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 asks, relaying a resident’s inquiry.
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 refuse removal and recycling, she’s spent over two decades working to reduce the amount of material Oak Parkers send to landfills.
“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 main environmental focus is on carbon emissions from automobiles.
Rozmus has been around since the early days of recycling in the village and pushed for initiatives like curbside recycling and food composting.
Now she has announced, at a public meeting earlier this year, that she’s likely to retire from the position sometime next year.
Waste is a resource
One of her guiding principles is seeing the waste stream as a resource.
She first became involved in the recycling movement in the late 1980s and early ’90s 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 dedicated to recycling in her hometown of Forest Park and began writing a column about recycling in the early ’90s for the Forest Park Review.
“Our mayor at the time, Lorraine Popelka, asked me to serve on the citizen advisory committee for the West Cook Solid Waste Agency,” Rozmus recalled.
A few years later, the village of Oak Park recruited her 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; the continuation of Oak Park’s 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. An effort to begin recycling Styrofoam material, also known as #6 plastic, failed “because no one was buying it to make something new out of it.”
Reusing polystyrene is difficult, she noted, because sometimes the product, when used as packing material for instance, is treated with fire retardants or other chemicals that make it impossible to reuse.
Other proposals have been more successful, like the recent food-scrap composting program launched by the village in 2012. 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 to 1,040 households sharing 967 carts today, she said.
True to her ethos, Rozmus said 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 nonprofit 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 feels 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.
Other communities, he noted, 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 sustainable products for her store and worked with her to establish the village’s 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?
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, which 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 ahead.
“I know my mom’s got some dolls and my sister and sister-in-law have some dolls,” she said, “but I don’t know if I’ve created anything for the next generation.”