Published December 13th, 2023 at 6:00 AM4 minute read
There are two brand new benches along the Turkey Creek Streamway Trail in Merriam. They exist because 1,000 pounds of plastic bags did not end up in a landfill.
The city of Merriam is one of the latest local beneficiaries in a program offered by Trex Co. Inc., a billion-dollar company, in which plastic bags are collected and weighed before being recycled as free park benches.
The Merriam benches joined others created through this program found throughout the area. Recycled benches have been installed in Belton, Lenexa, Mission, Overland Park, Shawnee, and both Kansas City, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas.
“The recycling is important but getting the bench is cool,” said David Hentges, secretary and founder of the Kansas City Downtown Lions Club.
The club has collected enough plastic bags in the past three years to get six benches.
Trex started its recycling effort in 2006 in its hometown of Winchester, Virginia, to help educate students on the importance of recycling and how to recycle plastic bags and film. Trex is a publicly traded company that makes composite decking, railing and outdoor living products.
The recycling program began simply.
Bins were set up at local schools. The plastic was picked up by Trex employees and eventually turned into composite decking.
The effort has since evolved into a national self-service program called NexTrex. Schools, community organizations or municipalities can now take collected materials to be weighed at designated recyclers.
There is a robust list of qualified items: shopping bags; bread bags; resealable food storage bags; produce bags; the plastic wrapping around bottled water, toilet paper and paper towels; and even the air pillows used in shipping.
Trex estimates that in the past 30 years it has upcycled more than 5 billion pounds of polyethylene plastic film, the formal name for the plastic. In 2022, Trex recycled 337 million pounds of polyethylene plastic film in the making of its composite decking products.
Of that total, 2 million pounds was collected by approximately 3,300 community organizations and municipalities through NexTrex. The collected plastic is baled and sent to Trex.
Trex said its decking products are made from 95% recycled material, including a roughly 50/50 mix of polyethylene plastic film and reclaimed industrial wood scrap.
The company tries to make it easy for people to recycle plastic, said Stephanie Hicks, materials and recycling programs manager for Trex. Collectors are given instructional videos, promotional materials and recycling bins.
“Our goal with the NexTrex programs is to engage as many partners as possible,” Hicks said.
The year 2017 was a watershed for the program.
“Back around 2017, I believe, Lions Clubs International featured a write-up in its member newsletter about a club in Poquoson, Virginia, that collected plastic film for Trex,” Hicks said. “That article created a huge surge in participation from clubs across the country, many of which continue to participate to this day.”
That includes the Downtown Kansas City Lions Club.
Hentges of the Lions Club here said his organization is no stranger to recycling. Some of the more popular items to collect include eyeglasses and pop tops.
Recycling plastic bags was a natural extension and a huge success, Hentges said.
“People are really excited that they don’t have to throw the plastic away,” he said.
The program recently changed to requiring at least 1,000 pounds of recycled polyethylene plastic film within a year. The reward has remained the same — a 48-inch Trex bench with a retail value of $359.
The benches are actually made with Polywood from recycled high-density polyethylene from items such as milk jugs, detergent containers, shampoo bottles, lotion bottles and cleaner spray bottles.
The city of Merriam didn’t need a year to earn a bench.
Merriam first announced its recycling project in late February. The goal was to collect 500 pounds in six months, which was the old requirement for a bench.
Within one month, 256 pounds had been collected. By mid-April, Merriam hit the 500 pounds – and more. The city decided to go for a second bench and by the beginning of June – or about four months after launching the campaign – reached the needed 1,000 pounds.
For perspective, it takes about 81,000 plastic bags to reach 1,000 pounds.
“We were pretty amazed by the response by the community,” said Jenna Gant, Merriam’s communications and public engagement manager.
Amazed but not surprised.
“It seems there is a need for this,” Gant added. The response was overwhelming in a good way.
“People are becoming more environmentally conscious. They want to do good.”
People like the members of Girls Scout Troop 2856 in Overland Park. Last April, the girls thought bag recycling was a terrific way to help earn their Eco Friend badge. The troop – which has 12 members now in fourth grade – earned the bench by November.
“It made them feel good because they were doing a service to their community,” said troop leader Lisa Miller. “It’s a small part, but it is something.”
After realizing the bench did not come in their favorite colors of pink and purple, the troop agreed on gray. The bench has been delivered, and now the troop is deciding where it should be placed.
All this collecting and recycling is being done at a time of great debate over plastic bags.
The Lawrence City Commission has adopted an ordinance banning use by most businesses of single-use plastic bags beginning March 1.
“The need and desire to recycle plastic bags and film does not go away just because a bag ban is put in place,” Hicks of Trex said. “Additionally, all of the other packaging and flexible plastic materials that Trex recycles through its store drop-off is still being produced and needs a recycling home.”
Interested in making bags into a bench? Learn more about the NexTrex program.
Flatland contributor Debra Skodack is a Kansas City-area freelance writer.