By Loretta Rowe, member of UUCF Climate Action Group

For this year’s Plastic Free Challenge, we’re making an effort to elevate the work of our Plastic Free partners around the DMV. Today we hear from the UUCF Climate Action Group.

“They’re under our sinks, all over our streets, and filling the stomachs of dead whales. . . . Plastics kill an estimated 100,000 marine mammals and a million seabirds every year, and once the bodies decompose the plastic persists to be eaten by yet more animals.” –The Guardian, June 9, 2019

A huge contributor to global plastic pollution is plastic bags. Fourteen billion single-use plastic bags are used annually by Americans, but only 1 percent are returned for recycling. This alarming statistic motivated the Climate Action Group of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax (UUCF) to organize a recycling project that succeeded in recycling 752 pounds of plastic bags and films.

Loretta and Michael Rowe weighing collected plastics.

The project started with a tour of the American Disposal Recycling Center in Manassas last year. On the tour we learned that plastic bags can’t be recycled in Fairfax County, and they do harm to the sorting equipment in single-stream recycling plants. We didn’t want to throw our plastic bags out, so we found a company—Trex, based in Winchester, Virginia—that collects plastic films and turns them into decking material and outdoor furniture. Trex offers recycling challenges for schools, universities, and other groups, including civic and faith-based groups. They’ll donate an outdoor bench to organizations that collect 500 pounds of low- and high-density polyethylene films within a six-month period.

To accomplish this daunting task, we joined with Unity of Fairfax, 350 Fairfax, Woodburn Homes Civic Association, and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Reston. We picked up the collections from each of our partners on a weekly basis, weighed and recorded our haul, and by pre-arrangement, delivered the plastics to the Oakton Giant Food, which then took them to a distribution center, where they were baled and trucked to Trex in Winchester.

Upon completion of this project, we were awarded an attractive outdoor bench that we in turn donated to Jackson Middle School, with a plaque saying, “More than 40,000 bags were recycled to earn this bench. Join the effort to protect our one common home, the Earth.” Our project was capped with a tour of the Trex facility, which was a most impressive example of a green operation!

While the volume of plastic collected—the equivalent of over 60,000 bags by the end of our project—was a significant accomplishment, another major achievement was education. Many participants indicated they were aware that grocery stores and some retailers collected plastic bags, but most did not know the extent of the collectible materials. We learned about the many plastic films that can be recycled, including bread and Ziplock bags, cereal box liners and bubble wrap, significantly increasing our donations to the recycling bins. Also, it seemed that the satisfaction from participating in a constructive group effort encouraged folks to become more involved in other environmental activities.

The project was such a success that UUCF is going to repeat the effort in 2020. Also, we are developing a Trex recycling tool kit, which should be available by the end of the year for other congregations to use in their own recycling projects. In the meantime, we’d be happy to answer questions. Our hope is that, until we achieve a #PlasticFreeDMV, keeping these plastic films out of our oceans and streams will lessen their impact on our precious planet Earth!

Contact to learn more about the Trex recycling project.