When recycling enthusiast Julie Moller began collaborating with a few other River Forest moms to form Green4Good, a school-based recycling, composting and environmental stewardship effort, they enlisted the support of District 90 school administrators, recruited like-minded moms and reached out to Gary Cuneen, the executive director of Seven Generations Ahead, the face and force behind the dual community environmental sustainability program, PlanItGreen. The effort is seeded by the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation's Communityworks Partnership, said Sophia Lloyd, executive director of the Community Foundation.
"When we started, people called us the eco-police, so as a joke at PTO meetings we would pass out citations, just to be funny," Moller recalled. "The people in River Forest really do need to do this, and understand their garbage doesn't just go away to some pretty place."
In 2012, one of the Green4Good initiatives involved reaching the broader community, so Green4Good created the Recycling Extravaganza. The first year, they figured, if 50 cars showed up, it would be successful.
"We had 600 cars drive through and the next year a whopping 750," Moller said.
They also recycle holiday lights in December and January and began recycling cooking grease last November after Thanksgiving.
It's not just about eco-friendliness, Moller said. It's also about interconnectivity.
"As my commitment to sustainability in River Forest has increased, I find myself on the PlanItGreen Core Team and on the newly formed Sugar Beet board [Oak Park's new food co-op which opens in early 2015]. I have also been involved in Green Community Connections in its One Earth Film Festival and a sponsor of the Edible Garden Tour."
Across the border in Oak Park is Euclid Avenue Methodist Church congregant Dick Alton. For the last five years or so, with the assistance of Mac Robinet of St. Edmund Church, and James Babcock of First United Church of Oak Park, he has worked on an ecumenical sustainability effort called Interfaith Green Network.
Alton, who is also a member of several other similarly-themed grassroots groups, says their biggest goal is to help the 22 congregation members in Oak Park and River Forest better understand the PlanItGreen process and the programs. Alton believes this is the way to build change with people who may not understand what a carbon footprint is or how recycling, composting, conserving and using renewable energy could make an impact on the future of the planet.
"With all these climate reports and everything that everyone is saying in the nation," Alton said, "it's hard to see as a planet how we're going to make it. In 2025, there will be dramatic changes in our lifestyle, especially in what will be demanded of us.
"Our intent is to share insights to help make congregations, and their members, more sustainable," he added.
Connecting the dot.coms
A conduit for this all came four years ago with the start of another grassroots effort, Green Community Connections (GCC), said co-founder Sally Stovall.
Since then, Stovall points out that a few other Oak Park grass root initiatives have organically bubbled up, including Sugar Beet Co-op, and a chapter of West Cook Wild Ones, a national nonprofit that promotes the benefits of sustainable landscaping with native plants.
"I think all this is really about connecting people to specific projects, or engaging them in forums and events, where we try to create project teams around a particular initiative," said Gary Cuneen during a discussion with a group of 14 local leaders at a recent sustainability roundtable at the Community Foundation offices.
"Graywater" advocate Ana Garcia Doyle is an Oak Park mom who is also a lead organizer of GCC's One Earth Film Festival, which took place in March and counted 2,400 attendees in this its third year.
For the last six years, Garcia Doyle has also been volunteering with Seven Generations Ahead at District 97 schools, helping to implement its Zero Waste Schools food-scrapping and recycling program. Now well established, it is up and running in all three D90 schools and all D97 elementary schools, plus Percy Julian Middle School, as of January 2014.
"Zero Waste has been in the works for a year, and we are up to 87 percent recycling of cafeteria food scraps for composting at Julian," Cuneen said.
A learning curve
So far, Dominican University, Rush Oak Park Hospital, and Whole Foods Market in River Forest are doing large-scale food-scrap composting at their institutions, added Cuneen.
Amy McCormack, senior vice president for finance and administration at Dominican University, said that, as one of the first members to join the core team of PlanItGreen, they have gained perspective on the process — and how to encourage people to participate.
"Dominican has done so much over the last five years, but the people who are passionate about composting are now becoming discouraged, as there is a big group of people and students who still just don't get it," McCormack said.
At Rush Oak Park Hospital, Vice President Jim Kaese said he understands that to keep sustainable practices moving forward in a work environment, it takes a lot of effort and ongoing education for everyone from housekeeping, to cafeteria workers as well as nurses and physicians.
