Leading by Example: EarthWays Center Celebrates 15 Years at the Garden

As Deborah Frank, Glenda Abney, and Jean Ponzi sit down to reflect on the Garden’s “zero waste” efforts for the 2015 Best of Missouri Market & More, they finish each other’s sentences, talking about what worked and what didn’t. Their view of the event, however, is through a green lens. They see dumpsters full of cups and bowls hauled away to make compost instead of going to a landfill. They see dozens of vendors who embraced the Garden’s policy to serve food and beverages in compostable ware. And most important, they see thousands of visitors having conversations at the waste sorting stations about composting, recycling, corn oil-based plastics, and other advancements in ways to live more sustainably.

The event is a snapshot of a life’s work that the three of them and their many co-workers have been doing since the early 1990s. And it is a sliver of how much the Garden’s EarthWays Center has done for homeowners, businesses, and organizations to promote sustainable solutions that foster a biodiverse, healthier environment.


A Bit of History

Hear the history of sustainable education in St. Louis from the leaders who lived it! Listen to a discussion with EarthWays Center’s Deborah Frank, Glenda Abney and Jean Ponzi.

As the Vice President of Sustainability, Director of the EarthWays Center, and Green Resources Manager respectively, Frank, Abney, and Ponzi lead the “green” programs and services. Although this November the EarthWays Center celebrates 15 years as a division of the Missouri Botanical Garden, their work in environmental education has deeper roots.

The EarthWays organization was the brainchild of the group that planned St. Louis’s Earth Day celebrations in 1990. At the same time, the Missouri Energy Resources Project (MERP) had been providing energy and recycling education to state and local schools since 1988, and that’s where Frank, Abney, and Jean worked together. Conversations between the two organizations sparked the idea for the EarthWays Home, a demonstration home showcasing energy and resource efficiency.

MERP ultimately took over operations of the EarthWays Home, and it 2000, then-Garden President Dr. Peter Raven proposed incorporating it all into the Garden. “He saw the value for a garden to connect everyday lifestyle choices, such as the homes we build, the transportation we employ, and purchases we make, with the impact on plants, their ecosystems, and the environment overall.” Frank says. The move firmly established the Garden’s leadership in the growing sustainability movement.


EarthWays Center’s “Green” Jean Ponzi promotes sustainable practices throughout the St. Louis region in person and on the air.

Sound Environmental Education

Just like the Garden’s mission is to share knowledge about plants and their environment to preserve and enrich life, over the past 15 years, the EarthWays Center’s programs have focused on sparking conversations that lead to a greater understanding of the impact everyday choices have on plants, the environment, and therefore, human well-being. They help schools, homeowners, businesses, and municipalities find practical and economically viable solutions that account for people, the planet, and profit. “The triple bottom line accounts for care of all our natural resources, good sense with your dollars, and best use of person-power,” Abney says.

When the Garden renovated its parking lot in YEAR, the idea was to create a more sustainable solution using porous concrete and an engineered rain garden to hold rain water on-site and significantly reduce runoff, flash floods, soil erosion, and water pollution. However, the technology was new, and there were cost and maintenance issues that factored in the decision-making process. “That’s where the Garden stepped forward,” says Frank. “We’re an educational organization, and by doing demonstrations of each of these technologies, we are able to be a leader in the community but also learn and share that information.”

EarthWays Center volunteers assist visitors with food waste composting at Garden events.

The impact is also evident in other sustainable operations at the Garden—from food waste composting in the cafes to electric vehicle charging stations to LEED certificiation for multiple buildings. Through the years, the EarthWays Center’s programs have covered everything from solid waste management and energy efficiency to the built environment and water quality. In 2014, it was one of the many tools that the Garden used to launch BiodiverseCity St. Louis. The initiative was Garden President Dr. Peter Wyse Jackson’s vision to engage the community with the importance of fostering and protecting biodiversity.

The Garden has set an example and been a leading voice in the conversations happening in the region regarding sustainable, environmentally friendly practices that everyone can use. “Sound environmental education does not tell you what you should do or how you should think,” Ponzi says. “It gives you information and gives you the tools to be a more responsible, sustainable decision-maker.”

What may start as a two-minute interaction at a festival waste station or a brief introduction to rain gardens in the parking lot leads to the understanding that everyday decisions to make greener choices are something everyone can do.


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