In practice: Edinburgh Zoo's behaviour change drive to increase recycling

Attracting more than half a million visitors each year, Edinburgh Zoo has a significant opportunity to engage consumers on sustainability at a large scale. Here, edie charts an award-winning behaviour change drive which has helped the attraction divert 98% of its waste away from landfill.

The engagement drive means that, as of 2016, 98% of Edinburgh's waste is diverted from landfill - a “huge increase” on 2015 levels

The engagement drive means that, as of 2016, 98% of Edinburgh's waste is diverted from landfill - a “huge increase” on 2015 levels

The challenge

Owned by conservation charity the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), Edinburgh Zoo has had to tailor its operations to promote the ideologies of the charity. The Zoo’s mission statement is to “inspire and excite our visitors with the wonder of living animals and so to promote the conservation of threatened species and habitats”. To achieve this mission, the Zoo has implemented an all-encompassing sustainability strategy across its 82-acre site.

An emphasis was initially placed on compliance and encouraging best-practice. For instance, the Zoo achieved the ISO 14001 standards and called on all of its retail outlets to use biodegradable cutlery. However, the organisation quickly realised that the transition to a circular economy ultimately hinges on the willingness of its visitors to correctly dispose of waste while onsite.

But with more than 570,000 people visiting the attraction in 2016 - many of whom have brought their own food and drink and are busy focusing on the animals around the Zoo - it is clear this is a significant behaviour change challenge.

The solution

Effective communication and messaging holds the key to driving behaviour change like this at scale. Edinbugh Zoo therefore developed a comprehensive communications plan in an effort to engage visitors on how to correctly recycle waste and live more sustainably.

While visitors had no problem putting their waste into the recycling bins, confusion remained about what types of waste were being placed into different compartments. At least six recycling bins can be accessed outside of buildings, but clear messaging has since been added to drive awareness and understanding on how waste should be disposed.

Clearer communication on how to dispose waste has been matched by signage that tells visitors that cups and food packaging is composted onsite, which has helped raise awareness amongst visitors of the initiatives that the Zoo has tried to champion. The Zoo built new areas specifically designed for composting organic waste, which is then used onsite or distributed to local firms for growing use.

Much of the items composted onsite come from retail outlets at the Zoo. The attraction’s catering partner Compass ensures that retailers use Vegware cups and cutlery. The Vegware items are plant-based, bio-degradable and use 72% less carbon than plastic counterparts.

Messages were also relayed to encourage travelling by public transport, recycling plastic bottles and drink cans and purchasing Fairtrade items at the Zoo.

The behaviour change drive goes beyond onsite signage. Edinburgh Zoo’s website has been updated to offer “green tips” that can be carried out both at home and at the Zoo. The Zoo has also called on visitors to send in items, ranging from blankets to cardboard boxes, so they can be used as enrichment devices for animals instead of being thrown away. For example, Edinburgh Zoo uses cardboard egg trays before they are recycled to house crickets. Cardboard boxes, paper bags and other items are used for entertainment for the animals and zoo keepers re-use eucalyptus leaves for chimpanzee bedding after the koalas have eaten the tips.

The green tips website explains that the Zoo has access to an intranet area where staff can swap and exchange items instead of discarding them. The site also explains that all the coffee used in the zoo is Fairtrade and that wood is re-used instead of buying it in new.

The results

The engagement drive means that, as of 2016, 98% of Edinburgh's waste is diverted from landfill - a “huge increase” on 2015 levels. Thanks to the widespread use of recycled materials and a focus on sustainability, the Zoo has managed to divert 80 tonnes of waste away from landfill in the past year. As part of the communications drive, the Zoo translates waste collection to make it comparable to the weight of the rhinos on show in the Zoo. Although the Zoo acknowledge that measuring the success of the initiative can’t be based solely on recycling rates, it does weigh the public bin bags to monitor if the signage is leading to waste being discarded correctly.

