Sustainable Practices for Zoological Veterinary Medicine

Chapter 12 Sustainable Practices for Zoological Veterinary Medicine

Habitat loss, degradation of air and water resources, and global climate change all threaten the ecosystems we depend on and the health that we seek to protect. In veterinary medicine and in ecosystem health, the priority rule has long been to first do no harm. As environmental impacts grow in severity, it has become imperative that veterinary medicine apply this principle to reduce our own impact on how we build and operate veterinary facilities and how we offer leadership and education in our communities.

Veterinarians have a strong appreciation for the link between environment and health; many of the diseases and problems we work on are rooted in the environment of our patients. In the zoo setting, environmental awareness is further heightened through a commitment to conservation. The zoo community is increasingly calling for the need to preserve ecosystem health and seek sustainable solutions that protect wildlife and wild places, but is also looking for ways to adopt green practices within their own institutions. This was recently demonstrated by the launch of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) climate initiative3 and the formation of the AZA Green Scientific Advisory Group. The zoo can strengthen its mission to educate the public toward conservation and protection of biodiversity by adopting sustainable practices in their own operations and serving as a model in their own communities.

Medical practice, human and veterinary, has a significant environmental impact through its buildings and grounds, use of disposable products and hazardous chemicals (including drugs), and energy-intensive technologies. Fortunately, opportunities exist for reducing a veterinary hospital clinic’s environmental footprint, ranging from greening an existing facility to starting from the ground up. Targeted improvements can be made by the following:

This chapter will introduce some basic approaches for reducing the environmental footprint of a zoo hospital, from everyday routines to operations management to green buildings. At the end of the chapter, two green zoo hospitals are noted as examples of what can be done.

Strategies for Environmentally Responsible Veterinary Practice

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

The mantra to reduce, reuse, recycle wherever possible, can form the foundation for greening veterinary practice. The greatest impact can be achieved through the first approach, reduce. Reducing consumption of goods and resources and reducing waste not only produces significant environmental benefits, but also provides obvious economic advantages.



By reducing consumption of a given product, the following will automatically be decreased:

Consumption should be reduced by systematically evaluating what the veterinary clinic uses. One way to identify excessive consumption involves conducting a trash audit that documents everything that leaves the clinic, both in the trash and recycling, and identifying where needless waste is occurring. This will reveal sensible institutional choices that encourage buying less and using more reusable products. The process can be repeated once a year to document progress or identify new items to focus on.

In most cases, shipping and packaging materials make up most of the solid waste found in a trash audit, such as cardboard, plastic wrap, and polystyrene peanuts or forms. Reducing packaging can be a challenge, but can be addressed from several angles. Buying frequently used items in bulk and reusing packaging for subsequent shipments are two options. Another option is to pressure suppliers to use less packaging or at least use environmentally friendly packing materials for shipment of their products, such as recyclable air-filled plastic bags, 100% recycled cardboard boxes and molded forms, shredded paper, newspaper, or cornstarch peanuts instead of polystyrene. In some cases, distributors will take their packaging back to reuse for other customers. If they need help, refer them to the Sustainable Packaging Coalition.14


Reducing water usage is a key area to address. Most international experts believe that a global water shortage will rapidly become one of the most serious issues facing our planet. The world water crisis will affect the availability of clean drinkable water (affecting health directly), water for irrigation in agriculture (affecting our food supply), and water to sustain natural ecosystems everywhere. Americans consume more water per capita than any other nation16 and take for granted our ready and seemingly unlimited sources of fresh water right out of the tap. Because global climate change will affect water quality and availability, unconscious overconsumption must be corrected through technology, policy, and individual choices and actions.

In a veterinary practice, using water-efficient washing machines and dishwashers,20 low-flow toilets, and taking care not to leave faucets and hoses running are a good place to start. Installing a water catchment system on the clinic roof that delivers water into barrels for landscaping and hosing down outdoor areas is another fairly simple option. Reducing water consumption will also decrease the water bill, water heating bill, and resulting waste water or sewer bills.


Reducing energy use and switching to renewable energy sources is another important strategy to address. Simple actions such as turning off lights, using more efficient Energy Star–rated appliances and electrical devices, disconnecting standby settings, lowering or raising the thermostat a few degrees, replacing or insulating windows and doors, purchasing green power,16 and encouraging staff to bike or walk to work all have obvious benefits, from decreasing the negative impacts of fossil fuel–dependent energy systems (e.g., oil extraction and oil spills, costly delivery) to keeping down costs in an escalating market. At the outset, building a new clinic with energy conservation in mind is the best way to maximize energy efficiency, but retrofitting existing buildings is effective and worthwhile.


