“Paper or plastic?”
What is your answer when you are asked this question at your local grocery store?
If you answered “paper,” Eleanor Finne would be satisfied. If you said neither and handed the bagger a reusable cloth bag, she’d be even happier.
Eleanor, a junior at Eden Prairie High School, cares more about plastic bag pollution than most her age. So much so that last August, she decided to tackle the problem of prolific amounts of plastic bags in our world by creating a project to earn the prestigious Girls Scout Gold Award.
Working with her project advisor, Cheryl Larson, she learned about Bags 2 Benches, a program sponsored by Trex, the manufacturer of recycled decking and other products, that challenges participants to collect 500 pounds of plastic bags in exchange for a bench made of recycled plastic.
“Eleanor impressed me as being sincere, bright and concerned about environmental problems,” Larson said. “She seemed happy and capable to take on a project that would help the environment.
“I’m proud Eleanor has completed this project and so excited about her sharing and motivating others to take on this worthy project. She will be a wonderful spokesperson given her commitment to environmental issues.”
The bench, which recently arrived, has been donated to the City of Eden Prairie and awaits installation in a city park this summer.
Her efforts were recognized at a recent Eden Prairie City Council meeting, where Eleanor made a presentation about her project.
Plastic, plastic and more plastic
Plastic bags start out as fossil fuels and end up as deadly waste in landfills and the ocean, according to the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). Birds often mistake shredded plastic bags for food, filling their stomachs with toxic debris. Sea turtles mistake floating plastic shopping bags for jellyfish.
Fish eat thousands of tons of plastic a year, transferring it up the food chain to bigger fish and marine mammals, according to the CBD. Microplastics are also consumed by people through food and in the air.
It’s estimated that globally, people consume the equivalent of a credit card of plastic every week, according to the CBD, and it’s expected that there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050.
At first, Eleanor thought that collecting plastic bags didn’t sound difficult. That is until she and her dad actually began collecting and sorting them.
“The bags had to be stretchy,” she said. The crinkly kind aren’t as easily recyclable, she learned. Plastic shopping bags have to be recycled separately because they become snarled in the machines that handle regularly recyclables.
“We had to go through and sort through all of the bags and make sure that it was all plastic that can be recycled and that the bags are clean,” she said.
“They all weren’t,” she said with a wry smile. “Some of them were pretty gross.”
Once they were all sorted, she and her dad repacked them and delivered them to Kohl’s in Eden Prairie Center, she said.
Kohl’s is a collection point for plastic bags and stores the 30- to 50-pound, 50-gallon collection bags that are later picked up by Trex.
Sorting and packing the bags became a process of its own, Eleanor said.
“My dad and I figured out what worked best was for me to go through and sort through all the bags and then hand them to him,” she said. “Then what he would stack a bunch of them up and then roll them up all like a burrito to help make it more compact.”
Turns out that wasn’t the most efficient method.
“It was difficult to get bags all the way full and get at least like 25 pounds in each garbage bag,” she said. As the sixth-month project continued, they refined the process.
Because some bags, such as those for newspapers, were so small, it was hard to roll them up.
So they started shoving smaller bags into larger ones.
Shipping labels had to removed by hand. And then there were the occasional pieces of fruit and other assorted debris.
One of Eleanor’s goals is to make the project repeatable by other Girl Scout troops in the future. Another is to motivate people to save plastic bags and dispose of them properly.
Eleanor is required to perform 80 hours of public service for her Gold Award. She still has about 15 hours to go, and she plans to focus on community education about the dangers of plastic.
So, instead of stuffing plastic bags into bigger bags, she will be educating others about the benefits of her project in hope that they will do their own.
“Our project is focused on acknowledging that plastic is something extremely prevalent in our society,” she said. “But, personally, I think it will be better if we were to all switch to paper instead of plastic. Plastic is forever, paper can be composted, it can be broken down.”
Eleanor has been a member of Troop 17155, a small core of which has stayed together to earn advanced awards and continue the fun they’ve had over the years.
“We’ve been together since 2nd grade,” Eleanor said.
According to Trex, its plastic bag recycling partners in Minnesota include Cub Foods, Fresh Thyme, Home Depot, HyVee and Kohl’s.
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