Composting now has an extra dimension in Oak Park

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Gardening blogger

Thirty-five years ago, shortly after settling into the southwest corner of Oak Park, Rich Pokorny, 63, and Ellen Wehrle, 67, became perennially green throughout their duplex home.

Early on, they set up a backyard compost pile to reduce, reuse and recycle the yard clippings that others often throw away. They also began diverting stormwater via their downspout into two rain barrels. The reclaimed water they used to irrigate their shade-loving woodland natives and the organic "container" garden tomatoes that grow in their urban-sized backyard.

Inside their home, the conservation-minded couple maximized their energy efficiency in all the right ways, and when they remodeled their kitchen, they used a variety of new earth-friendly "green products," purchased from a local store: bamboo flooring, Gelastic countertops, urban wood cabinetry and LED lighting, Pokorny notes.

They also drive hybrids

In 2012, when Karen Rozmus, environmental services manager of the village of Oak Park, began soliciting participants for the new service being piloted in their part of town, the VOP Compost-able Food Scraps/Organics Collection Program, Wehrle and Pokorny signed up.

"I thought, oh dear, here's another 14 bucks a month on my water bill, and one more goofy thing to do," recalls Pokorny. "But once it started, I thought, wait a minute. Now you can recycle the pizza boxes, facial tissue, paper napkins, paper towels, used up cat food, chicken bones — stuff I couldn't put in the compost. And it has saved a lot of trouble — always having to go outside and turn the compost pile. Here, we just throw [biodegradable materials] into the container, and the composting will get done."

On April 1, Rozmus rolled out the gray organics cart program village-wide. Oak Park, she says, is the first municipality she knows of in Cook County to implement an effort such as this.

"For a lot of people I know who signed up for this program, this is not cost-effective," Rozmus explains, "because they already have the smallest garbage can, use two blue recycling carts, mulch their grass clippings in their gardens and have a backyard compost pile. So they are already doing everything they could. They want to participate here because it is a little more that they can divert."

Diverting the trash and the costs

The fee to "rent" the 96-gallon gray "organics" cart, and everything else involved (including labor), will add up to an additional $14 a month on a subscriber's water bill. That sum also covers an under-sink collection bucket and one box of compost-able bags for the messier disposables. Additional bags can be purchased at Green Home Experts, and elsewhere, soon.

In an effort to somewhat divert their costs, Wehrle and Pokorny say they have educated neighbors about the benefits of composting, and organized them into a "cart share" co-op of sorts. And that is helping defray the fee.

Another way to trim the cost is to downsize the Waste Management garbage container, which will save $5 a month," Rozmus suggests.

"Previously, when you mowed your lawn, weeded your garden and pruned your bushes, you put them in yard refuse bags with green stickers you purchased, and they were picked up," she says. "These organics carts are about three times the volume of one yard waste bag, and you can put your yard weeds, brush clippings, plus all of your food scraps, along with the biodegradable food-soiled paper products that are going to the trash: the birthday cake plate, the soiled pizza carton with cheese and oil all over it. Now they can all go to the compost [bin]."

The aforementioned items are not allowed in a backyard compost pile, and to prevent the potential nuisance problems, such as odors or attracted vermin, a clear-cut composting pile ordinance is in place, Rozmus says.

Composting 101

Composting is the process of letting organic waste decompose into humus, a natural fertilizer, Rozmus explains, and when the composting process is complete, the resulting material looks like deep rich soil and smells sweet. Compost is a valuable product used by farmers and landscapers and home gardeners because it enriches the soil, conserves water, provides erosion control and helps produce healthier plants and crops.

Because of the equipment used in a commercial composting facility, as well as the biological process that breaks down biodegradable materials, more items have now been added to Oak Park's compost to-do list.

"So, for example, if you put lettuce leaves, carrot scraps and what not in your backyard compost bin, it might take six months to decompose [into] good compost, whereas in a commercial composting operation where you have very high monitoring and moisture control, it will break down in three months to become good compost," Rozmus says.

Last year as a pilot program perk, Rozmus arranged for participants to receive bags of the commercial compost. She hopes to do that again in 2013.

Meanwhile, in Oak Park, due to the yard waste and recycling programs, about 38 percent of the village's solid waste is diverted from landfills. This program will push that number up, she says.

The initial shift came in1989, when Illinois banned the disposal of yard waste in landfills and many commercial composting facilities sprang up across Illinois.

In 2010, when a few Illinois state laws and EPA regulations changed, Rozmus eventually ushered Oak Park into the emerging municipal commercial composting movement.

By year end, she hopes to sign up 1,200 residents, plus more businesses, restaurants and houses of worship. Already in the new program are five Oak Park schools, the local Jewel Food stores, Whole Food Market in River Forest, and now the Oak Park Farmers Market.

"We have about 350 residents who have signed up, and as we grow the awareness, and show the benefits, I think it will catch on."

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