Partnership to Prune Plastic

How the Monterey Bay Aquarium and SSA partnered to deliver sustainability solutions.

November 1, 2019 | Zoos & AquariumsSustainability, Retail and MerchandiseIAAPA North America

by Kera Abraham Panni, Senior Outreach Manager, Conservation and Science, Monterey Bay Aquarium

Andrew Fischer, Vice President of Sustainability and Conservation, SSA

Ken Peterson, Senior Communications Strategist, Monterey Bay Aquarium

Claudia P. Tibbs, Conservation and Science Planning and Operations Manager, Monterey Bay Aquarium

At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, sustainability is a priority. Our mission, after all, is to inspire conservation of the ocean—and we’re as much a conservation organization as an attraction. Outside the aquarium’s walls in Monterey, California, our team works to address the impacts of industrial-scale overfishing, the growing burden of plastic pollution in the ocean, and the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change.

We feel it’s imperative that we apply sustainable practices to our business operations—walking our talk—as we run a world-class aquarium that welcomes almost two million visitors every year. Our vision is to integrate sustainability into all aspects of the way we design, build, and operate the aquarium, and serve as a role model for our guests and other businesses.

For the past 20 years, we’ve promoted ocean-friendly fishing and aquaculture practices through our Seafood Watch program. More recently we’ve eliminated almost all the single-use plastic in our culinary operations, and we’re making strides to reduce plastic packaging in our retail shops.

Since 2017, we’ve been a certified Carbon Neutral organization, offsetting our direct and indirect carbon emissions (including our staff and volunteer commutes) with high-quality carbon credits. The aquarium’s goal is to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2025.

Reusable bags can generate revenue for attractions, save money, and start conversations about sustainability among guests and staff. (Photo credit: Monterey Bay Aquarium)

We’re fortunate to work with a retail and culinary partner who shares our commitment. Denver-based SSA is a family-owned and operated company, founded almost 50 years ago, that partners with approximately 60 cultural attractions across the United States and serves approximately 40 million visitors each year. SSA became the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s retail partner more than 15 years ago and began serving as our culinary operator in 2015.

SSA has placed a growing focus on sustainability and conservation efforts, while expanding their efforts company-wide. Its goal is to eliminate single-use plastic bags and straws by 2020, and to continue working with its client properties to reduce single-use bottles significantly by 2025.

A Moment of Change

The watershed moment in its single-use plastic packaging evolution occurred in early 2016, with a conversation in the children’s store at the Monterey Bay Aquarium between Kera Abraham Panni, now senior outreach manager for the aquarium’s conservation and science team, and Andrew Fischer, now SSA’s vice president of sustainability and conservation.

As they stood in front of a wall of children’s merchandise packaged in plastic, Abraham Panni—who had visited the facility with her two young children before joining the staff—felt a visceral disconnect in a place that focuses on ocean conservation.

“After learning about plastic pollution in the aquarium’s exhibitions and programs, this wasn’t what I expected to see in the gift shop,” she says. “We’ve got to figure out how to cut back on this unnecessary plastic.”

Fischer agreed that SSA had both a responsibility and an opportunity to be the vehicle of change—not only in Monterey but within the wider zoo and aquarium community. He realized that change was coming—and SSA would need to get ahead of it to maintain its clients’ loyalty and respect.


A conversation in the children’s store at the Monterey Bay Aquarium led to an evaluation of merchandise packaged in plastic and eventually new packaging with several changes. (Photo credit: Monterey Bay Aquarium)

“My conversation with Kera was a turning point on our path to shaking up the toy industry that supplies our cultural attractions,” Fischer says. “We took her concerns seriously and realized that we had to start more substantial conversations with our vendors to find solutions, not just excuses.”

From that small moment, a company-wide movement blossomed—one that is spreading to SSA clients across the nation. While there have been challenges, there’s also steady progress. It’s an example of what other attractions and operators can achieve.

An additional driver for SSA was the formation of the nationwide Aquarium Conservation Partnership (ACP), a movement championed by Monterey Bay Aquarium that now involves 20 U.S. aquariums. A primary goal of ACP members is to leverage their purchasing and outreach power to reduce the sources of ocean and freshwater plastic pollution. In collaboration with the aquarium, SSA embarked on methodically changing its own business practices—and those of its suppliers.

Steps for Change

First, the SSA team initiated a plastic packaging audit. They categorized retail items to better understand the variety and amount of packaging used by vendors.

Fischer and SSA Sustainability Coordinator Bryce Leo reviewed more than 4,000 SKUs and identified two vendors to focus on first: Wild Republic, a top national SSA vendor for toys and plush, and LaserGifts, which supplies personalized wooden name pens.

“We knew if we could partner with these companies to change their packaging, we could get the ball rolling so other vendors would shift as well,” Fischer says.

SSA’s national vice president of merchandise, Jacki Sorvillo, joined with Fischer and the Monterey buying team to work directly with a Wild Republic packaging designer. A Monterey Bay Aquarium expert provided the group with sobering information about the plastic pollution problem, including its global scale, accelerating pace, and devastating impacts on ocean wildlife. This open dialog was critical to the project’s success.


“We challenged Wild Republic to come up with viable solutions for our SSA Quest line of toys,” Sorvillo says. “We were patient while they worked through significant product development and testing.”

The new packaging debuted in late 2017 with several changes. It decreased or eliminated plastic windows, blister packs, and single-use containers. In addition, they transitioned to more open and tactile boxes for children to engage with. Wild Republic also shifted from one-time product-shipping containers to reusable packaging and incorporated more recycled content into its new packaging.

The Quest product line SSA helped transform grew to more than 35 Wild Republic items available at all SSA zoo and aquarium retail accounts. Since 2017, this represents sales of more than 250,000 units, reducing close to 20,000 pounds of single-use plastic. Sales results are solid: most items have seen a substantial increase over previous figures.

The Results in Retail

A key goal of this program was to bring these changes to the attraction industry internationally. SSA encouraged Wild Republic to offer this new packaging to other operators, with the hope that its leadership will lead to an exponential impact within the global attractions industry.

LaserGifts eliminated the plastic sheath covering pens, keeping just a small plastic holder to keep them secure. photo credit: Monterey Bay Aquarium. (Photo credit: Monterey Bay Aquarium)

“Once the shift started with Wild Republic, the conversation with other vendors had more weight,” Sorvillo says. “We illustrated it could be done successfully with a positive ROI.”

Initially, concerns grew that the revised product development process would be expensive, and Wild Republic may face higher costs for materials and labor. Other concerns included losing product integrity in shipping, or experiencing higher product losses with less packaging. The results show a minimal loss and, with increased distribution nationally, production costs have decreased.

In the case of LaserGifts, which sold 345 different pens featuring first names printed on them to SSA—each in its own plastic sheath—the process involved a constructive dialog, patience, and persistence over a 10-month period. LaserGifts eliminated the plastic sheath, retaining only a small plastic holder to keep the pen secure (retaining less than 0.1% of the plastic). Even better, from the standpoint of both vendor and retailer, sales of the pens are on the rise with the Aquarium Store enjoying a consistent sales increase, following an initial 27% jump, which easily compensates for any increased production or labor costs.

“Our guests can hold the pens and see the quality of the design,” Fischer says. “It makes sense that we would see higher sales.”

Dining Delivers

Reducing waste from the start is one of SSA’s three core sustainability pillars, along with transforming the industry responsibly and supporting partners for a sustainable future. These three principles are best illustrated by SSA’s culinary operations at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the way they’ve grown to influence business practices nationally.

From the basics of switching from plastic to paper straws—and only providing the paper straws on request—to tackling more complex challenges like sourcing bottled water, the successful sustainability path starts with a commitment to try something different. On Earth Day 2017, SSA shifted from boxed water to bottled water from Open Water, one of the first companies to use aluminum cans instead of plastic bottles. Because aluminum can be infinitely recycled—with no loss of quality—it is an excellent alternative to single-use plastics.

With its success in Monterey, SSA developed similar programs nationally with a select group of sustainable water partners that include Proud Source Water, an aluminum bottler in the Northern Rocky Mountains, and Just Water, a paper-based option with minimal plastic lining and a bottle cap made from sugarcane byproducts.

SSA has also worked diligently to remove virtually all plastic packaging from its cafe and cooler, including juices, sodas, yogurt and to-go food containers that come in plastic—with great success. As one example, by only offering washable or recyclable containers, SSA has kept 400 pounds of individual yogurt containers per year out of the waste stream.

The presence of more vendors in the marketplace opens options for culinary operators. For example, SSA dropped a bottled tea vendor because the company would not eliminate a small plastic seal covering the seam between the glass bottle and metal bottle cap. SSA quickly found another vendor that distributes comparable products without the plastic seal.

Because aluminum can be infinitely recycled, it is an effective alternative to single-use plastics. (Photo credit: Monterey Bay Aquarium)

SSA first started offering reusable bags made of recycled plastics in its retail stores many years ago and is close to being 100% free of single-use bags including paper at all locations. Since 2017, SSA has sold more than 300,000 units (162,000 in 2018 alone) of recycled/reusable bags.

“The most effective product we offer that balances sustainability from an environmental, revenue-generating, and guest/staff engagement conversation is the recycled, reusable bag,” Fischer says. “It generates revenue for us and our clients, saves money, and creates the opportunity for a dialog about sustainability with our guests.”

The key to each of these programs is that they can be scaled for any size location. Sustainable vendors are open to working with smaller operators as well as with larger attractions. Even a smaller location can commission a relatively inexpensive reusable bag that can be sold as a terrific shopping alternative—and a walking promotion for the attraction.

“As partners for our institutions, we absolutely have a responsibility to be a part of the solution to the plastic waste challenge,” Fischer says. “We can’t sit idly by and wait. But we also can’t do it alone.”

Vendors must be willing to step up, look at their product line, and ask: “Why has this been packaged this way for so long?” and “What if we make a shift? Could it have a greater bottom-line return?” Fischer notes that the most critical aspect of this journey is institutional and industry leadership.

“There’s a clear need for organizations such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Aquarium Conservation Partnership, and the IAAPA Sustainability Committee to collaborate in support of these changes,” he says. “With that level of commitment, these practices will soon be the norm, not the exception.”

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