Recycling Program Turns Bottles to Benches

Park Benches Made With Recycled Plastic

Turning the fruits of a recycling program into tangible results has proven hugely successful for the Chicago Park District and the city’s residents.

Chicago’s 563 parks are now being covered in garbage. But it is in the form benches, playground barriers and other items composed completely of plastic donated by residents in the city’s Plastic On Parks (POP) program.

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At the start of the two-year-old project, 400 pounds of plastic was being collected each week, said Fred White, director of recycling for the park district. Now, more than 40,000 pounds of plastic are brought to the city’s 260 recreation centers every week.

“When you contribute to a project and can see what your efforts are creating, it’s a lot easier to get excited about it,” White said. “They know their plastic bottles are becoming useful items.”

Under the program, residents bring their empty plastic milk, water and pop containers to their local city recreation center. Because of the volume, the park district has dedicated a truck solely to collecting the bottles, and must stop at some of the centers every day.

The bottles are then sorted and bailed before being shipped to Hammers Plastic Recycling in Iowa Falls, Iowa. This company creates plastic lumber out of the plastic and returns it to Chicago.

“Our contract says the company must return the plastic we give them,” White said. “This is why people do it — they can see what is being done with the plastic.”

A majority of the plastic wood received so far has been used to refurbish some of the city’s 630 playgrounds. A 12-inch-high perimeter wall is built around each playground using the lumber, and the inner area then filled with a soft material like wood chips or sand, he said. The unique lumber also has been used to build park benches and floating docks.

“Our carpenters have no problem with the plastic,” he said. “It cuts like wood, saws like wood and nails like wood.”

But the plastic lumber doesn’t deteriorate like wood, and children don’t have to worry about splinters. Also, the plastic is graffiti resistant because it is non-porous and can easily be cleaned, White added.

“We’ve collected more than 2 million pounds of plastic since we started,” he said. “If we’ve diverted that much material from landfills, then we’ve helped lengthen the lives of those landfills and benefited everyone here.”

The park district has received many inquiries from other cities regarding the POP program, White said, and has offered lend whatever assistance it can to help establish similar recycling programs in other communities.

Earth Tip: Approximately 350,000 plastic bottles are used to refurbish one playground under Chicago’s POP program.

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