Building benches with plastic

Group collecting public plastic waste for composite company opens drop-off

From left, In-Jeong Kim, Liz Murray and Sue Capone stand with one of the plastic film recycling bins in Saranac Lake, where they are collecting stretchable film plastics to to turn into recycled lumber, and get benches for the village in return. This bin is at Nori’s Cafe. There are also bins at Woods and Waters, Kinney Drugs and the Harrietstown Town Hall. (Provided photo — Bob Seidenstein)

SARANAC LAKE — A local group is turning thousands of pounds of plastic waste in Saranac Lake into benches for the community, and as it ramps up efforts to get plastic film donations from the public, it has opened a new drop-off location at the former St. Pius X High School on Petrova Avenue.

In-Jeong Kim, a researcher at the Trudeau Institute, learned about the composite decking company Trex’s NexTrex bench program in 2022. Now, after teaming up with the Saranac Lake Women’s Civic Chamber, the grassroots team has created the Community Bench Project.

The program is simple. They give Trex 1,000 pounds of a specific type of plastic to make “lumber” from, and Trex gives them a free bench made from its lumber in return. Trex mixes this plastic with wood chips in a 95% to 5% ratio to create its composite lumber. Trex estimates it reclaims around 1 billion pounds of this plastic each year.

Specifically, it is stretchable polyethylene plastic — mostly #4 Low Density Polyethylene and some thin #2 High Density Polyethylene in recycling terms. This plastic film is a light material, but it adds up to thousands of pounds quick, Kim said.

These are plastics that would usually end up in the trash but can be recycled into usable construction product.

From left, Rob Russell, Marty Rowley and Ray Murray hang a banner at the Community Bench Project drop-off shed at 33 Petrova Ave. in Saranac Lake. (Enterprise photo — Liz Murray)

Kim said she’s earned five benches so far. They’re currently waiting in her garage as she has plaques with information on how the benches were acquired coming in the mail.

A few years ago, she visited a friend in Colorado and helped them collect and sort plastics for this program with her friend’s Rotary Club. She wanted to replicate that here, so in September 2022 she went knocking on doors, asking who could participate.

She knew there’d be an appetite out there and quickly started collecting more than 100 pounds of plastic film per month from local furniture, hardware and clothing stores.

Enterprise Circulation Coordinator and 2024 Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Queen Liz Murray learned about Kim’s work while talking with her friend Tammy Morgan at this year’s North Country New Year event and invited Kim to give a presentation to the Saranac Lake Women’s Civic Chamber, which she co-chairs with Sue Capone.

This graphic was supplied by the NexTrex program.

Ocean issue

Polyethylene plastic film is hard to dispose of responsibly. Capone said trash and curbside recycling companies don’t want it because it gums up their machines. If it’s not just thrown away, it usually ends in zero-sort recycling bins, which are not reliably recycled well.

This program gives confidence that the plastic is actually being used and making a difference.

“It’s going to get recycled and it’s not going to end up in that big ball of plastic in the ocean,” Murray said.

Kim said she was thinking about the next generation, and all the plastic waste piling up in the ocean. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest island of trash. Located between Hawaii and California, it holds a potential of 2 million tons of plastic in an area twice the size of Texas.

Plastic bags, one of the plastic products the group is collecting, are one of the biggest plastic killers of marine animals. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that plastic pollution kills 100,000 marine mammals every year, everything from turtles to whales. The bags look like squid or jellyfish to these predators.

Kim said people generally agree that recycling plastic is good, but it is easy to be ignored.

“Many people are conscious about it, but don’t know how to approach it as an actionable item,” Kim said.

“You work hard, you get a tangible outcome as a reward,” she said of the bench program. “And that is good for every living creature on Earth.”

What is accepted?

These types of plastic are pretty common in everyday purchases, surprisingly common, Kim said.

“It’s everywhere in your household,” Kim said. “I’m a single person, but every week I notice that I generate a couple pounds of plastic.”

Stretchable polyethylene plastics include grocery and retail bags, Ziploc bags, bread bags, newspaper sleeves, bubble wrap, water bottle case overwrap, produce bags, toilet paper and paper towel wrap, ice bags, wood pellet bags, salt bags, cereal box liners, pallet wrap, air pillows, plastic shipping envelopes, electronics wrap, dry cleaning bags. Any stretchy plastic film labeled with a #2 or #4 recycling symbol is the right kind.

All of the plastic must be clean and dry.

There are a couple methods to determine if a plastic is the correct kind. It should be stretchy. If it tears, is crinkly or crunchy, or shiny, then it’s the wrong kind.

Another way to test is to hold a flame to it. If it drips when burned and smells like wax when the flame is snuffed out, then it is the right kind.

Examples of what not to donate include frozen food bags, candy wrappers, chip bags, net or mesh produce bags, pet food bags, six pack rings, personal protective equipment, pool covers, meat wrapping, shower curtains and tablecloths.

Where to donate

Murray said the village of Saranac Lake wanted some of these benches. The recycling group wanted a place to store and sort plastics.

So they worked out an agreement for the volunteers to get a community drop-off location at the former St. Pius X High School at 33 Petrova Ave. The village has plans to turn this building into an emergency services complex in the future, but it sits empty for now. The drop-off is at a shed near the rear corner of the building.

There are also drop-off bins at the Nori’s cafe, Woods and Waters, Kinney Drugs and in the Harrietstown Town Hall.

Now they want to expand the program and are putting out a call to action to anyone who wants to create neighborhood drop-offs, volunteer to sort plastics or get their business involved. They are asking interested people to contact them at communitybenchproject@gmail.com or on the Facebook group “Community Bench Project.”

“I would like to encourage all businesses, civic and volunteer groups and clubs to join us in this recycling effort,” Murray said. “I would be happy to come to their organization to provide details on how they can earn benches.”

Capone said the civic chamber has formed a “small army” of members to collect and process the plastics. They sort the plastics to make sure only the right material is submitted. In one hour, Murray said five people can process 50 pounds.

There’s now a long list of local businesses donating their plastic waste, including hotels, nonprofits, outdoor outfitters and other retailers. Murray said “mom and pop” stores are more likely to get involved because they have less hoops to jump through with upper management.

Murray said Lake Placid High School science teacher Tammy Morgan is also getting her school environmental group to help out.

Kim said the real solution is to ask companies to change their packaging, to cut off the clutter from the source. But until then, members of the Community Bench Project will be collecting all the stretchable plastic waste they can in Saranac Lake and getting benches for the town.


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article included the wrong last name for Sue Capone. The Enterprise regrets the error.


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