Detroit Zoo stops selling plastic water bottles

By: Joshua Gordon | C&G Newspapers | Published October 12, 2015


ROYAL OAK — Getting a drink of water at the Detroit Zoo won’t be as easy as buying bottled water any longer, as the zoo has made the decision to stop selling bottled water in an effort to make better environmental decisions.

Part of the zoo’s strategic plan includes sustainability efforts to guide how the zoo moves forward. While bottled water was found to be the best-selling item in the entire zoo, Manager of Sustainability Beth Wallace said zoo officials also realized that selling so many plastic bottles would make a negative impact on the environment.

Therefore, a three-year phase-out process was put in place in 2013, and the zoo was able to accomplish everything it needed by September of this year. The zoo sold its last bottled water Sept. 18.

“Nationally and globally, there are conversations about the impact of plastic on the environment, and a major contributor is our addiction to bottled water,” Wallace said. “Even if we are consuming something from a plastic bottle and have all the intentions in the world to recycle it, as a society, only (a small percentage) is recycled and the rest ends up in landfills, rivers or lakes. This is a great step to make an impact and help eliminate plastic pollution.”

Wallace said the zoo sells about 62,000 plastic bottles every year, and the zoo has replaced the bottled water option by setting up 20 refill stations and developing reusable bottles that are for sale for guests. The refill stations are spread throughout the zoo, some inside and some outside, and are a mixture between stand-alone refill stations and a combination of refill and water fountains.

Plastic water bottles were sold for $4, meaning the elimination of sales of plastic water bottles could have a budget hit of somewhere around $250,000, although Wallace said the number is not exact, as they have to factor in purchasing costs and the percentage of sales the zoo doesn’t realize.

With the reusable bottles, the zoo is selling them for $2.59, making them a better value than the plastic water bottles. They can be refilled all over the zoo, including at any concession outlet.

“We made it cheaper to get more folks on board and aware,” Wallace said. “When we first started selling them, we only sold about 1,000 annually, but we have sold 15,000 through this summer as people seem to be keen to the idea and helping us transition. People can also bring their own bottles and refill at any station.”

The three-year phase-out plan offered time for the zoo to work the change into its contract with Pepsi, which provided the bottled water, as well as make sure the infrastructure was in place for the 20 refill stations.

Gary Gochenour, the area general manager with Service Systems Associates, which helps oversee retail and grounds facility operations for the Detroit Zoo, said any kind of financial impact the zoo would see was minimal in comparison to the impact of eliminating plastic water bottles from circulation.

“There is a financial impact, but that is not very important to us because the real impact is how it is helping our green-print initiative,” Gochenour said. “Service Systems Associates is aligned with the zoo’s green-print initiative, and (we) feel it is important to help the zoo and educate employees and workers on how important sustainability is.”

Gochenour said the zoo will work on offering different programs to offset any money lost from the sales of bottled water, such as the reusable water bottles, but he said the reaction to the change has been a positive one.

“It is unbelievable how well-received the reusable water bottle has been, as we offer them at all food and beverage outlets,” he said. “We want to help educate guests and employees with positive green messaging. The value is priced right and available everywhere.”

The zoo will continue to adjust to the change through the fall and winter months with displays about the negative effect of plastic water bottles and information about the zoo’s change in policy.

“We want to make sure we are innovative and forward-thinking in environmental work,” Wallace said. “Plastic pollution is a major issue worldwide, and it is something we felt passionate about. We have very good water available, so it was an easy transition for us and something we felt we could manage.”