6 Ways the Detroit Zoo is Embracing Sustainability

From operating its restaurants with green practices to how repurposing waste, here’s how the zoo is implementing its Greenprint plan
detroit zoo - sustainability
Reusable water bottle photograph courtesy of the Detroit Zoo

While the plastic-bag ban and save-the-bee movements may be on the rise as society inches closer to embracing eco-friendly practices, sustainability is not a new concept to the Detroit Zoo. The zoo established a Green Team over 15 years ago, and since then, it has formalized its vision for a more ecologically friendly facility by making changes in areas like energy and water usage. And, this year, the zoo plans to start running completely on renewable energy generated in Michigan.

These changes are part of the Detroit Zoo’s Greenprint plan to protect animals and nature by becoming a sustainable facility. This plan has been in the works by the Detroit Zoological Society for over 10 years. “We believe that, in order to celebrate and save animals, we have to consider the habitats where they’re from,” says Rachael Handbury, the DZS Manager of Sustainability. “The animals that we are dedicated to celebrating and saving serve as the motivation and inspiration for us to create a sustainable environment.”

The Greenprint plan, which focuses on operations and projects that will move the zoo towards sustainability, has allowed the DZS to become a leader in eco-friendly practices. In 2015, the DZS was presented with the Green Award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a nonprofit organization comprised of 230 zoos and aquariums. The award declared the Detroit Zoo as the greenest zoo in America. “That was a great moment for us,” Handbury says.

Each project keeps the momentum moving towards sustainability and reducing the zoo’s carbon footprint. Here is a look at some of the plan’s biggest projects that have been implemented so far.

 Reusable Water Bottles

The movement to stop selling single-use water bottles and instead sell reusable ones was part of the zoo’s 2013 water bottle phase-out program. Part of this program involved the installation of water bottle filling stations throughout the Detroit Zoo. Plans are in the works to get rid of Gatorade bottles this year, further avoiding plastic waste pollution. “We don’t give away single-use plastic straws or single-use plastic water containers, just to divert plastic waste,” Handbury says. In its 2018 annual report, the DZS reported that, because of its efforts, 60,000 plastic bottles are kept out of the water stream, annually.

Detroit zoo - sustainability
Zoo poo photographed in front of the Anaerboic Digester. // Photograph courtesy of Jake Rapanotti

Anaerobic Digester

Launched in 2017, the zoo’s $1.2-million anaerobic digester turns nearly 500 tons of animal waste and other organic waste into compost. Excess gas is then transformed into an alternative energy source to fuel the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the zoo. “Most institutions would not even consider putting it in, because the return on investment is quite long,” Handbury says of the digester. “That’s a particular instance where we are a leader in green innovation. Although return investment is important to us, so is the green initiative.” An additional product of the anaerobic digester is Zoo Poo, an all-natural fertilizer used on the gardens and landscape throughout the Detroit Zoo.

Rainwater Solutions

Rainwater gardens and permeable pavement throughout the zoo divert rainwater from storm drains. This special pavement allows rainwater to seep through pores and reach soil, while the gardens collect rainwater for vegetation. In 2016, the pavement was also installed in one of the zoo’s larger parking lots. “In order to truly celebrate and save wildlife, we feel a responsibility to consider the habitats where the animals live, both locally and globally,” Handbury says, noting that the zoo recently installed a rain garden to divert water from its stormwater drains. Initiatives such as these prevent pollutants and litter from getting into bodies of water in the metro Detroit area, ensuring a cleaner environment for local wildlife.

Sustainable Eats

The zoo’s Arctic Cafe is three-star certified by the Green Restaurant Association, a nonprofit organization that uses science-based standards to dole out its rankings. There is a point system to determine the star rank in areas like recycling and water usage. “Every action we can do here at the DZS to reduce our carbon footprint is worth it,” says Handbury. “Each [star] level is very difficult to achieve, so we are proud of the three-star [level].”

detroit zoo - sustainability
One of the Detroit Zoo’s solar-powered Smartflowers. // Photograph courtesy of Jake Rapanotti

Solar Energy

The zoo’s Smartflower system is made up of 12 solar panels that mimic petals and, with the help of a GPS tracker, follow the sun at an optimal angle as it crosses the sky. The solar-paneled Smartflower generates over 4,000 kilowatts of energy annually that help the zoo minimize its ecological footprint. When the sun isn’t shining, the petals close to store the excess energy. According to Handbury, the Smartflower can generate 40% more energy compared to traditional solar panel systems. She also says that the Smartflower converts enough energy daily to run an electric car for 62 miles, wash 17 loads of laundry, or run three air conditioning units.


With the Greenprint plan, the goal is to educate visitors so they understand that small, actionable goals really do make a difference over time. On its website, the DZS lists various ways to be more eco-conscious, categorized by shades of green (tadpole green to evergreen). Tadpole green is as simple as switching off the lights when they’re not needed, while evergreen involves actions like growing your own fruits or vegetables at home. “Zoos and aquariums are becoming the voice of sustainability,” Handbury says. “That’s where people go to learn about green initiatives and what they can do at home. We feel there’s a lot of value in educating the guests who come through the zoo.”