ZooLights gets greener for Silver Anniversary

Holiday tradition now features a million LEDs; visitors can recycle old lights at zoo

ZooLights is both brighter and greener this year.

The Oregon Zoo's spectacular holiday light festival, now in its 25th year, continues upgrading its displays with an eye to the future. Since 2000, the zoo has been gradually switching from conventional incandescent lights to highly efficient light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which use a fraction of the energy and last far longer.

This year's ZooLights, presented by Fred Meyer with support from your local Toyota dealers, adds 76,000 new diodes, adding up to more than 1 million LEDs out of the 1,365,000 lights on display. LEDs use about 10 to 25 percent of the power of standard holiday lights. With an expected life of at least 25,000 hours — 20 times that of conventional light strings — this year's new lights could last for another quarter-century or beyond.

"Every year we're making ZooLights more sustainable for the next generation of visitors," said event coordinator Russell Guinn, who has overseen the seasonal spectacle since 1992. "The sparkling LEDs that kids are enjoying this year could still be glowing when they bring their own kids to enjoy ZooLights years from now."

The ZooLights visit has become a favorite holiday tradition for many Portland-area families over the past quarter-century. Last year, a record 193,000 visitors came to see ZooLights' life-size animal silhouettes, moving sculptures, forests of lighted trees and light-bedecked train. A new feature of ZooLights this winter is a magical walk through an illuminated forest, with purple rope lighting and Cool Neon tube lights lending the scene an otherworldly glow.

It may be ZooLights' silver anniversary, but visitors can make a difference by giving copper. Throughout the run of its winter ZooLights festival, the zoo will be collecting old holiday light strings for recycling. These donated lights won't be used at ZooLights — rather, all collected lights will be recycled into their component parts, including copper wires. The zoo collected nearly 3,000 pounds of old lights for recycling last year. Since 2008, the sale of the salvaged copper in the wires has generated nearly $3,500 for American Association of Zoo Keepers programs advancing animal care and supporting conservation.

"ZooLights is a showcase of what people can do with efficient lights in their own homes," Guinn said. "LED string lights use a fraction of the power consumed by traditional string lights, but they're just as beautiful. Anyone who wants to decorate for the holidays can save money and protect the environment by switching to LEDs."

According to Guinn, few visitors notice the change to LEDs, which give off a slightly different glow than standard holiday lights. Additionally, LEDs do not fade and lose their color over time. Since the diodes themselves create the colors, rather than painted bulbs, old LED strings remain as bright and colorful as the day they were purchased.

Visitors who want to take additional steps to protect the environment are in luck: For the second year, the zoo is partnering with Energy Trust of Oregon to run educational "EcoBooths" promoting greener homes and workplaces. ZooTeen volunteers are staffing these booths on Friday and Saturday nights during ZooLights at the zoo's Family Farm. Guests can participate in activities and learn more about environmentally friendly gift-giving and "greening the holidays."

The shift to environmentally friendly lighting reflects the zoo's commitment to conservation and sustainability across its operations. In September, the zoo received a special Green Award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums for reducing the environmental impact of its day-to-day operations. In 1991, the zoo became one of the first AZA institutions to establish an in-house "Green Team" — a group of staff members that reviews programs and operations with an eye toward sustainability and conservation. The zoo has since expanded its recycling and composting programs to the point where nearly 80 percent of all solid waste is diverted from landfills. New animal habitats, a veterinary medical center and a new education center all are guided by a 20-year master plan that aims to reduce the zoo's environmental impact while increasing awareness among visitors.