Zero waste events help Cincinnati Zoo toward green goals

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden’s major events were more than just fundraisers this year. They also signified important milestones in its ongoing effort to reach net zero waste status by 2025.

Dubbed the Greenest Zoo in America by former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, the Avondale attraction set out to ensure all four events achieved zero waste status. Over the course of Zoo La La, Wild About Wine, Zoofari and Zoo Brew, the Cincinnati Zoo diverted two-and-a-half tons of waste from local landfills and also recycled three tons of material.

Beyond managing the trash generated at these events, the Avondale facility donated all excess food to Cincinnati-based Last Mile Food Rescue. Those nearly 3,000 pounds worth of food items became 2,434 meals for food insecure residents of Greater Cincinnati.

“We are bringing a supply chain and logistics mindset to the problems of food waste and food insecurity,” said Last Mile CEO Eileen Budo. “The two problems can be solved, and we can end food insecurity in Greater Cincinnati.”

Last Mile Food Rescue team members collect food after a Cincinnati Zoo event.

Ben Liles, Cincinnati Zoo’s manager of park services, said only 100 pounds of the 10,660 pounds of waste created by the four events made its way to a landfill.

“These numbers along with the food that we were able to donate represents a better than 99% diversion for our zero waste events,” Liles noted. “We consider that a tremendous success.”

Determining an event has achieved the zero waste goal happens after material is removed from the zoo property, Liles said. The zoo transports the waste to an Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections-run sorting facility. ODRC provides a breakdown of what was in the trash after sorting is complete.

Inmates are paid for their work.

“Waste reduction is a huge part of our zoo’s conservation efforts, and the success of our zero waste events this year have served as a proof of concept of what is possible,” said Liles.

The Cincinnati Zoo announced in 2018 its plans to achieve total net zero status by 2025. It’s already off the energy grid on most sunny days thanks to its large solar array and has saved billions of gallons of water with its stormwater management program. However, waste has been a more difficult challenge to tackle.

Sorting trash from a Cincinnati Zoo event.

Every year, more than 1.5 million visit the Cincinnati Zoo, each one creating trash and other forms of waste. The thousands of plants and animals housed there produce organic waste as well.

To address those issues, the zoo is testing an aerobic bio-digester to turn food waste into a soil amending product that it can use in its gardens or sell in the gift shop. Currently, the zoo is putting pre-consumer food waste from its main Base Camp café into the digester, with the hopes to expand to all cafes by the end of the year.

The zoo also worked with Hamilton County R3Source to collect, sort and categorize trash. The waste order aimed to collect data to help enhance the zoo’s mainstream, specialty and organic waste recycling efforts. The team discovered that paper waste that could have been recycled was going to the landfill, so they’re working on an education program for visitors and staff about where to put certain kinds of trash.

As part of its effort to expand zero waste efforts into daily operations, the zoo is working on an analysis with its food and retail partner, The SSA Group.

The zoo and its partners believe they can achieve complete net zero status.

Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden