Julie Rosenbach is a one-woman sustainability shop for South Portland. When she arrived there in March of 2015, she was the city’s first-ever sustainability coordinator. We talked with her about her work, why she went for a ride-along on a garbage truck and what keeps her going, even in tough times for environmentalists.
HIRE ME: Rosenbach had been commuting (in a van pool, naturally) from South Portland to Lewiston, where she was the sustainability manager at Bates College for many years, so when she heard about the job in South Portland, she thought, ‘This is perfect.’ “I have never had an easier time writing a cover letter.” South Portland had come up with a Climate Action Plan, and then-city manager Jim Gailey was eager to take care of one key action item: bringing in someone to oversee implementing the plan. South Portland had already acquired a few electric vehicles and was exploring putting solar panels on its landfill. Rosenbach plays the role of “jack of all trades, master of none,” meaning she might not be an expert on solar, but she knows how to pull together a team that is and is ready to get it done. That’s the project management side of her job, but the universe of sustainability is wide open to her. “I am a one-person office so I try to define my scope.”
PHILOSOPHY: She doesn’t feel like an activist. “I feel quite practical.” And moderate. A project can’t go forward without community support. “It all has to make sense. That is why we worked so hard on the landfill project.” Last fall, at the city’s annual household hazardous waste collection event, Rosenbach greeted residents arriving to drop off waste, 400 cars of them. It was a chance to check in with South Portlanders. The city had just passed its landscape pesticide ban, an ordinance that won’t impose penalties on residents but is intended to encourage them to stop using glyphosate-based pesticides, among others. “It really split people apart.” So she was there to hand out pamphlets and answer questions. “I had three people say, ‘This is horrible.’ ” But most were really supportive. “A lot of sustainability is just change and helping people make shifts,” Rosenbach said. “How do we meet people where they are at and help move the city forward?”
TRENDING: As a municipal sustainability coordinator, Rosenbach is still something of a novelty in Maine. Portland and Falmouth both have them, and Scarborough just hired one. “And I am hoping that is a trend.” When she started at Bates, sustainability coordinators at colleges and universities were still uncommon, and now such positions are almost standard practice. For cities and towns that are considering ways to making strides in sustainability efforts, from solar farms to composting to helping residents minimize waste, Rosenbach has a message: “It doesn’t just happen. It takes some work to coordinate these things.”
IN THE BEGINNING: Because of her father’s career, Rosenbach spent a lot of time overseas as a child, living in Spain and Japan. But she went to the University of New Hampshire and after graduation headed to Washington, D.C., for what was called an internship at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but was a full-time post expected to lead to a permanent job. “You did four rotations within different offices to see where you wanted to land within the agency.” After just one rotation, she had chosen her path. “Office of Solid Waste, which gave everybody a kick” (the name, that is). Much of her work was on the product stewardship team. Translation: She helped get producers to take responsibility for what they were making at the end of its life. Take, for instance, laptops and smartphones, which when she started in 2000 were still relatively new. “They have toxic elements in them. They are not going to hurt you when they are on your desk, but if they get into a landfill and leak, then they are going to hurt you.” Europeans have been way ahead of Americans on this; Rosenbach’s work at the EPA revolved around getting Americans to follow suit and start thinking about a product’s life cycle – particularly those making money off these products.
PLEASE SIR: But these rules are almost never mandatory. Rosenbach’s office was in the non-regulatory section of the agency, which means it could only suggest and ask manufacturers to do better to change their business practices. Like, say, carpet manufacturers, one of the sectors she worked in. The EPA’s latest numbers on the amount of carpet that enters the solid-waste stream in the United States every year are from 2016 – long after Rosenbach left the agency – and they are shocking: over four billion pounds of carpet annually. They account for more than 1 percent of the weight and about 2 percent of the volume of all municipal waste. “It is a lot of material that was going into landfills, so how do we minimize it?” (Especially since many carpets are treated with chemicals that then leach into the ground.) Upcycling methods could include refurbishing for reuse, but getting companies to go greener upstream, during manufacture, is also vital. “It was an interesting lesson in trying to get voluntary action and make progress on an issue.” Did she succeed? “Um, yeah, but it was a long process.”
ADMISSIONS: Rosenbach stayed at the EPA for six years. Then, “I wanted to do something new, and I wanted to do something on a smaller scale.” In 2006 there wasn’t much of a search engine geared toward sustainability jobs, but Bates was advertising for a sustainability coordinator. “I was like, yes!” She and her partner both had a long-term goal of moving to Maine – Rosenbach’s had developed during a brief visit. “I stopped here for a weekend and I thought ‘Man, this is a fantastic place. I am going to live here someday.'” Bates allowed her a lot of leeway on the job, which included work educating students and staff. “I was more focused on building capacity and the support and understanding of sustainability.” She covered the bases, from dining hall waste to coordinating green cleaning efforts with custodians. That big, wide-open job approach isn’t that different in South Portland, “except I get to start over with 10 more years of knowledge.”
MEASURING THE MOOD: How does a sustainability coordinator who used to work at the EPA cope with a new presidential administration with an agenda that appears to be diametrically opposed to environmental protections (while campaigning, Donald Trump said of the EPA, “We’re going to get rid of it in almost every form.”)? “I’ll just say this: My partner is a stay-at-home mom and primarily she is home all day with the kids, and she is in despair about so many things. But we get to do so many great things on a local level that I am not losing hope. But man, the federal level.”
WHAT HELPS: “I feel driven by a sense of purpose, that this community is really doing something, and I get to be a part of it.” Like riding along on a trash truck – which will allow her to a) impress her daughters, who are 5 and 6 (she and her partner also have a 1-year-old son) and b) experience firsthand how pick-up works as she develops a pilot project for a curbside composting program for the city, which would require a third bin. “I would like to see if we could make it work.” In a couple of weeks she’ll be visiting second-graders in all the South Portland schools to talk about sustainability. She also worked on the ordinance to reduce pesticide use in South Portland. “And some days I am delivering recycling boxes to offices.” And that is fun, too.
Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at: