An Accidental Case Study of Sustainability

I took a trip to the zoo the other day and I kept thinking about one thing:
Why isn’t this establishment zero waste? Why isn’t this zoo off the grid?
Instead, the zoo was consumer heavy, waste heavy, heavy with its large carbon footprint.

I started thinking. And it got me on a few thought experiments regarding sustainability and how we should be actively moving towards being zero-waste (meaning, everything is either composted or recycled). Not just at the zoo, but it’s a great place to start.

  1. The food court.

A zero-waste dining experience isn’t novel anymore- at least, not on the west coast. You order your food, and it’s served in a cardboard bowl, with maybe a paper liner or a compostable utensil. The cups are compostable plastic. The condiments are served out of pump station, where you pick up the little origami paper cups. The napkins, matching the color of the bowls, are normally made from post-consumer recycled content.

However, the zoo features an interesting scenario: souvenir cups. The 32 oz hardy plastic cups are made to last a long time, and can be brought back time and time again for discount refills. But, I have to wonder- how many people just end up throwing theirs out at the end of the day? So, our food court can’t be entirely compostable. We need to have a recycle station as well.

I don’t think the food court should have trash cans. Instead, it should educate guests about composting and recycling. Educate people about carbon footprints. And remind them that if they have waste for the landfill, they need to find the proper bin to dispose it in.

The thing I’ve learned about sustainability is that you can’t rewire people to act differently. It’s why I still take showers and drive a gas powered car. It’s why people have lawns and air conditioning yet they also believe in climate change. People want comfort more than they want to save the world. And as a designer, I think that’s okay- it just means that we need to shift the responsibility of saving the earth from consumer to designer.

As designers, our role is to make the sustainable choice for people, so they can live their normal lives in a way that doesn’t impact the environment.

The zero-waste food court I talked about didn’t ask the consumer to modify their behavior at all, until the end of the experience when it coupled the only behavior disruption with education. When throwing food away, they suddenly have to learn what is compostable, what is recyclable, and why those are the only two options.

It yields itself to a great conversation about what compost is and how it benefits the animals and plants. Or maybe, someone could buy zoo compost on their way out (combined with fertilizer from animal waste — which other zoos do as well). There are so many cool opportunities when you literally have a menu of options to choose from.

2. The restrooms.

The restrooms at the zoo were weird to me because the urinals were waterless, there were no artificial lights, but the sinks weren’t low flow and there was no paperless option for hand drying.

A few thoughts:

  • Sinks should be sensored with low-flow faucets. This is a given since you need almost no water to wash your hands and the temperature doesn’t matter. Heck, recycle that faucet water into a planter or two.
  • Toilets should be low-flow. Or at a zoo, compostable. Because every animal poops. We just don’t have a zookeeper cleaning up our messes.
  • Hand drying should encourage people to be paperless, and the door should be accessible without touching a handle. However, it’s a bathroom and sometimes you need paper towels for more than drying your hands- so I think a paper towel station is valid, still. But there are opportunities for education in the bathroom, still. Have a special waste can for paper towels, and a smaller waste can for non-paper waste. Hey- as designers, we have to plan for surprises along the way.
  • The natural light and waterless urinals were great. But there weren’t any signs or learning opportunities which, surprisingly, just made the bathrooms feel cheap and like the zoo was trying to cut corners. Sustainable design only leads to a positive experience when the design is done well. Otherwise, it bleeds down to any other shitty design- it feels aged, cheap, and uncomfortable.

3. The Design of the Zoo

Okay, okay- this is kind of a catch all because I’m out of other ideas. But what if the Zoo had better access to public transit? A smaller parking lot, with rain gardens? Permeable pavers or porous pavement throughout the park? A water treatment plant onsite that recycled stormwater for watering the entire park? Solar panels over the entire parking lot? Having the elephants run on giant wheels to powe- yeah, I get it. Enough with the idea generation. You can see where I was going until that last idea, though.

All this to say- I’ve been wondering why I don’t do more to be zero-waste in my own life. Almost all the waste I have in my house is from packaging. Almost all the elecricity I use in my day is for either computing or air conditioning. I try to consume less, reuse more, and recycle as much as I can. But that’s not enough- I think we need to work together, as an entire team of humans, to fix the world and make it more sustainable. But until then, let’s go to the zoo.

engineer + creative + sustainability thinker. trying to reduce the noise in my life. future dog owner.

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