John Ball Zoo takes holistic approach to sustainability


John Ball Zoo Courtesy John Ball Zoo

In addition to participating in field conservation projects and a cooperative species survival plan, the team at John Ball Zoo engages daily in caring for its environment and natural resources as part of its overall sustainability strategy.

Allmon Forrester — director of facilities, planning and sustainability at the nonprofit zoo, which is a property of Kent County — recently spoke to the Business Journal about the organization’s efforts to engage visitors and the wider community in the work of conservation.

According to a fact sheet on its website, John Ball Zoo is located in a 103-acre park, of which it occupies about 31 acres. The zoo — which houses over 2,220 individual animals across 213 species — receives about 500,000 visitors annually and has about a $40 million annual impact on the community as the fourth-most attended cultural facility in Michigan.

The zoo estimates it reaches about 700,000 people annually with its wildlife and conservation messages, which is part of why it’s so important that the zoo does sustainability well, Forrester said.

As an accredited organization with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, John Ball Zoo participates in about 34 different cooperative breeding/species survival plans, and it also sends zoo keepers throughout Michigan to do field conservation projects that help native species such as the Kirtland’s warbler, piping plover, Massasauga rattlesnake and wood turtle, which are all either declining in numbers or on the endangered list.

In addition to these efforts geared toward the protection of wildlife, John Ball Zoo is active in educating guests and forging good business practices in the areas of sustainable waste management; increasing the amount of vegetation on site via green roofs, living walls and planting trees; harnessing renewable resources for heating and cooling to reduce its carbon footprint; conserving water through stormwater management; and participating in green construction programs such as SITES certification from the U.S. Green Building Council and the Living Building Challenge Petal certification through the International Living Future Institute (ILFI).

Waste management

Forrester said the zoo is well on its way to achieving its future zero-waste goal with an 80% waste diversion rate from landfills and incinerators. The zoo recycles cardboard, cans, paper, plastic, light bulbs, cellphones and ink cartridges, and it composts animal waste, animal bedding, leaves, food waste and the compostable dinnerware it uses in its concessions stands.

“Part of our success with our diversion rate is from how the community helps support us because if Kent County did not have a great, robust commingled recycling program, and the city didn’t offer services along that route, too, to help us with that, we could not be as successful,” Forrester said.

He said when it comes to sustainability, though, it’s important to go deeper than just recycling.

Living walls, roofs and tree planting

John Ball Zoo is located on a fairly hilly site, with a 108-foot elevation change from the parking lot to the highest point inside the zoo, which is why vegetated, or living, walls are an essential tool to help with soil retention, Forrester said.

Living walls — and green roofs and trees — also help mitigate air pollution by capturing carbon and converting it to oxygen through photosynthesis.

Forrester said the zoo currently has six buildings that have either full or partial green roofs, which helps with insulation and stormwater runoff, boosts the zoo’s aesthetics and provides microclimates for butterflies, other insects and ground-nesting birds.

Additionally, in the past eight years, the zoo has increased its tree canopy by planting over 185 trees on its campus.

Heating and cooling

The zoo uses geothermal wells — which capture heat from the ground in the winter and deposit warm air into the soil in summer — to supplement its electrical heating and cooling system, which provides about 30% to 60% energy savings on heating and 25% to 50% energy savings on cooling.

In addition, the campus uses energy recovery ventilation (ERV) units to exchange and treat the air, which is especially helpful in animal habitats such as tiger buildings, which have to be refreshed eight times per hour and replaced with air at the right temperature for the animals’ bodies. ERVs reduce the energy load during that process.

Water conservation

Back in 2002, when Forrester still was fairly new to the zoo, the campus was using 83 million gallons of water per year, and it has since reduced its consumption to about 20 million gallons per year.

Since 2012, the campus has used leaching basins in its stormwater management system, which prevent the water from light rains from entering the stormwater system by leaching it into the ground, only diverting the water from heavy rains into the storm pipe, where it is then run through a stormwater separator system to filter out sediment, oil and debris before much of it is returned to the zoo’s pond out front. In this way, the zoo is equipped to manage “hundred-year rain events,” Forrester said.

Altogether, 85% of all stormwater in the zoo is cleaned up before it leaves the site or reused or stored, which Forrester said is essential because with rising water levels in Michigan, it’s important not to flood the system and contribute to the problem.

Forrester added there are some areas in the zoo that are so sandy that they don’t need to be connected to the stormwater system at all, including the zoo’s tree house event venue, where the runoff is all absorbed into the soil.

“We’re trying to be good neighbors to the folks around us and good neighbors to (those who are) all the way down to the Grand River and out to the lake,” he said.

Green building

Lately, the zoo has been focusing on third-party certifications to ensure sustainable new construction. This goes beyond Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification — which is more suited to office buildings rather than animal habitats, Forrester said — although many buildings at the zoo do meet the minimum LEED requirements.

John Ball Zoo has engaged Catalyst Partners to help it achieve SITES Certification, which is a “daughter” program of LEED and helps organizations sustainably construct and manage buildings in natural settings and/or outdoor recreation and nature areas to protect ecosystems and promote climate regulation, carbon storage and flood mitigation.

Forrester said the zoo’s new meerkat exhibit, which is under construction and will be finished by the start of the 2020 season in April, is being built to SITES Certification standards.

The zoo also will be working toward Petal Certification through the Living Building Challenge (LBC) in several planned animal exhibits. Forrester referred to LBC as “LEED Platinum on steroids.”

“LEED has an overall feeling and thinking of, ‘Let’s do less harm,’ and Living Building Challenge says, ‘Let’s be restorative. Let’s try to repair the damage versus do less harm,’” he said.

Petal Certification is awarded if a project achieves at least three out of seven “petals,” which are a set of standards for materials, site, water, energy, health, equity and beauty.

A project must demonstrate through an audit compliant performance for 12 consecutive months in order to receive the certification.

Forrester said he believes the zoo is a leader in the sustainability space and will continue to be.

“Since we’ve been talking about doing the LBC, there have been some other folks in the community talking about pursuing it as well,” he said, “so that’s a great thing, to have people start looking at it, and I just hope we keep moving forward in that area.”

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