Three Oak Park women tentatively pivoted before the zero-waste station, studying the signs, sheepishly conferring with each other, plates of garbage in their unsteady grips.  Compost? Recycle? Landfill?  Which fork goes in which?  Do I have to scrape the remains of my pudding into compost before the plastic cup goes into recycling?  Is it even the right number plastic to be recycled?  Will I taint the entire bin of compost with environmentally hazardous garbage if I make the wrong decision?  Oh nooo!  

“This is how you make an Oak Parker crazy,” a gentleman remarked, watching the women’s angst over trash.  The burden of negligence combined with the inability to understand the posted placards describing types of trash forced a reckoning with one’s own environmental impact.

Last Friday’s Bite Nite event at the Nineteenth Century Club is the Chamber’s annual celebration of restaurants and food culture in our community.  Sold out for the fourth year in a row, this “taste of” party brings over 400 people to rub shoulders with fifty local chefs and sample their splendid offerings.

This year, with the help of Oak Park’s Sustainability Manager Mindy Agnew, we introduced a “zero-waste” approach to garbage.  Mindy herself set up zero-waste stations, brought in a special dumpster for compost and trained volunteers to help patrons figure out how to dispose of their plates, utensils and half-eaten bites.

It was terrific.  We had a few bumps but issues were primarily education, behavior and culture.  Like so many important issues in our area, we have strong progressive values but don’t always know how to incorporate supportive behaviours into everyday living.  While I am proud to say I am an environmentalist, I was unexpectedly humbled by a simple trash system that called for me to know the difference between compost and landfill.  Say what??

Mindy was great.  Our volunteers were amazing.  By the end of the night we had not only “done a good thing” but educated everyone there.  Well maybe not everyone: those precocious millennials and gen-xers not only sorted and tossed their trash with one fluid motion, they acted like this was totally normal.

And it will be.  Soon.  We can be taught.

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Cathy Yen

Cathy Yen is the Executive Director of the Oak Park River Forest Chamber of Commerce.  She has lived in Oak Park for 21 years and done business locally, first as a retailer and then as a small business...