Joyce Gorrell and Angela Brinker want you to know that Ecochallenge is fun!
In her role as Sustainability Projects Manager at EarthWays Center of Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOT), Joyce leads the Garden Green Team. Their meetings were productive, but a little serious, and several team members had told Joyce they wanted to have more fun. So when MOBOT Vice President of Education Sheila Voss told Joyce she wanted the Garden to participate in Plastic Free Ecochallenge last July, Joyce had her opportunity to incorporate some fun into the Green Team’s work.
As a sponsor of Plastic Free Ecochallenge, Missouri Botanical Garden wanted to lead the way for other Saint Louis-based organizations to get involved. So Sheila coordinated efforts with Saint Louis Zoo and Missouri Botanical Garden, and they all created staff and volunteer teams in their organizations.
“It is globally agreed that botanical gardens are incredibly important to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals,” Joyce says. “We know that our reliance on single use plastics and fossil fuels needs to decline. These things end up in the wrong places – in waterways, affecting fish and birds and mammals. Ecosystem damage also damages plants. Humans can’t live without plants. That’s why it was really important to us to get involved this year.”
While Joyce was responsible for promoting the program to MOBOT staff, MOBOT Volunteer Coordinator Scott Bahan is on the Green Team and promoted the program with their volunteers. Altogether, the Green Team has a representative from almost every department or division in the Garden. They focus on engaging staff around sustainability awareness and action and on general education. With regional issues with recycling changes and recycling contamination in the region, Plastic Free Ecochallenge seemed to be the perfect program at the perfect time.
And that’s how Angela Brinker got involved. Angela is an Herbarium Assistant at MOBOT, and is also on the Green Team. As a member of the Green Team, she really wanted to set an example for engagement with other employees. “I thought, ‘I can check in every day. That’s not hard,’” Angela says. But the Ecochallenge became more than that for her – and she earned the distinction of being the highest scoring staff member on the Garden’s Plastic Free Ecochallenge team, leading her team to finish second place out of all of thirteen teams based in Missouri and in the top 5% of all teams competing in the Challenge.
Before Plastic Free Ecochallenge, Angela had already made a commitment to reducing her plastic use – she had even started using bar shampoo and soap in order to avoid more plastic containers. Two of the actions she committed to during the month of July were eating Waste Free Snacks and Picking Up Litter. Both seemed quite easy, and were things she wanted to do anyway. “I had been eating an apple and crackers for my afternoon snack. I dropped the cracker and just ate the apple,” Angela says. “You’d think I would have lost weight, too, but that must have been another Challenge,” she says, laughing.
Angela accomplished her litter challenge during her morning run each day. “I run in my neighborhood, and the last half mile of my run always has a lot of trash,” she says. “That half mile is behind a mostly empty strip mall. More than half of the litter is beer cans, which is disconcerting!” Angela would wait until the last section of her run so that she didn’t have to carry a bag with her. She committed to picking up at least three pieces of litter every day, but she always picked up more, filling her hands until she couldn’t hold anymore. “It did make me feel frustrated because it never made a dent. I could go out every day and pick up seven things, and you wouldn’t be able to tell. I have to tell myself that each time I pick something up, it does make a difference – that bottle won’t wash into the storm drain, out to the river, and into the ocean.” Seeing Angela take action was motivating to others, as well. She posted her litter haul on social media a few times during the Challenge. People responded to that, thinking that they should go out with their kids and pick up litter, too.
“I can’t make anyone else do anything,” Angela says, “but I can make a change in what I’m doing. If I can do better today, and then do better tomorrow, I can hopefully maintain the change for my life.” Joyce agrees, and has also found that her actions during Plastic Free Ecochallenge have become a part of her regular lifestyle. “The Challenge has encouraged me to write to companies and organizations more regularly, even if it’s a Facebook message,” Joyce says. “A human being looks at those messages, and someone always responds.”
And the fun part? “Our Green Team meetings tend to be really serious and focused,” Joyce says. “This was a fun way to lighten the mood and the conversation for a month. It helps humans feel a little more in control of solutions, which is important.”
She even has a funny story to explain how the Challenge helped them all shift their moods: “I came into work one day and had a voicemail from my colleague Marcie, who is in charge of facilities support and some of our security endeavors, and it said, ‘Call me as soon as you get in!’ I was really busy and didn’t get to call her that day. So the next day, I got a new voicemail from her, ‘I guess you didn’t get my voicemail! Call me back!’ So I braced myself for whatever catastrophe was awaiting me, picked up the phone, and hesitantly asked, ‘Hey, Marcie. What’s up?’ Marcie responds excitedly, ‘How do I get my points for my waste free dinner?!’ I’m laughing, she’s laughing – she just wanted to figure out how to get her points! It’s a lot more fun than either ‘the world is ending!’ or making a spreadsheet to figure out how to report something. Plastic Free Ecochallenge was a way to decompress after a hard day, be creative, and still make a difference.”
Joyce and Angela’s hope for next year? “We would love other botanical gardens to step up and participate next year – it just can’t be the zoos and aquariums getting to have all the fun!”