Disney’s Eco-Friendly Policies

Appeared in:

  • Southern Sierran, January 2009.
  • An edited version of this post appeared in the Orange Coast Voice newspaper, December 2008, page 11.

Disneyland Boasts Eco-Friendly Policies
But could it be doing more?

by Sarah S. Mosko, Ph.D.

Walt Disney designed Disneyland Resort for enchantment, an oasis free of cares where everything wondrous seems possible. Worries over the park’s environmental impact were probably not at the forefront of his mind, although he is often quoted for voicing appreciation that natural resources are not inexhaustible and that nature must be preserved for future generations.

But the environment is in a lot more trouble today than it was when Disneyland opened in 1955, so it’s fair to ask, “How green is the Happiest Place on Earth today?”

Disneyland is really akin to a small city, employing 20,000 employees and passing double that many guests through the turnstiles daily. Entertaining, feeding and managing the waste of a mob that size in an environmentally responsible fashion is no easy task.

Evironmentality is the Disney trademark program that aims to keep Walt Disney’s conservation legacy alive through diverse environmental policies, some visible to parkgoers. For example, the lagoon scenes in the recently opened Nemo Submarine Voyage were colored using crushed glass from discarded bottles, and the subs are propelled by an innovative zero-emission magnetic coil system, eliminating the need for hundreds of thousand of gallons of diesel fuel each year.

Converting Disneyland Railroad trains to run on fuel derived 98% from soybean oil has further reduced diesel fuel consumption. Other attractions, like the Jungle Cruise boats and the sailing ship Columbia, run on clean burning natural gas. Autopia car drivers can breathe a bit easier too since pedal-start technology was installed that turns the gasoline engine off when a guest exits. And, floats in the daily parade are electrically powered and zero-emission.

Disneyland is also replacing conventional incandescent lighting with energy efficient alternatives throughout the resort. Together with other conservation measures in air conditioning and heating, the resort boasts having reduced its average daily power consumption by two megawatts, enough energy to power 400 homes.

And of course, recycling bins for bottles and cans can be seen standing shoulder-to-shoulder with trash cans at many park locales.

To the Disney Company’s credit, there’s also a lot going on outside public awareness to improve the park’s eco-footprint. Because of air quality concerns for example, all paint on Main Street buildings is now free of air-polluting volatile organic chemicals, and a vanpooling program for employees reduced global warming carbon dioxide emissions from cars by nearly 4,000 tons in 2007. Stingless wasps have been introduced, in lieu of pesticides, to control pests on topiaries.

Furthermore, recycling efforts go well beyond bottles and cans, encompassing also green waste, scrap lumber, and shrink wrap so that 13 tons of materials are recycled each day.

The Disney Company has been recognized for its environmental accomplishments, like being named one of 20 “Best Green Companies for America’s Children” by Working Mother magazine in May 2008. Nevertheless, there are critics that think the company should and could be doing more. After all, Disney’s own Environmentality policy acknowledges the following:Because the Company has held a unique position of public confidence and trust for more than 50 years, it is keenly aware of its ability to influence public opinion and inspire action.

The Center for Health, Environment, and Justice in Virginia is spearheading a Disney-Go-Green campaign to pressure the company to eliminate hazardous cleaning products throughout its parks, hotels, and restaurants in Orlando, Florida and replace them with safer alternatives already on the market. Everyday cleaning products, like floor and glass cleaners, laundry detergents, and air fresheners, can contain chemicals that trigger asthma or cause skin, eye and throat irritation. People employed in cleaning positions and children are especially susceptible. Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando uses safer cleaning products to protect the welfare of the animals, so why not do the same for the guests and employees at other Disney resorts?

Disneyland Anaheim acknowledges no pledge as yet to such a conversion but is taking other steps. Most notably, as of January 2009 all plastic merchandising bags will be derived 100% from recycled plastic bags, and composting the manure from the park’s horses is also in the works, according to company spokesperson Suzi Brown.

Yet what to do about the mountains of disposable food service waste generated daily – cups, plates, straws, & cutlery – remains a glaring problem. Any corporate interest in moving from non-biodegradable petroleum-based plastics to plant-based compostable alternatives is currently stymied by a dearth of both open park space for onsite composting and industrial composting facilities within trucking distance.

Although Disneyland declined to disclose the tonnage of waste dumped at the Olinda Landfill in Brea, the park falls far short of meeting the 50% waste diversion rate from landfills currently mandated for real Orange County cities, according to a source at Anaheim Disposal that handles the park’s waste stream.

Merchandising is another area where there’s room for improvement. Plastics in Disney toys and souvenirs have yet to be reformulated to avoid chemicals linked to a variety of ill health effects in lab animals that are building up in both the environment and human tissues. Polycarbonate drink bottles made with bisphenol A, a chemical linked to prostate cancer, diabetes, and miscarriage, are still sold on Main Street, as are pliable plastic toys made with phthalate softening compounds associated with abnormal sexual tract development in males.

A nationwide ban on several phthalates in children’s toys goes into effect February 10, 2009, and Disneyland does plan to be in compliance. Federal agencies are currently reviewing whether bisphenol A should be restricted too. Disneyland presently voices no plans to stop selling items containing bisphenol A.

Moreover, some Disney merchandise comes wrapped in packaging made of polyvinyl chloride, a plastic that has earned a bad reputation because of environmental toxin release at all stages in its lifecycle.

Protecting the environment is such a daunting task today compared to the Leave-It-To-Beaver era of the 1950s. Virtually no one back then was fretting over global warming, non-biodegradable plastics, overfull landfills, or toxic chemicals emanating from children’s toys, drink containers and cleaning products.

Yet Walt Disney was a conservationist and visionary as well as consummate businessman. One can’t help but wonder if he would think that the Disneyland of today could be doing business just a bit greener to fulfill both its self-proclaimed position of influence and his personal conservation legacy.

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