The campaign also saw Edinburgh Zoo achieve a 'Gold' Green Tourism award in June 2017. Green Tourism is the world’s largest sustainable certification programme of its kind, and partners to more than 2,000 accommodation providers and attractions in the UK and abroad that are promoting sustainable practices. The Gold award was given to the Zoo after assessors inspected the site to see how all aspects of sustainability, including waste management, were relayed to visitors through messages and communications. This meant that the visitor-facing awareness drive couldn’t just be limited to recycling.

Additional benefits

In the past year alone, Edinburgh Zoo saved 669kg of carbon, 1.1 tonnes of virgin material and diverted 5.2 tonnes of waste from landfill through the use of the Vegware cups and cutlery (as part of the communications ethos at the Zoo, these facts are shared to the public and translated to show that using Vegware is the equivalent to cancelling out the carbon from eight flights from Edinburgh to London).

Edinburgh Zoo’s Grasslands Restaurant, operated by Levy Restaurants UK, was also recognised for enhancing its food offer by meeting ethical standards on nutrition, sustainability and animal welfare. The restaurant was awarded Bronze from the Soil Association’s Food for Life Served Here award.

Edinburgh Zoo also now offers visitors the chance to contribute to conversation projects, backed by RZSS, across the globe. For example, money spent on chimpanzee badges or magazines in the Zoo’s Budongo Trail is sent to aid the Budongo Conservation Field Station in Uganda.

Staff involvement

The attraction has always been keen to ensure its staff are on-board with its sustainability strategy. Indeed, staff understanding was key to the successful implementation of the ISO 14001 standard.

The Zoo has established two teams, comprising of staff members across a range of occupations, to deliver and communicate on certain sustainability initiatives.

The Action Plan Environment (APE) team consists of 15 members across the Zoo’s staff to help translate sustainability both internally and externally. The APE team meets once a month to discuss improvements, with a particular focus on waste. The APE team was influential in developing the new signage, which has helped boost recycling rates amongst visitors. Meanwhile, the 'APE Vine' is a team of seven that issues monthly newsletters to encourage internal behaviour change to improve recycling.

Meanwhile, Sustainability and Waste Awareness Training was completed for 90% of catering staff, who continue to monitor waste levels and feed information back to the APE Team.

Cost savings

While figures aren’t publicly available for the cost savings of recycling, other initiatives at the Zoo has highlighted the economic benefits of the action plan.

Sustainability consultant Mabbett oversaw numerous trials at the Zoo to examine cost savings relating to energy efficiency. For example, changing heat controls has created £100,000 in cost savings annually. Trials were conducted in the Budongo Trail, which resulted in a 24% reduction in the heating bill, without issuing any capital spend. Replicating this across the Zoo generated the £100,000 savings.

Additionally, “Night at the Zoo” switch-off campaigns – whereby all non-essential electrical equipment was turned off – generated a minimum of £20,000 in savings once it was expanded all-year round.

Looking ahead

Edinburgh Zoo is beginning to focus on future sustainability trends and technologies, such as electric vehicles, to drive the sustainability agenda further.

The Zoo has a long-standing partnership with the Energy Saving Trust, which has already educated around 30 staff members on fuel efficiency when using vehicles. As Climate Week (18-22 September) approaches, the Zoo will turn its focus to its fleet, with an emphasis on fuel efficiency.

In fact, Climate Week will be spent educating visitors on green building techniques. Using the Tiger Tracks enclosure as inspiration, staff will inform visitors how LED lighting, water harvesting and tree planting can reduce carbon footprints. The Tiger Track is fitted with LEDs, FSC-certified timber, water harvesting butts and recycled content.

Electric vehicles are being explored, although no plans are currently in place to purchase any. A hybrid vehicle is used by staff to travel to the Zoo’s sister park, the Highland Wildlife Park, or within the community. The Zoo’s carpark is also fitted with two charging points for electric vehicles, open 24 hours a day and free of charge for visitors.

Edinburgh Zoo will also focus on building on the green policy at the Highland Wildlife Park, in an attempt to mirror the success that the Zoo has generated.

Matt Mace


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