Girl Scout project turns plastic pollution into recycled bench for city park

“Paper or plastic? »

What is your answer when 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.

Mayor Ron Case with Eleanor in the Eden Prairie City Council Chamber where she made her presentation to council. Photo submitted

Eleanor, a junior from 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 the prolific amounts of plastic bags in our world by creating a project to win the prestigious Girls Scout Gold Award.


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Working with her project advisor, Cheryl Larson, she discovered Bags 2 Benches, a program sponsored by Trex, the maker of recycled decking and other products, which challenges participants to collect 500 pounds of plastic bags by exchange for a recycled plastic bench. .

“Eleanor impressed me as sincere, bright and concerned about environmental issues,” Larson said. “She seemed happy and able to take on a project that would help the environment.

“I am proud that Eleanor has completed this project and am so excited to share and motivate others to take on this worthwhile project. She will be a wonderful spokesperson given her commitment to environmental issues.

Presentation of Eleanor Finne to Eden Prairie City Council April 2022
A leaflet explains Elearnor’s Bags 2 Benches project.

The bench, which arrived recently, was donated to the City of Eden Prairie and is expected to be installed in a city park this summer.

Her efforts were recognized at a recent Eden Prairie Town Council meeting, where Eleanor made a presentation about her project.

Plastic, plastic and more plastic

According to the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), plastic bags are fossil fuels first and end up as deadly waste in landfills and the ocean. Birds often mistake shredded plastic bags for food, filling their stomachs with toxic debris. Sea turtles mistake floating plastic shopping bags for jellyfish.

According to the CBD, fish eat thousands of tons of plastic a year, transferring it up the food chain to larger fish and marine mammals. Microplastics are also consumed by humans in food and in the air.

Globally, people are estimated to consume the equivalent of a plastic credit card every week, according to CBD, and there is expected to be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050.

First steps

At first, Eleanor thought collecting plastic bags didn’t seem difficult. That is until she and her father start collecting and sorting them.

“The bags had to be expandable,” she said. The crumpled kind isn’t as easily recyclable, she learned. Plastic shopping bags should be recycled separately because they get stuck in machines that regularly process recyclables.

“We had to go through and sort all the bags and make sure everything was recyclable plastic and the bags were clean,” she said.

plastic bags
Eleanor and her father waded through thousands of plastic bags like these during her project. Photo submitted

“Not all of them were,” she said with a wry smile. “Some of them were quite rude.”

After they were all sorted, she and her father repackaged them and delivered them to Kohl’s at Eden Prairie Center, she said.

Kohl’s is a collection point for plastic bags and stores 30-50 pound and 50 gallon collection bags which are then picked up by Trex.

Sorting and packing bags has become a process in its own right, Eleanor said.

“My dad and I figured out that what worked best was me going through and sorting through all the bags and then handing them over to him,” she said. “Then he would stack a bunch of them and then roll them all up like a burrito to help make it more compact.”

Turns out that wasn’t the most effective method.

“It was difficult to completely fill the bags and put at least 25 pounds in each trash bag,” she said. As the sixth month project continued, they refined the process.

Because some bags, like those for newspapers, were so small, it was difficult to roll them up.

So they started putting smaller bags inside bigger bags.

Shipping labels had to be removed by hand. And then there were occasional pieces of fruit and other assorted debris.

And after?

One of Eleanor’s goals is to make the project replicable by other Girl Scout troops in the future. Another is to motivate people to save plastic bags and dispose of them properly.

Eleanor must complete 80 hours of public service for her Gold Award. She still has about 15 hours left and she plans to focus on community education about the dangers of plastic.

So instead of stuffing plastic bags into larger bags, she’ll educate others about the benefits of her project in hopes that they’ll make their own.

Members of Eden Prairie Boy Scout Troop 17155. (L to R) Chloe Russo, Megan Wilson, Eleanor Finne, Finnley Abbott, Elizabeth Alexander, Nicolette Johnson, Shreya Saini. Photo submitted

“Our project aims to recognize that plastic is something extremely prevalent in our society,” she said. “But, personally, I think it would be better if we all had to go to paper instead of plastic. Plastic is eternal, paper can be composted, it can be decomposed.

Eleanor was a member of Troupe 17155, a small core of which have stuck together to earn advanced rewards and keep the fun going over the years.

“We have been together since the 2n/a level,” 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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Bryce K. Locke