Zoo Staff Take the Plastic-Free Challenge

Written by: Stephanie Krail

There is always something going on at the Houston Zoo and this past month was no different. Employees from all parts of the zoo accepted to partake in a month-long challenge to reduce their plastic-footprint thereby protecting animals in the wild.

The challenge is called Plastic Free July and the goal is to “choose to refuse” single-use plastic to save wildlife. Plastics do not break down; they can be consumed by wildlife or break up into smaller pieces and never truly go away. Items such as single-use plastic coffee cups, straws, grocery bags and doggie waste bags are only used for a few minutes until they serve their purpose and then get tossed in the trash to end up in a landfill or waterways. The Houston Zoo decided several years ago to help spread awareness of the problems plastics can hold by encouraging staff to participate in this challenge.

Several departments around the zoo joined together to discuss how they could reduce their plastic use not only as individuals at home but also as staff members here at work.

The Admissions, Membership and Call Center teams came together and signed their commitment to accept the challenge on a white board in their office. Some of the things they have strived to do includes using reusable grocery bags, reusable food containers instead of plastic sandwich baggies, and reusable drinking bottles, and the main thing, saying “NO” to plastic drinking straws. These teams received reusable tote bags to help jump start their participation. Reusable tote bags are great alternatives to using plastic grocery bags! You aren’t limited to using them just at grocery stores; bring a couple with you the next time you’re at the mall or out running errands.

The Children’s Zoo team has eliminated all plastic bags from the animals’ diet delivery and switched to reusable containers. This has saved over 7,000 plastic bags from entering landfills each year! They also switched to using trash buckets that they wash daily instead of using bags which has not only resulted in over 2,000 bags saved, but has also saved them money on having to purchase new trash bags.

Michelle Witek, Children’s Zoo Supervisor, has encouraged and shared countless tips with zoo staff by sharing her trips to the grocery store on Facebook. Some things that Michelle does while at the store are:

  • Purchase meats that are wrapped in butcher paper
  • Bring reusable sandwich style bags to fill with items from the bulk isle
  • Place all produce in reusable mesh bags
  • Look for glass jars or cardboard as an alternative to buying things in plastic containers (even deodorant)
  • When at the deli counter, ask to use own reusable sandwich style bags

Michelle certainly has inspired several of zoo staff to be more conscious of what we are purchasing at the store, but some items may not have a glass or cardboard alternative. This is where you can get creative and repurpose those items into new things, such as repurposing large dog food bags into storage bags for the recycling or garage.

The elephant team started to eliminate plastic anywhere they could two years ago for Plastic Free July and they have continued to do this year-round ever since. They no longer carry blood samples to the clinic each week in single-use plastic bags but now use reusable bags. The elephants at the zoo go through several loaves of bread which come in plastic bags. The team didn’t want to stop giving the elephants bread just because it came in plastic so they now collect these bags throughout the week and bring them home to use as doggie waste bags. This is a great example of not giving up on a product you need just because it doesn’t have a reusable alternative. Simply find a way to use it again, and you have doubled its purpose!

Some of the most difficult things the staff have run into is plastic straws! When eating out it can be hard to remember to say no to them, especially in drive-thru lines. Another challenge in going plastic-free is that it can be less convenient and, at times, seem a bit overwhelming. But know that any effort, big or small, is making a difference for wildlife. Something as simple as bringing a reusable water bottle every day to work instead of a plastic bottle helps to save animals in the wild.

In 2015, the Houston Zoo removed plastic bags in the gift shops to protect animals in the wild, by eliminating an estimated 80,000 plastic bags from entering landfills and the environment each year. Now, two years later, the zoo-based conservation organization has gone one step further and eliminated single-use plastic water bottles from all concession stands. This elimination of single-use plastic water bottles will reduce the amount of plastic waste by nearly 300,000 single-use plastic bottles in just one year.

When visiting the zoo, you can purchase an aluminum reusable water bottle (pre-filled with water) or a JUST Water recyclable, paper-based water bottle at any of the restaurants or kiosks. Or if you bring your own reusable water bottle, you can refill your water bottle at the water refilling stations located throughout the zoo. You can also purchase a reusable tote bag in its gift shops to eliminate use of single-use plastic bags. The zoo has a collection of canvas bags artistically designed with images depicting the animals that benefit from a reduction of plastic bags in the ocean.

Challenges like Plastic Free July are great ways to help save wildlife, and we encourage you to join our team and continue the challenge year-round!



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Jack is so cute I wish I could take him home and cuddle with him.

Look, Steve Hawkins! Ethan’s favorite animal there!

Bret!! :DDD