A BENCH GROWS IN NEW MEXICO
6,000 pounds of plastic caps and lids… what to do, what to do?
Meet Bianca Cheney. A retired librarian, community influencer in Roswell, New Mexico, and plastic recycler extraordinaire. Ms. Cheney now works at her family owned printing company where she steps over piles of caps and lids as she moves through her work day. Where did they come from and why are they there?
Four years ago Librarian Cheney was looking for ideas to provide educational and fun projects for her students. It was time to move on from making mandalas, using sharpies on T-shirts and such to perhaps making fidget spinners out of plastic bottle caps and paper. In researching how to make the spinners Ms. Cheney found the website of Green Tree Plastics, a fencing supplier in Evansville, Indiana. A company that had been converting plastic lids and caps into lumber for 30 years.
This lumber manufacturer initiated an educational recycling program ten years ago, called ABC Promise Partnership. The company was approached by a young lady who had a brilliant and compassionate idea of putting a bench on the playground so that solitary students could sit there to signal to other students that they needed someone to play with. These are now called Buddy Benches. Green Tree took up the challenge and converted plastic caps and lids collected by the youth group into a bench; the benches became popular and soon Green Tree was selling these benches to youth groups throughout the country at a variable price from $250-$325, depending on color, plus collections of plastic lids and caps. The company now has 7,000 youth groups registered to participate in the program, including schools, Girl Scouts, 4-H, church youth groups, etc..
Cheney was impressed by the opportunity to teach math and environmental science. After taking a few years to figure out how to establish the program in a local school, she had students begin collecting plastic lids and caps. They sorted them, removed things that can’t be recycled, and measured their haul. They collected around 150 pounds of lids and caps which would almost be enough to convert to one bench. But, with Green Tree being 1,200 miles away, the school thought that was a long way to go to get a bench, so…..
A goal was set to collect 1,600 pounds of plastic for 8 benches. Ms.Cheney reached out to other organizations. Word spread quickly; a church youth group sorted materials and got a bench, a local Main Street group was looking for a grant for benches, so downtown merchants began to collect the lids and caps. Someone called and said they had a garage full. Youth and adult volunteers worked during spring break and summer sorting and measuring. Then COVID hit.
COVID stalled the process because they couldn’t travel. Finally, in December, they had a volunteer with a truck and a trailer ready to pick up the now 4,600 pounds of plastic sorted and bagged into alfalfa seed bags worth 26 benches. This volunteer, Jim, began to make the 17 hour drive with his precious cargo. When he reached the Texas/Oklahoma border he was stopped for not having the appropriate paperwork to cross the border. Although the officer was willing to let him proceed this one time, Jim turned around and went home to get the paperwork. Once secured, he was ready to go, this time with a bigger trailer to accommodate the now 6,000 pound, or 3 ton, cargo stuffed into 30 seed bags and stacked from end to end.
It took less than an hour for the bags to be dropped off and the benches to be picked up thanks to a process that includes setting an appointment and ordering the benches in advance. Green Tree converts lids and caps into pellets which are in turn made into lumber in 10 different colors. The benches are made to order with any combination of colors as desired. The color is solid, which makes graffiti removal a snap with a simple scrape. The benches are solid too, at 185 pounds each.
Enthusiasm for the program continues to grow in the community. The downtown area only got 17 out of the 30 benches they wanted, so they’re working to get more plastic. A couple of pharmacies save up to 14 pounds of caps each week. On any given Saturday morning, 15-20 volunteers eat pizza and sort the donations removing any paper, metal, bottles or pills from the collection. A local car repair shop cheerfully provides storage and sorting space. The local Rotary Club did a community grant project to add sidewalks and three benches to a park. You can guess what kind of benches they’re getting. Not one to miss an opportunity, Ms. Cheney even collects water bottle caps at her Rotary Club and other meetings and events.
The city used to provide recycling bins, but six months ago turned that operation over to a private company. This company has been so considerate as to set aside caps and lids in the same container and bring them to her office. A messy, but fruitful score.
Her program is so popular, people outside her community have begun to send her caps and lids as far away as Arizona.
At this stage, Ms. Cheney is looking for other youth groups to get involved, like an FFA group to put benches at fairgrounds. Youth groups can call Green Tree Plastics and register their group. Recently the company opened the program up to adults at a little higher price.
Ms. Cheney connected with the ESRAG Plastic Solutions Task Force in its 3-D Virtual Booth while attending the 2021-2022 Rotary International Convention. Her project is not a “club” project, even though members contribute caps, and have some of the benches. It is really a testament to what can happen when an individual decides to make a difference. But she believes that it would be a fine project for Rotary Clubs to do, or do in partnership with their Interact Clubs and youth organizations.
If you can think of any angle she hasn’t successfully pursued in collecting lids and caps, there’s no doubt she will graciously hear you out. But you’d best be quick about sharing your thoughts — she’s already got 500 pounds sorted and stacked for the next load.