By Devin Rose
River Forest resident Millie Erhardt says there was never really a specific time she became an advocate for recycling. For the 81-year-old, it's always been just a way of life.
And decades after she led the effort to implement recycling in River Forest, along with the League of Women Voters, Erhardt is signed up to volunteer Saturday at the village's first-ever Recycling Extravaganza. The event is an opportunity for residents to get rid of unusual items that can be recycled, like rusty swing sets, televisions and crayons.
The daughter of immigrant parents from what is now Slovakia, Erhardt said there was always a recycling aspect to her life "because you were poor and you didn't know it." During the Great Depression, she remembers her mother sewing her dresses from 10-cent fabric and patterns cut from newspapers. Erhardt said she thought many people from Europe during that time lived frugally and didn't have excessive possessions.
"That was always part of my background, I guess, to use up what you have," she said. "I don't think I appreciated it until I was much, much older."
In the 1940s, a polio epidemic kept people out of pools and movie houses in Chicago, so Erhardt's family spent their summers at a family camp run by German immigrants near Portage, Ind. Like her own family, the people who ran the camp were very thrifty.
"You didn't dare drop a piece of paper on the paths going to the bathroom," Erhardt said. "There'd be somebody to tell you. In those days, adults would tell kids what to do."
Her summers at the camp were spent swimming, making up games, blueberry picking and gathering coal on the railroad track for the communal stove. She thinks those activities would bore most kids today, but it shaped her appreciation for the environment.
Erhardt's late husband came from a family with a similar lifestyle. His father was a mechanic but the family never owned a car. And one of her husband's hobbies was refinishing furniture, some of which still sits in her Forest Avenue home.
Erhardt was part of the League of Women Voters when they got involved with environmental issues after the first Earth Day in 1970. While serving as the chair of an environmental committee, she asked the River Forest public works director if they could start a recycling program in the village, and he agreed. So each block designated one person to go door to door and tell people what they could and could not recycle. Erhardt said the Boy Scouts handed out bins and brochures, and people embraced it.
Even though it has continued, there's still a lot more that can be done, she said. There should be more events like this weekend's extravaganza so people realize they can recycle a lot more than they probably think. More institutions, such as the airlines, should recycle more, she said. And parents should teach their kids that overconsumption can be wasteful.
Erhardt's activism these days is limited to the monthly column she writes on recycling for the Nineteenth Century Charitable Association in Oak Park. But if River Foresters need an advocate, it wouldn't be hard to convince her to pay a visit to village hall.
"We're using up so much of the planet's resources and not every country can be like the United States," she said. "There's not a planet big enough for all that."