning benefits with less risk to our health and the Earth’s water.

Make your own cleaning products. Save money and the environment by creating homemade soaps and disinfectants – it’s easier than you might think. There are many simple recipes you can follow to clean your bathrooms, floors, counters and cabinets. Try substituting chemical-filled cleansers with white vinegar or baking soda and water. Adding a couple drops of essential oil to your natural concoctions produces a great scent and has cleaning benefits of its own. Tea tree oil is a natural disinfectant; peppermint and lemon also have natural and powerful cleaning agents and they will leave your home smelling fresh.

Declutter clothing and household items the right way. Channel your inner Marie Kondo while sorting through old clothes and instead of throwing these items away, toss them into the hands of someone who might find your trash as their treasure! You can gather your items and have a garage sale or donate them to charity. This eliminates waste in our landfills and you could earn some extra cash. But if you do decide to toss some items, there are environmentally friendly ways to do so. Recycle or reuse what you can to try to eliminate as much waste as possible.

Watch your water usage. We can accidentally waste a lot of water by leaving the faucet on longer than is necessary. By being conscious of this, we can help preserve this important resource. When cleaning areas of your house, a bucket full of water works to rinse out the mop or rag and uses far less water than taking it to the tub. These few changes can help you not only save water, but also your hard-earned dollars!

Purify the air with houseplants. Not only are plants beautiful décor, they can also purify the air and provide health benefits to those who reside in the home. Houseplants reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in our homes while also keeping air temperatures down. They even eliminate dust levels, making spring-cleaning a little easier! Having plants around us creates a sense of comfort and lowers stress levels, too.

Together, we can make small changes to our yearly spring-cleaning routine that can make a huge difference in our lives and the lives of Earth’s wonderful creatures. By incorporating these few tips and tricks, we can take another step forward on our Green Journey and help create eco-friendly communities. Spring is in the air, but harmful chemicals don’t have to be.

Foster Empathy While Spending Time Indoors

The days may be shorter, the weather colder, and our lives might be spent mostly indoors during this time of the year, but it can still be a valuable, educational time for families. There are a number of activities we can do with our children to follow and support the Detroit Zoological Society’s humane education goals of fostering empathy for others and developing respect for wildlife and wild places.

Empathy is the ability to understand another person or animal’s experience from their perspective. It’s being able to place yourself in some else’s shoes/paws and mirror what they are feeling which, in turn, is known to increase positive social behaviors. While it can be innate for some of us, empathy is actually a learned behavior.

One way to help nurture empathy in children is through stories, which can help them process thoughts and information. Stories allow us to put on different hats, try out new experiences, think through future actions and develop our moral compass – all of which can be done from the comfort of our own home.

We do this in a number of our humane education programs offered by the Detroit Zoological Society. We share experiences of people helping animals and books that enable us to explore the world around us from an animal’s perspective. Even after a story has been read, there’s still an opportunity to continue building empathy by taking action.

For example, you could read “Stranger in the Woods”, a beautiful picture book about local wildlife, and then build a wildlife-friendly snowperson by incorporating decorations that can feed animals. Examples include a carrot nose, potato eyes, a birdseed scarf, etc.

After reading “How to Heal a Broken Wing”, a book about helping an injured bird who flew into a window, you could make window decals to prevent bird collisions. You could also learn how to humanely deter ants from your home after reading “Hey Little Ant”, a book that sheds light on an ant’s perspective. Fostering empathy in children can start at a young age. Together, we can help instill values of walking softly and treating the Earth’s creatures gently.

– Carla Van Kampen is a curator of education for the Detroit Zoological Society.

Celebrate your Sweetie Sustainably this Valentine’s Day

While Valentine’s Day is usually a sea of pink and red, let’s add some green to our celebrations this year. Date nights and gifts that show your significant other how much you care can easily include a little love shown to the Earth as well. Options abound for eco-friendly ways to revel in the romance.

Date Night. Embrace the weather and spend time in nature by bundling up and heading outside. Go skiing, ice skating, find a local winter festival, or head to the Detroit Zoo with your significant otter for a Valentine’s Day date.