Reducing waste is a key strategy to a more environmentally responsible veterinary practice and is achieved by reducing consumption of materials (see earlier). It also means carefully selecting materials that must end up in the waste or recycling stream, and making sure that waste is properly taken care of after it leaves the hospital. Medical solid waste is dumped in a landfill or incinerated. In the landfill, there are issues with land use, soil contamination from chemicals and heavy metals, and runoff or groundwater contamination that threatens water supply and freshwater ecosystems. Medical waste constitutes one of the leading sources of dioxin, mercury, lead, and other pollutants that end up in the environment from incineration,7,18 and incineration requires significant energy to burn the trash.

Over 6600 tons of waste are generated daily by American hospitals, but only about 15% of that waste is considered hazardous.11 Biohazardous waste is expensive to handle, so careful disposal of hazardous materials, including drugs, will result in significant savings. Drugs that are poured down the drain and enter the sewer or municipal water system may not be removed by water treatment systems and have been documented in natural bodies of water. The American Veterinary Medical Association has developed best management practices for pharmaceutical disposal.2 Although the contribution to medical waste from zoo veterinary hospitals is not significant compared with the human health care industry, veterinary practices nationwide should play a role in providing sustainable health care.


Options to reuse materials in a veterinary hospital setting can be challenging, especially because we are often dealing with hazardous waste and infectious organisms. The strategy in this case is to look for reusable substitutes for disposable items that never become contaminated or that can be sterilized before reuse. In some cases, it may appear that disposable items are less expensive than reusable ones, but this may not be true after factoring in the hidden costs beyond the purchase price for these items including disposal cost and packaging, occupational health cost, liability cost, environmental consequences, and warehouse cost. Common and inexpensive (or free) reusable items to seek out include newspaper bedding, stainless steel food and water bowls, refillable spray bottles and squirt bottles and other refillable products, and reusable staff kitchen materials.

Certain mildly soiled items can be resterilized, such as syringes and surgical instruments. Reusing items that need some processing, must take into account the added costs of labor to clean, repackage, and resterilize the product, as well as the environmental costs of water and energy used in processing. In addition, some forms of chemical sterilization used to resterilize materials are actually harmful to human health (e.g., glutaraldehyde, ethylene oxide).

Switching to cloth drapes, linens, and gowns may be preferable to using polyester single-use products because cloth is more absorbent and more comfortable. Some manufacturers are now marketing organic cotton gowns, which reduce the environmental impacts of growing cotton.


Recycling saves energy, water, and natural resources. The more we recycle, the less impact is also felt from extraction and manufacturing but, if efforts are initially made to reduce and reuse, then there will be even less to recycle. Recycling does involve some energy to transport and handle the materials and may also use water to clean materials. Not everything is recyclable, because commercialized recycling is dependent on a viable market for the recycled product. These markets are growing and making an effort to buy as many recycled products as possible will help build and sustain new markets.

Usually, recycling requires some cooperation and retraining from your staff. Items may have to be sorted to comply with recycler needs, or different items may be handled by different vendors or recyclers. Make it as easy as possible for staff to comply with recycling requirements. Involve them in deciding where to place collection bins and make it very clear what can and cannot be recycled with the use of appropriate signage. Provide multiple convenient receptacles wherever possible. Some suggestions to facilitate good recycling compliance include the following:

Make Good Product Choices

There is a wide range of medical products that a veterinary practice uses in daily activities. Careful evaluation of these products can lead to more responsible choices that decrease the environmental footprint of the practice and help push the manufacturing and distribution stream to be more environmentally friendly. There are resources to help select products and follow principles of environmentally preferable purchasing. Some resources are listed at the end of this chapter, with additional information at,6 based on research conducted at the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

Products should be evaluated based on a number of criteria, including the principles of reduce, reuse, and recycle, but should also take a cradle to cradle9 or life cycle assessment17 view to appreciate their impact and cost to the environment fully.

In conducting research on any specific product, the following questions should be asked:

It is important to determine the composition of the product to assess whether the manufacture and disposal of that item would present a problem. In many cases, reading the label or reviewing the product’s website will provide this information. However, in some cases a special request to the manufacturer will have to be pursued. For example, a plastic-type product made of vinyl or polyvinylchloride (PVC) involves the production of dioxin and other persistent organic pollutants during manufacture and disposal (incineration). PVC-based products also often include plasticizers to make the item soft and pliable, but these are also harmful to the environment and health because they contain phthalates, which are potent endocrine disruptors. A consequence of this analysis would be to avoid products made from PVC and seek out more environmentally friendly plastics, such as polypropylene. In some cases, items can be resterilized and reused. This has obvious benefits in product supply savings and from the standpoint of production and disposal of less waste.

Product assessment is not as difficult as it appears. Most medical products are made of similar materials, and they can often be evaluated quickly and simply by knowing the positive and negative attributes of the basic materials used in these products. See Box 12-1 and refer to GreenVetPractice6 for analysis and recommendations for alternatives to common products used in veterinary practice.

Aug 27, 2016 | Posted by in EXOTIC, WILD, ZOO | Comments Off on Sustainable Practices for Zoological Veterinary Medicine

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