Plastic Pollution: An Interview with Krystina Jarvis, Conservation Specialist at Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Northwest Earth Institute joined forces with a network of nearly 60 zoos and aquariums across the country and in Canada for a custom EcoChallenge to challenge its employees to break free from plastic for the month of July. With over 5,200 participants (and counting) taking action, the collective impact is adding up and turning the tide on single-use plastic.

We caught up with Krystina Jarvis, Conservation Specialist and zero-waste advocate at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, to learn more about Plastic-free July EcoChallenge, how it originated, and her journey to a plastic-free lifestyle.

How did you end up working at a zoo?
For most of my life, I wanted to be a zoo keeper. I grew up going to the Cincinnati Zoo and fell in love with zoos—and animals. While studying wildlife science at Ohio State University, I got an internship at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. Through this internship I learned that I didn’t want to be a keeper, but I was still immensely passionate about conservation. The following summer, I was again an intern at the Zoo – this time for our Registrar in the business office, which turned into a full-time administrative position. I sat next to the conservation team, which gave me the opportunity to learn more about and engage with their work, and I later had the opportunity to transfer into my current role.

Krystina Jarvis, Conservation Specialist at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

What was the motivation for engaging this network of employees in Plastic-free July EcoChallenge?
Last August, we held our first plastic-free challenge for staff and volunteers – it was more of an awareness campaign and pledge to refuse single-use plastic for the month. We had 193 participants, and pre/post surveys showed the challenge was effective. I presented the results at the annual Zoological Registers Association conference. Deanna Snell from the Calgary Zoo approached me and challenged our zoo to a competition. From there, we decided to extend the challenge to other zoos and aquariums throughout North America.

Deanna and I knew we needed a platform to track our efforts. Our sustainability director here at Columbus was familiar with NWEI’s Discussion Course books and found EcoChallenge—it was everything we had been looking for in a platform. Next year, we’re hoping to extend Plastic-free July EcoChallenge to the public, our visitors, members, and social media followers.

How does plastic affect animals, and what message do you want to send with Plastic-free July EcoChallenge?
The biggest thing we’re seeing with plastic is its impact on our oceans. It’s predicted there will be more plastic than fish in our world’s oceans by 2050. I’ve always thought of our oceans as vast ecosystems, so hearing this stat is heartbreaking. Plastic is also negatively impacting land animals. I try to remind myself and others it’s not all doom and gloom. Plastic pollution is a human-based problem; therefore, it has human-based solutions. We have the power to make change individually – and our individual efforts are putting pressure on large corporations to implement sustainable practices.

What has surprised you about EcoChallenge so far?
The community that has formed around the online Participant Feed. It has been amazing to see everyone sharing their challenges, successes, and experiences. They’re helping each other and celebrating one another. I’m little addicted to the Feed, and I know my counterpart, Deanna, at the Calgary Zoo is too.

How has the EcoChallenge platform contributed to your learning?
What I love about EcoChallenge is it allows you to see what you’re already doing and areas where you can push yourself further. The EcoChallenge platform has nudged me to establish practices I’ve been wanting to implement, such as bringing my own containers for takeout. I typically avoid takeout because of the waste; but now thanks to EcoChallenge, I’ve created the habit.

What is the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium doing to reduce plastic waste?
We’re doing everything we can to get away from single-use plastics. For as long as we can remember, the Zoo has never had plastic straws or bags available. We use compostable cups, plates, and utensils at most of our dining facilities and for all of our events. We also have water refilling stations around Zoo grounds to encourage the use of durable bottles. We’re working on increasing recycling and composting to decrease what we send to landfill (we currently have about a 70-75% diversion rate from landfill). We use TerraCycle for hard-to-recycle items.

What has been the most challenging lifestyle change you’ve made to reduce your plastic footprint?
Shopping the perimeter of the grocery store was difficult at first. As soon as you go into the center aisles, everything is packaged! I have now gotten in the habit of bringing my own containers for bulk and deli foods. Alternatives exist for most single-use plastics; the hardest part is getting started and turning practices into habits.

What’s your favorite “hack” to reduce waste or best advice for reducing plastic?
It’s more of a tip than a hack. I’ve found acting confident with your reusables is important. It can sometimes be intimidating to ask the person behind the counter to use your container or bag. Remember – you’re often teaching them and breaking the status quo. I’ve found most people are willing to use your reusables if you ask in a confident and friendly way. Learn more from Krystina in this short video.

What is your favorite zoo animal?
It’s a tie between lions and okapis (okapis look like a cross between zebras and horses). I’ve always loved big cats – lions are why I got into conversation work. Lions were my first animal love, but then the okapi stole my heart.


In honor of Plastic-free July, we’re having a fun contest to spread the plastic-free message, and we’d love to hear from you. We want to see how you’re choosing to refuse single-use plastic. Get all the contest details here.


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