It’s a typical day at the Oak Park Public Works Department and Karen Rozmus, environmental services manager, is busy fielding questions from residents.
“Have you got a suggestion for recycling a lawnmower,” a public works staffer inquires for a resident.
Pool liners, X-rays from an old doctor’s office, you name it and Rozmus has probably heard it.
“People in Oak Park want to recycle everything,” she said.
That’s music to Rozmus’ ears because as the village employee who oversees garbage removal and recycling, she’s spent over two decades working to reduce the amount of material Oak Parkers send to a landfill.
Rozmus has been around for the early days of recycling in the village and pushed for initiatives like curbside recycling and food composting.
She announced earlier this year at a public meeting that she’s likely to retire from the position sometime next year.
“The third largest generator of methane is a landfill,” she said during a recent interview, noting that the “very potent greenhouse gas” is often overlooked because the environmental focus is on carbon emissions from automobiles.
One of Rozmus’ guiding principles is her position that the waste stream is a resource.
She first became involved in the recycling movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s with her children drinking soft drinks. “I had the cans in my hand and I said, ‘I know there’s something we can do with this.'”
She joined a committee in her hometown of Forest Park dedicated to recycling and began writing a column in the early 1990s for the Forest Park Review about recycling.
“Our mayor at the time, Lorraine Popelka, she asked me to serve on the citizen advisory committee for the West Cook Solid Waste Agency,” Rozmus recalled.
A few years later she was asked by the village of Oak Park to take an interim post for the recently vacated environmental services manager position.
“I was asked to serve a three-month contract,” she said. “I found out I liked it and 21 years later here I am.”
During that time she’s advocated for increased recycling by the village and the collection of plastic recycling; food-scrap composting; establishment of Oak Park’s own Earth Day celebration; and many other initiatives.
Rozmus applauds Oak Park’s commitment to environmental sustainability, but not all of her plans have worked out over the years. She noted an effort to begin recycling Styrofoam material, also known as #6 plastic, but said, “It failed because no one was buying it to make something new out of it.”
She said reusing the polystyrene is difficult because sometimes the material, when used as packing material for instance, is treated with fire retardants or other chemicals that make it impossible for reuse.
Other proposals have been more successful, like the recent food-scrap composting program launched by the village in 2011. For $14 a month, residents can get a 96-gallon food-scrap cart to cut down on the amount of garbage going to landfills. The program has grown from 110 households in 2012, when the pilot program was launched, to 1,040 households sharing 967 carts, she said.
Following her waste-as-a-resource ethos, Rozmus says the program produces “black gold” because the compost is returned as dark soil that can be picked up for free. She noted that local schools, churches and the Oak Park Farmers’ Market also participate in the food-scrap composting program.
In addition to overseeing the village’s recycling and garbage pickup efforts, Rozmus has been a resource for local non- and for-profit operations in the village dedicated to the environment.
Gary Cuneen, founder and executive director of the Oak Park-based sustainability group Seven Generations Ahead, said he’s been fortunate to partner with Rozmus on initiatives like the food-scrap composting program.
“Working with municipal government it’s really critical to have players on the inside who share a common vision and want to collaborate, and that’s what we’ve experienced with Karen,” he said.
Seven Generations works with a number of municipalities and, “There are a lot of other people in Karen’s position that aren’t as well-versed or aren’t advocating for comprehensive waste reduction …” Cuneen said.
He said other communities look to Rozmus’ work in Oak Park as an example of sustainability done right. “It’s one of the few communities with residential curbside food-scrap collection,” he said.
Maria Onesto Moran, owner of Green Home Experts, a retail store that moved exclusively online earlier this year, said Rozmus was a major resource for her when she opened the store in 2008.
“I learned quickly that if you want something done, you ask Karen,” she said.
Onesto Moran said “the queen of green” – her nickname for Rozmus – suggested products for her store sought by sustainability advocates and worked with her to establish the village’s first Earth Day celebration.
“Karen, in many ways, is what makes the world go around,” she said.
So after years of talking trash at village hall and being a pioneer in municipal sustainability, what’s next for Karen Rozmus?
She said after she retires, she’ll likely return to her earlier love of making porcelain miniature dolls. Prior to becoming Oak Park’s garbage czar, Rozmus spent years making dolls that she sold at various shops and doll shows.
“I did dolls for about 18 years,” she said, adding that she also taught classes and wrote articles on doll making.
But as is her way, Rozmus already is looking toward the future in her retirement.
“I would like to make some dolls for me,” she said. “I don’t even know if the members of my family have any. I know my mom’s got some dolls and my sister and sister-in-law has some dolls, but I don’t know if I created anything for the next generation.”