To the Editor:

One trillion plastic bags are used annually around the world, each for an average duration of only twelve minutes. It takes at least 500 years for a plastic bag to photodegrade into toxic microplastic particles that contaminate the soil and waterways; these particles enter the food chain when animals ingest them and continue to pollute the environment. Eighty percent of ocean plastic pollution enters the water from land and more than 100,000 marine animals are killed annually due to plastic pollution (Earth Policy Institute).

Plastic bags do not belong in single-stream recycling - the system utilized by both Chatham Borough and Township. The presence of plastic bags in single-stream recycling clogs the machinery, resulting in lower efficiency as the bags must be removed by hand for the machinery to properly function. Therefore, it is crucial that we recycle plastic bags separately. In the United States, according to a study conducted by the Center for Biological Diversity, only 1% of the 100 billion plastic bags used are returned for recycling. By limiting plastic usage and participating in proper recycling methods, the community can greatly minimize its environmental footprint. 

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Recognizing the need for greater awareness of the detrimental effects of single-use plastic bags, I decided to tackle this issue within the Chatham community for my Girl Scout Gold Award. I discovered that the Bags to Benches program by Trex, a recycled materials manufacturer, provides a plastic film and bags recycling challenge for communities with an incentive of a bench made from recycled plastic. This challenge requires participating communities to collect 500 pounds of plastic films and bags (equivalent to about 40,500 plastic bags) within a six month time period.

To execute my plastic bag recycling initiative, I reached out to multiple leaders of the community, including members of the Chatham Borough Environmental Commission and the director of Chatham Borough Community Service, to receive their insight and advice on this project. I placed collection bins at the Library of the Chathams as well as Chatham High School. My responsibilities included creating awareness, emptying the collection bins, sorting through the collections to ensure that all items collected were acceptable materials, weighing and tallying the collections, and dropping it off at the Whole Foods in Madison, NJ, a designated location for the plastic bags collection.

The collection and support from the community far surpassed my expectations; I was able to collect over 1,000 pounds of plastic film in just over the course of six months. The collection was so successful that I needed to empty the bins on a daily basis - definitely a good problem to have! The immense amount of participation showed me that there was a need for a plastic bags recycling initiative within Chatham. The positive response and the feedback I received from the community motivated me to expand my efforts beyond the original goal of 500 pounds. The main purpose of my project was to raise awareness within the community. I achieved this goal by providing easily-accessible plastic bag recycling bins and sharing my initiative through the local newspaper, posters, and social media. While my initiative has been a ripple towards the greater wave of the fight against single-use plastic, I hope it has also inspired others to take action towards a more sustainable future.

Naila Ismail, Girl Scout Troop 1982