Crossing Austin BoulevardThis story is part of an ongoing series of articles that Austin Weekly News will publish about issues, events, people, places and things that show the interconnectedness of Austin and Oak Park.

The Austin Peoples Action Center, 5125 W. Chicago Ave. in Austin, will be receiving a new bench made entirely of intercepted grocery bags, Ziplock bags and other plastics that would have otherwise been dumped into landfills. 

“We’re really excited,” said Cynthia Williams, Austin Peoples Action Center CEO. 

The plastic collection is a joint effort between the Interfaith Green Network and the Clean Up-Give Back chapter of Oak Park and River Forest made possible through a recycling initiative coordinated by Trex, a manufacturer of eco-friendly outdoor furniture.

“If you collect 500 pounds within six months, they will make you a plastic bench,” said Interfaith Green Network’s Phyllis Rubin.

Judy Klem shows the donation bin on April 17, at Oak Park Temple. ( Alex Rogls/Staff Photographer)

The two groups began collecting in mid-March, quickly hitting that 500-pound mark, which corresponds to about 40,000 individual single-use plastic bags. 

“About three weeks in, we surpassed the goal,” said Judy Klem, of the Interfaith Green Network.

With enough plastic poundage amassed for the first bench, collection began for a second – a goal easily within reach. The caring hands have gathered a total of almost 970 pounds of plastic since they began collection efforts last month.

“It’s insane that we have collected so much plastic,” said Klem. “And it’s still coming.”

The idea to collect plastics for a bench came from Rubin, whom Klem called “the queen of plastics.” Rubin learned of the Trex initiative through her contacts within the Big Bold Jewish Climate Fest organization. 

She presented the idea to Klem and other members of the Interfaith Green Network. Klem in turn posted about the initiative on Oak Park’s zero waste Facebook group, where it was seen by Adrienne Eyer, president of the local Clean Up-Give Back chapter. Eyer suggested her chapter, made up almost entirely of high school students, get involved.

Brian Hammersley, of Oak Park, drops off plastic bag donations on April 17, outside of the Oak Park Temple on Harlem Avenue in Oak Park. (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer)

“We became this trifecta,” said Klem, who called the teenage partners “amazing.”

Collection bins are set up at Oak Park Temple, the lobby of the Oak Park Conservatory and Oak Park and River Forest High School’s student activity center. Volunteers and group members routinely empty the bins, which are often times overflowing. Sometimes the bins are emptied multiple times a day.

“It’s a sad state that there’s so much plastic coming out of our homes,” said Klem.

Once collected, the contents of the bins are weighed, documented and then brought to the Jewel-Osco in River Forest, where they are the shipped off to Trex. The grocery store, according to Eyer, has been integral to the project’s success.

“They have been nothing short of fantastic,” said Eyer. “They really have just been out of this world.”

Klem and Rubin expect the sheer volume of plastics collected has much to do with people being unable to use their reusable grocery bags for much of the COVID-19 pandemic, necessitating the utilization of single-use plastic bags. 

“What they did was they were saving all the plastic bags,” said Rubin, who stated she’s curious to see if the influx of plastic donations will taper off.

Grocery bags aren’t the only plastic item able to be deposited in the bins. Also able to be deposited are plastic coverings from a number of household items, including toilet paper wrapping, sandwich bags, newspaper sleeves, dry cleaning bags, cereal box liners. Plastics that can be described as crunchy should not be placed in collection bins.

Just as she suggested participating in the Trex initiative, Rubin suggested the first bench go to Austin Peoples Action Center. Already being manufactured, the bench will sit between two homes belonging to the center.

“What we use them for is to house high-risk babies or foster care babies,” said Williams. 

The yard between the two homes is undeveloped. Austin Peoples Action Center is working to convert the site into a garden through donations and grants. Williams told Wednesday Journal the center recently received an anonymous $1,000 donation to go toward purchasing plants and materials. 

“We’re now able to have a real nice garden and an area where we can sit and relax,” said Williams.

Once enough plastic for the second bench is collected, the groups will determine the exact location where it will be situated. For now, the Clean Up-Give Back teens hope that it will go in a public space able to be enjoyed by all.