A Green Business Network Member Spotlight
Get to know a fellow Green Business Network member – the Kansas City Zoo. Last month, we visited with Stacia Pieroni, Conservation Manager, to learn more about the zoo’s sustainability efforts and her own passion for inspiring change.
Averaging nearly one million visitors a year and with roughly 250 staff year-round (more than 500 during peak season), the Kansas City Zoo engages many people in conservation efforts to protect wildlife and care for the environment. something it’s been committed to over its 111-year history.
In 2017, the zoo created its first-ever Conservation Manager position, a job dedicated solely to overseeing the zoo’s conservation and sustainability efforts in daily operations and throughout the world. The zoo named Stacia Pieroni, an Animal Area Manager with the zoo for 11 years, to the position and she, along with a dedicated group of zoo staff serving on the green team, has been making significant strides ever since.
Pieroni says her first task as Conservation Manager was revitalizing the green team which until then was primarily grassroots. She reached out to other zoos and aquariums to find out what was working well for others and began building a more formal team, inviting but not requiring participation from every department within the zoo.
“While I would really like for every department to be represented, I decided I wasn’t going to make each department pick a representative. You can make someone come to the meetings, but if they don’t have an interest, it’s a waste of everyone’s time. So, I tried to get everyone excited about it, but didn’t require it. My only rule is that if we are brainstorming an idea that involves a department that doesn’t have a representative, then we ask the director to come sit in or nominate someone to attend just for those couple of meetings. We don’t want to be making decisions when we don’t know the whole background.”
Pieroni says the new green team decided from the beginning that they wanted to focus on action, and they accomplished a lot in the year first year. The team is made up of roughly 15 to 25 members at any given time and meets monthly.
“We did a ton of things in the beginning. We really went back to the basics and formalized some of the processes we were already doing.”
Pieroni says early activities included the creation of a comprehensive zoo wide recycling guide, outlining all things about the zoo’s recycling program for employees, from where collection bins are located and what’s accepted all the way to how and where collected items go once they leave the zoo.
“We also included what we don’t recycle at the zoo, because we found that some things were being collected that weren’t actually going anywhere.”
Other initiatives included a Winter Energy Challenge, a formal no-idling policy shared with both staff and contractors, and reusable cups given to new employees at orientation.
“We went after a lot of low-hanging fruit, because we wanted people to see that we were taking action. It really changed the green team and helped change the zoo’s culture. Also, it has been huge having someone that is the point person. Most of the changes we have made here at the Zoo happened because someone knew who to email when they had an idea, or they noticed something needing addressed.”
Even though the team doesn’t have an official budget for green improvements, Pieroni says it’s important to still have a plan in place for larger projects.
“A few years back I wanted to add refill stations to all our water fountains, but we didn’t have a budget available. I did the work anyways to figure out how many fountains we had and how much it would cost. Then, at the end of the year, there happened to be available funds at the last minute. They came to me and asked if I had a project we could do quickly, and since I’d done the work already, I was able to give them the information they needed and got a yes for the project in 24 hours. Now every water fountain has a refill station.”
The team has also focused on action items that benefit employees directly. They conduct an annual tire pressure check for staff’s personal vehicles, helping staff save money and operate their cars more efficiently, and they make participation easy.
“All they have to do is put a windshield wiper up on their car to let us know they want their tires checked on the day of the event. We check their tire pressure, leave a card on their windshield with the results and remind them to look in their door to see what their vehicle’s specific tire pressure should be – not to go off what the tire says,” says Pieroni.
She says they’ve also focused on initiatives that intersect with the more than 950,000 visitors the zoo sees on average annually. With an already strong recycling program, the zoo worked with Mid-America Regional Council to evaluate its public waste stream, completing an audit, adding new recycling bins to bring the trash to recycling ratio to a 1:1, and changing signage on all trash cans to read “landfill.” Pieroni notes that it’s difficult to control the waste stream in public areas at the zoo since visitors can bring in their own food and beverages. But, she says, they try to control things where they can, such as only providing drink lids and straws on request at their food and beverage concessions.
“My hope is that it just gets people thinking. Our staff is prepared to talk to them about why we do this and about limiting single-use plastics in general. We’re committed to being a leader in the community and walk the walk, so it’s something I’m really proud of.”
The Zoo’s sustainability efforts aren’t confined to their 202 acres nestled in Swope Park. Part of the zoo’s work includes conservation efforts worldwide, and Pieroni says she feels blessed to be a part of it.
“We work all over the world. Before I was in this position, I started a habitat restoration project in Borneo, Malaysia. It was an incredible experience. In the first 20 minutes I was there, I probably saw more animals than I’d seen before in my lifetime. Being able to plant trees in Borneo for animals I care about – I was working with orangutans at the time – and being able to give back, was amazing. I’m very thankful that conservation work is at the forefront of the zoo’s mission.”
Even with all they’ve accomplished, Pieroni says there’s much more to do. One big focus is planning for continued energy efficiency improvements. The zoo just completed a large HVAC overhaul with more energy-efficient equipment in its front administration and education buildings. Utilizing rebates offered through Evergy, the zoo anticipates the upgrades will provide a nice financial return in energy savings, and that’s something Pieroni wants to explore for other buildings throughout the zoo as well. The first step, though, will be getting a better idea of each building’s energy use. While the zoo was closed due to COVID-19, she took the opportunity to locate all the zoo’s 65 electrical meters and map out which buildings they service.
“We’re a very large campus with 85 to 90 buildings, and our meters were named a long time ago when things looked a lot different than they do now, so we don’t know exactly what buildings are on each meter. Right now, when we look at our energy bill, we might see that maybe the polar bear building is using a lot of energy – but what if there are also four other buildings that are on that meter that we don’t realize? It’s so important to spend the time analyzing this so we know exactly what’s going on.”
What advice does she give other businesses just starting out?
“I would say that while some sustainability efforts do cost money, there’s so many things you can do that don’t. Our green team doesn’t have a budget, but we’ve been able to do so much going after low-hanging fruit, and we see the culture is changing. We’re getting people to actively think about sustainability, and it’s easier to get everyone on board when something bigger comes up – like the refill stations and the HVAC upgrades.”
Pieroni says the Green Business Network has helped her gain ideas. She signed the zoo up as a member in 2017.
“I joined GBN because sustainability is not my background, and I wanted to network and learn with other people in similar roles throughout the city. I’ve gotten so many ideas and so much advice from people. It’s awesome. I remember specifically attending a zero-waste event at Boulevard. I actually formed a lot of new relationships at that event.”
Even though sustainability is not her background, Pieroni says she feels like she’s been preparing for this role her whole life. She knew she wanted to be zookeeper since she was five years old. She obtained a degree in psychology for behavior and training, and started her career working with marine animals before working at a zoo. Although she never imagined she would be a conservation/sustainability manager, she acknowledges it’s the perfect fit.
“I’m most passionate about encouraging change for the better. I really care about wildlife and their habitats. If we don’t take care of the environment that the animals and plants live in, there won’t be any animals to be in love with. I want my kids to be able to experience this world like I have, and hopefully even more so.”