Glenda Abney, Director, EarthWays Center, the Garden’s sustainability division, talks about researchers and Garden staff in more than 36 countries, green credibility with businesses, and compostable forks as teaching tools.
In continuous operation since 1859, longer than any botanical garden in America
- 79 acres of horticultural displays in St. Louis, Missouri, as well as the 2,400-acre Shaw Nature Reserve and Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House outside the city.
- Staff scientists discover 10% of all new plant species discovered around the world every year, more than any other organization.
What are the Missouri Botanical Garden’s main roles? How do you balance them?
We have four primary mission-driven divisions, including botanical research and conservation; living collections and horticulture; education and interpretation; and sustainability – these are the main focus areas for botanical gardens. We do all four in a big way, with more than 400 employees and 500 volunteers. Balance comes from divisions working together while focusing on their specific areas. This includes scientists conducting research in 36 countries including the U.S. and educators telling visitors of this same research; horticulture displaying the same plants in our Garden and sustainability explaining how those local communities embrace sustainability to protect the environments where the plants grow while still providing economic prosperity to those that live there – all to discover and share knowledge about plants.
Our base is a 79-acre oasis in the middle of St. Louis, in the middle of the country, but we have impact worldwide.
How does the Garden serve as a sustainability role model?
We are as green as possible in our operations and buildings, and manage resources like energy, water, and waste sustainably. We also have a unique focus on educating visitors and our local community about the environment and conserving resources. This includes education and interpretation on the Garden grounds as well as over 40 programs done out in the community that help people and organizations in and around the greater St. Louis bi-state region learn how to live and work more sustainably. Program subjects include recycling, composting, and waste reduction; water and energy efficiency; green buildings and homes; rainscaping and storm water management; green business practices; and renewable energy and solar panels.
Plant conservation and ecosystem restoration are essential to protecting our environment, but they can only work if we also have clean air, water, and soil. Sometimes people miss the fact that their choices — for instance, insulation, product choices, transportation, proper landscape design and plant selection, and building types — all end up impacting air, water, and soil by how they are made, the energy that powers those choices, and more. We don’t all have a green thumb, and it’s not only about growing plants to support the environment, it’s about understanding how your actions impact the clean air, water, and soil that plants and people need to thrive. Also, it’s not just about making a positive impact in other regions of the world, but in creating good environments right here where we live, in the backyards, parks, and green areas of our own region.
What’s an example of using resources responsibly?
Water efficiency in the Garden. All sprinklers are equipped with sensors so they operate only when required, which is much better than using pre-set times.
In addition, an underground cistern, built over 100 years ago and out of use for at least 50 years, now stores rainwater from the roofs of the Climatron and the Shoenberg Temperate House. The water is used to irrigate the plants in those buildings. This also has an economic benefit: If we didn’t use rain water for these tropical and sensitive plants, we would have to do a reverse osmosis treatment system on our city water in order to use it, as the compounds added to the water that makes it better for humans is actually not good for these sensitive plants. So we’re reducing costs by not having to pay for that reverse treatment system.
How do you address the economic side of sustainability?
EarthWays Center, our sustainability division, gets 90% of its funding from fee-for-service contracts where outside companies and organizations pay for our help and our expertise. For instance, if a business wants to improve sustainable operations, they call us in, and we help them accomplish their goals; or if a local utility needs help providing education in their topics, we can help deliver those services as well.
As a result, our community programs are essentially funded by local organizations that use our services – a unique win-win. We espouse the three-legged-stool model of true sustainability – choices need to be the best overall for what’s best for the environment, for people, and for economic impact as well.
Does your businesslike approach to sustainability help you partner with the business world?
Definitely. Another program, the St. Louis Green Business Challenge, now in its tenth year, helps participants with their sustainability strategies and performance. It is voluntary, unlike the mandatory programs in some regions where companies must reduce energy loads and adhere to other “green” operations.
Annually we have approximately sixty small and large organizations register to participate in this program. They love it – there is a focus on improving over the program year, tracking progress with scorecards, seminars, site visits, the awards ceremony. One of the reasons it is successful is that we don’t just tell businesses how to be sustainable, we work within their own business practices, and we have credibility because we do it at the Garden.
What typifies your environmental education efforts with Garden visitors?
Our Education and Interpretation teams work directly with visitors, school groups, members, and more to help people understand the power of plants, all that the Garden does, and how they can engage with these efforts. This all happens on a daily, indeed hourly basis.
In addition, we simply do what is best and showcase these efforts so visitors see it in action when they visit the Garden. This increases interest and understanding without being a formal experience. For instance, at signature events, like the Japanese Festival or Best of Missouri Market, we require food vendors to provide compostable food containers and utensils. Volunteers, wearing Zero Waste Ambassador t-shirts, let visitors know the plate holding their egg roll or tamale is compostable, as is the fork. Visitors will often hold back forks saying “this is plastic” and look for a recycling bin, then volunteers can tell them that actually, the fork is not plastic, it’s a corn-based product and it’s fully compostable, and will be turned into compost we’ll use back here at the Garden. Visitors discover something new while they’re out for some fun – a huge informal learning experience. These events attract tens of thousands of visitors over a weekend, and because of our diversion efforts we compost and recycle over 85% of all waste at these occasions.
Do you encourage all suppliers to act responsibly?
We have a sustainable purchasing policy and work with suppliers, rather than hand out a list and say “do this.”
We want long-term relationships, not transactions, and we try to work on one area at a time. With our primary office supplier, we put in place environmental standards and requirements, in keeping with those we have for recycled paper, where Rolland is our main supplier. This led the office supply company to offer many more competitively priced environmentally friendly products – a green success story.
So, you have a sustainability checklist for paper suppliers?
Yes and 80% of our printing – publications, promotional materials, office documents – is on 100% post-consumer recycled paper from Rolland. Our printers occasionally call saying, “did you forget to specify recycled paper on this job?” because they know our requirements.
How does Rolland contribute to your environmental stewardship?
We couldn’t meet our sustainability standards for printing without Rolland Paper. It’s a great relationship in terms of affordable post-consumer paper, product availability, and knowledge. We’ve learned from Rolland how to best use recycled paper for superior results.
As a paper manufacturer we have to ask: What is the role of print communication in your organization?
Families and individuals that prefer print are a large slice of our membership. There’s nothing like a paper calendar, and the cards promoting events are very effective. We focus on efficiency, in terms of print quantities. And we also offer options, like printed or emailed pdf versions of the member magazine, the Bulletin.
Missouri Botanical Garden is a green champion by definition: How can it become greener?
We just keep working at it. We will never reach a certain point and say, “we’re done, we’re sustainable now” because sustainability is a goal that is always out there, and new systems and products are always coming on line. Our motto is “Green Today, Greener Tomorrow” because there is always more to do, and because plants and the environment are worth protecting. In fact, plants are essential to life for all of us.