ASHEBORO, NC - Mammal keepers at the North Carolina Zoo's Rocky Coast exhibit and the zoo's General Curator recently received Sustainability Awards during the N.C. Department of Environment & Natural Resources' (DENR) Sustainability Conference at the State Library in Raleigh.

DENR Secretary Dee Freeman recognized the work of four zoo mammal keepers who established an innovative, educational program that helped zoo staff and visitors learn how to save landfill space and reduce litter by using reusable shopping bags. The average shopper uses 500 disposable bags per year.

The zoo keepers, winners in the Group Project Award category, made a pledge to only use reusable shopping bags while grocery shopping. To make a statement, they created a life-size polar bear sculpture using 2,000 disposable grocery bags, which used old tree guards as a support frame. The "Bag-Bear" was part of a special zoo event and included an educational display. They also handed out educational mini-posters and gave away 450 reusable bags to visitors.

Zoo General Curator Ken Reininger, winner in the Individual Small Project Award category, spearheaded setting up a system to collect, store and safely dispose of waste fluorescent light tubes and other waste items containing mercury.

During its International Organization for Standardization 14001 certification process, the zoo became aware that there were many items containing mercury on the zoo premises.

Reininger brought this concern to zoo officials and then volunteered space in one of the seldom-used animal holding facilities to temporarily store the items and bulbs. He then devised a plan in which mercury-laden items could be stockpiled safely and then regularly taken to be recycled. During this time, the zoo developed a more comprehensive system to recycle and safely dispose of florescent tubes and other mercury-laden items.

"The winners of this year's sustainability awards exemplify the best that DENR has to offer when it comes to recycling, reusing, conserving, cleaning up and saving time, money, water and energy," Secretary Freeman said.

The zoo is an agency of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Dee Freeman, Secretary; Beverly E. Perdue, Governor.