For four years in a row (2010-13) Rush Oak Park Hospital received the U.S. EPA's Energy Star Certification for energy efficiency performance in the top 25% (of similar facilities nationwide). Kaese said this is especially impressive when you consider that the building itself is over 100 years old.
"For the hospital, this is exciting," he said. "We are composting, an organization like us. Yes, can we do better, absolutely, but it is a long road. You have to understand, when you talk to people and say, 'We are going green,' they say, 'Yeah … OK … what is that, really?' Green is truly an education and a mindset. And you have to look at that starting from the basics."
David Pope, the moderator at the recent sustainability roundtable, and co-chair of the Community Foundation's Communityworks Advisory Board said that what Rush Oak Park Hospital is doing is leading edge and "because of it, they are getting phone calls from people around the region and the state who are coming in to see what they're doing. So there is a ripple effect."
For a lot of local businesses, whether or not to become sustainable isn't an easy decision, because it can add cost to the bottom line, said Viktor Schrader of the Oak Park Development Corporation. OPDC piloted a Growing Green business program, which led to 18 Oak Park and River Forest businesses undergoing education, resulting in making energy-efficiency improvements to their establishments in 2013.
"Nicor and ComEd have a lot of resources that are not being leveraged widely, so we were able to pretty quickly ramp up a program that provided incentives, grants and expertise for small business owners who wanted to do more in this area," said Schrader.
Sue Crothers, president of the River Forest Parks Foundation, and a member of the angel investment group, SLoFIG, as well as several other local green initiatives, noted that the investing side of PlanItGreen has never really been addressed.
"It's wonderful to say you are diverting all this stuff, and doing other great things; then you're investing in fracking or fossil fuel use, which is counterproductive," she said. "I think it is an area that we haven't been addressing, that should be addressed."
Making the grade
So how would sustainability organizers grade the efforts of our communties?
In terms of sustainability in our parks, more work is needed in River Forest, said Crothers, and in Oak Park, according to Jan Arnold, executive director of the Park District of Oak Park.
"When we look at ourselves, in regard to the communities that surround us, perhaps we are doing better," Arnold said. "But if you compare us to the folks in Colorado, for example, we are far behind."
Nick Bridge, chairman of the VOP Environment and Energy Commission said there is a long learning curve on the safe use of pesticides and Cuneen and others are organizing education efforts on that topic.
Oak Park Village Manager Cara Pavlicek pointed out that part of giving anything a grade is looking back at what has been accomplished in the past, so she thinks the village deserves an "A" for its ongoing efforts and recent accomplishments, including the recycling and compost food-scrapping efforts; going geothermal at village hall; building a LEED Gold-certified Public Works Center at 201 South Blvd; and the switch to Smart Meters for every residential home.
Before Oak Park scrapped the renewable energy program, the village's commitment to the landmark green electricity aggregation effort would have been another item on the list.
In response to that decision, Cuneen said "The recent village of Oak Park board decision to move forward with brown energy over green energy underscores the importance for PlanItGreen to educate new elected officials and community leaders about the economic, environmental and quality-of-life benefits of a sustainable community, and the opportunities and resources available to advance sustainability in Oak Park."
The learning curve, in other words, is a long one indeed.
Grading the (learning) curve
Gary Cuneen, Seven Generations Ahead: B ("good, not great")
Nick Bridge, VOP Environment and Energy Commission: "Not in the great category but have made significant improvements"
Sophia Lloyd, OP-RF Community Foundation: "Great for effort"
David Pope, former OP village president : A ("compared to other communities"), C ("as a yardstick of where we should and need to be")
Jan Arnold, Park District of OP: C (see quote in story)
James Kaese, Rush OP Hospital: Village: C-plus, Rush: A
Viktor Schrader, OP Development Corp.: C ("fair")
Julie Moller, RF Green4Good: OP: A, RF: C
Dick Alton, Interfaith Green Network: "B is right"
Ana Garcia Doyle, One Earth Film Festival: B
Sally Stovall, Green Community Connections: B ("good")
Cara Pavlicek, OP village manager: A ("every day of the week, but Oak Park must work hard to keep that grade. It could be totally different if we don't work together.")
Sue Crothers, RF Park District: "Outreach to residents, a B; collaboration is an A"
Amy McCormack, Dominican University: "I would give a B because I think we can be better"