Cook at home. Some restaurants require reservations weeks in advance. Instead of hitting the town, cook dinner together at home using locally sourced food. It’s a fun activity that’s more intimate than being surrounded by other couples; plus, it will save you money. Finding fresh ingredients can be challenging during Michigan winters, but a trip to your local farmers’ market could produce everything you need. Many vegetables are ripe this time of year in their extended season, including onions, potatoes and carrots – learn more about what grows when in this handy guide. Get creative in the kitchen by finding recipes incorporating these in-season foods. And don’t forget about maple syrup! It’s a delicious staple of Michigan’s agriculture industry and can be tapped as early as February. This can make for a delicious breakfast in bed for your partner.

Gifts for your sweetie and the environment. This year, consider giving your loved one something a little more environmentally friendly. Jewelry and perfume can be expensive – and toxic. Instead, choose a gift that shows your love for both your partner and the Earth. Here are some ideas:

  • A potted plant or flower seeds for those with a green thumb
  • An indoor herb garden to spice things up for those who love to cook
  • A sustainably sourced bouquet of flowers – either from a local grower and/or one that uses green methods of growth and production
  • Reusable snack bags and travel cups for those always on the go
  • A “date night jar” with ideas for outings to pick at random throughout the year
  • Fair trade candy and chocolate

Skip the pricey wrapping paper – instead, reduce, reuse and recycle! Reduce the cost of wrapping paper by purchasing reusable gift bags. Reuse your cookie tins and jars to present a gift instead of cardboard boxes. Recycle old newspapers and magazines as a sustainable alternative to fancy paper. And for this category, let’s add another “R” – romance. A hand-written card can be more sentimental than a store-bought greeting card.

Crafts for children. Children’s arts and crafts can be good for the environment too. Skip the messy glitter and make a heart-shaped bird feeder! It’s a fun craft to do together while fostering respect for wildlife and providing food for birds. Other options for home-made gifts for the young people in your life rather than pricey presents include friendship bracelets made out of colorful yarn or snow globes made out of recycled baby food containers.

There are countless creative ways we can demonstrate our devotion to each other and to the Earth on Valentine’s Day. Love is in the air, so let’s keep the air clean and safe for all of us who share this planet.

Resolve to Go Green

With the dawn of a new year comes a host of resolutions being set – exercise more, eat healthier, trim the budget, purge the closets. As you set your goals for 2019, consider the planet and what you can do to protect wildlife and wild places. We invite you to join us on our award-winning Green Journey to create a more sustainable future and kick some of these habits to the curb this year.

  • Plastic bags are sooo last year: More than 100 billion plastic bags are used by consumers in the U.S. every year and they can take up to 1,000 years to break down in landfills. That’s a lot of unnecessary plastic waste. Many cities, such as Seattle and San Francisco, have banned plastic bags altogether or require a fee to use them. For those of us living elsewhere, let’s make a pact to just say no. Many grocery and retail stores offer inexpensive reusable totes – they’re sturdier and stronger than plastic bags, so they won’t break from the bottom when carrying your haul. We no longer provide plastic bags at Detroit Zoo gift shops, but we offer wildlife-themed bags for a nominal fee. Stop by Zoofari Market on your next visit and pick one up! 

  • Can the single-use coffee cup: You don’t have to cross the coffee stop off your morning routine – just change the container. Single-use plastic and cardboard coffee cups often end up tossed in the trash, and they have a plastic waterproof lining on the inside that makes them difficult to recycle. The solution is easy – and will save you money. A one-time purchase of a reusable mug or thermos helps the environment every time you stop for coffee and leave that cardboard cup on the counter. Many coffee shops, such as Starbucks, offer a discount for bringing your own reusable cup. What’s better than being green while saving green?
  • Save water one drop at a time: From brushing our teeth to doing the dishes, bathing our bodies and washing our clothes, we’re consuming water at a rapid rate. But there are small steps we can take every day to reduce our water usage, such as turning off the tap while brushing our teeth or reducing shower time by a couple minutes. A standard showerhead uses 2.5 gallons of water per minute, so any time you shave off your shower is less water down the drain. Shorter showers will save money on your water bill, too.

  • Ditch those receipts: More often than not, stores will give you the option to choose if you’d like your receipt printed or emailed to you. Printed receipts often end up tossed in the trash, crumpled at the bottom of a purse or wrinkled in our wallets. Let’s save paper – and the environment – by passing on the printed receipts this year.

New Year’s resolutions don’t have to be hard-to-attain goals – small steps taken every day can have a huge impact on the world around us. Learn more about what you can do – and the strides we’re taking, too.

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.