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Marie Steinwachs, sustainability pioneer, continues work at MU Extension

Monday, April 15, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:41 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 1, 2013
Students from the College of Engineering have been paired with companies statewide to improve environmentally friendly practices. Several interns have found ways to help companies save substantial costs. Others have been offered jobs at their internship sites. Marie Steinwachs, director of the Missouri Environmental Assistance Center, leads the internship program.

COLUMBIA — When Marie Steinwachs was 7, her mother called her to look out the window at their farm outside Buffalo, N.Y. A dark, oblong shape hovered over the front yard. It looked as if it was about to drop.

The young Steinwachs, a child of the Cold War, thought it resembled those things she was warned about in school during duck-and-cover drills. It even had fins like an atomic bomb.

In that moment, her short life flashed before her eyes. But after the blimp passed, Steinwachs believed she had been given another chance at life. Later, she would develop an irreverent sense of humor because of the incident. But it also made her believe in second chances.

That sensibility about second chances, of making things better, guides Steinwachs, 58, as director of the Missouri Environmental Assistance Center. At the center, which is part of MU Extension, she pairs students from the College of Engineering with companies statewide to improve environmentally friendly practices.

The main way she does this is through the Pollution Prevention Intern Program. The students measure energy efficiency in lights, boilers and compressors. They review waste audits and records. Steinwachs recalled one intern, who while reviewing his employer's bills, found an error that now saves that company $50,000 annually.

Stories like that keep her going — focus on the positives, she said, and on those second chances.

Fifteen minutes of fame

Steinwachs' own story as an advocate of the environment and sustainable practices goes back decades.

From Buffalo, her family moved to Florida. From there, Steinwachs made her way to southern Missouri and found work at a nonprofit. She was the caretaker of New Life Farm, an educational program in Drury that showcased sustainable lifestyles. Employees gave tours of the solar collectors and organic gardens.

Steinwachs developed her interpersonal management style there. After the farm’s funds ran out, she moved to Springfield to continue her work on sustainability.

In 1987, she formed the Household Hazardous Waste Project with Sondra Goodman, whose idea it was, and a few other young people. During this time, progressive thinking about safe environmental practices was developing. To the project members, raising public awareness was key.

Other programs addressing the safe disposal of hazardous consumer products were emerging across the country during this time as well, Goodman said. She said the program she and Steinwachs created was innovative because it focused on the safe use, storage and disposal of hazardous waste.

The program educated consumers to recognize that certain products would turn into hazardous waste — batteries, for example — and urged people to accept responsibility for protecting themselves, their families and the environment if they used them, Steinwachs said.

The first year, the program was in one county in southwest Missouri. A year later, it had expanded to 23 counties and, the year after that, went statewide. The success of the program led to conversations with manufacturers, retailers, government agencies and nongovernmental organizations — and contributed to a growing national movement, Steinwachs said.

The Household Hazardous Waste Project won three national awards starting in 1989 and into the early 1990s. In each case, a representative of the group flew to Washington, D.C., to be recognized at the White House; Steinwachs went once. She was supposed to go again but decided to invite a sponsor to represent her. Instead, she went to a Miami symposium on women and the environment.

Part of the lead-up to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Earth Summit, in 1992, the symposium gathered about 1,500 women working on the front lines of environmentalism.

While there, Steinwachs met Marjory Stoneman Douglas, an early pioneer for that cause. In her book "The Everglades: River of Grass," Douglas wrote that the Florida Everglades was a complicated ecosystem worth conserving.

Looking back, Steinwachs thinks of the awards as her 15 minutes of fame. But she considers the symposium, and meeting Douglas, as one of the biggest highlights of her life.

In 1993, along with like-minded people across the country, Steinwachs founded the North American Hazardous Materials Management Association. The program stresses pollution prevention, along the same lines as the hazardous waste project, through partnerships with colleges, businesses and governmental officials.

Right words, right time

Even as she championed the environment, Steinwachs tried to keep the importance of human interaction foremost in management style. Leah Christian, the senior information specialist at the Missouri Environmental Assistance Center, can attest to that.

Four interns work for Steinwachs now, but Christian is the only other full-time employee — and she has known Steinwachs since she was a child. In 2011, Christian was at an MU career fair for the hospitality industry to make connections for a future sustainable hospitality symposium. It would be the first public event she would organize on her own.

Things were going well until Christian met a woman who said she didn't believe in sustainability and would not attend the symposium.

This rattled Christian. She sat in her office later wondering whether anyone would show up to her event.

That's when Steinwachs, whose office is next door in Engineering Building North, walked in and saw the devastated look on Christian's face. Her confidence in organizing the symposium had taken a body blow.

Steinwachs sat down and listened as Christian confided her fears.

"Leah, it doesn’t matter if not everyone shows up," Steinwachs began. "You’ve done something here, and that is why I pushed you to organize this event in the first place, to show you that you could make things happen."

Steinwachs assured her that her plans for the event were solid.

"That is a key step in the right direction," Steinwachs told her. "This is a giant world, and we are facing numerous environmental challenges, but every time you get people to talk and think about sustainability, you are making a difference, even if you don’t see it right away."

For Christian, the moment was incredible and helped her push past her frustration.   Steinwachs knew the right thing to say to her when she was down: Stay positive — you are making a difference.

And, Christian said, people did show up for her symposium.

Keeping things light

Even as she focuses on her work, Steinwachs is good at lightening the mood. Marcus Rivas, a longtime friend and head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 7 Pollution Prevention Program in Kansas City, recalled a sweet moment a few years ago.

They had been together at a daylong meeting on pollution prevention held in the Kansas City Public Library. The event had been stressful, Rivas said, but had gone well.

During a break, Steinwachs surprised Rivas with a gift. "My dad made this," she told him, beaming and handing him a tan-and-blue piece of paper, folded in rectangles. "I think you’ll like it."

Like a piece of art by Escher, it appeared to have no beginning or end.

Steinwachs was having a little fun with her old friend, an engineer and mathematician. He was delighted and a little awestruck at the modest creation's beauty.

At the end of the day, Rivas started cleaning up. He set the origami-like art on top of a built-in bookshelf in the room. But as he moved his mountain of reference materials, he accidentally pushed the piece off and back behind the shelf. It was lost.

When Steinwachs found out, she felt bad for Rivas. "I’ll have to make sure Dad makes you another one," she told him.

A short time later, she headed to Florida to rejuvenate. While she was there, she sent Rivas an email with a pair of photos. In one, seagulls seemed to float effortlessly in front of an orange sunset. In the other, storm clouds gathered over white-breaking waves.

Steinwachs said the photos didn’t take more than a minute to send, but they told Rivas she was thinking of him. It was a second chance to make a friend happy.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.


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