On Nov. 15, in the lobby of the Oak Park Public Library Main Branch, 834 Lake St., a quartet of Oak Park and River Forest High School students unveiled a dark green bench made from upcycled plastics.

David Seleb, executive director of the Oak Park Public Library, was on site to welcome the bench donated by Clean Up Give Back, Takeout 25 and the Village of Oak Park. A plaque on the bench says, “Supporting our restaurants, upcycling our plastic, building a sustainable community.”

“We really didn’t know what we were getting into,” said Aubrey Johnston, Clean Up Give Back member, holding up a garbage bag. “This bag of plastic weighs 3.7 pounds. We collected 40,000 of these to get to the 500 pounds we needed to earn this bench.”

From left, Audrey Johnston, Lily Clifford, Frankie Krystal and Libby Bollinger, check out the bench on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, inside the Oak Park Public Library. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

The students are members of the Oak Park chapter of Clean Up Give Back, a Des Plaines based non-profit dedicated to building communities through environmental stewardship. Under the mentorship of Oak Park resident Adrienne Eyer, the student-led group joined forces with the Interfaith Green Network and accepted the NexTrex “plastic film recycling challenge.” Plastic film includes grocery bags, newspaper sleeves, bubble wrap and sandwich bags among others. Working in partnership with big box stores like Jewel Osco, NexTrex transforms film plastics into eco-conscious decking and challenges others to help support their work by increasing their plastic flow.

“In order to earn a bench, these students needed to collect 500 pounds of plastic film,” said Eyer. “We were told it would take six months to reach that goal, but they ended up collecting 2,200 pounds in 12 weeks. This bench is a testament to these kids and this community.”

The students managed collection boxes in several locations where residents could deposit qualifying film plastics. The receptacles were emptied, and contents were delivered to the River Forest Jewel, 7525 Lake St., to be shipped to Trex. There are clear rules in place that prohibit plastic donations from accumulating in the entryway areas of participating big box stores, but plastics came in so furiously that the store manager gave the group access to the loading dock to house the plastics — Eyer considers the Jewel staff to be the “heroes behind this project.”

The students were overwhelmed by community support for the project and wanted the bench to be placed in a public space where it could be used and appreciated by the community. The students also recognize the pandemic has increased the use of single-use plastics in the form of grocery bags and takeout food packaging. They reached out to Ravi Parakkat, Oak Park village trustee and Takeout 25 founder, in hopes he could use the momentum of Takeout 25 to help find a permanent home for the bench. 

From left, Audrey Johnston, Libby Bollinger, Frankie Krystal and Lily Clifford sit on the bench together on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021, inside the Oak Park Public Library. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

“Members of the Takeout 25 community have expressed concern about our increased use of single use plastics in the last year and it has been a sore point for me, too because I care deeply about these issues.” said Parakkat. “We want to support local restaurants and we also want a sustainable community.” Parakkat noted it took one call to the library to secure a spot for the bench. 

“I think this is the perfect place for the bench and we are honored to have it here,” said Seleb to the students. “One of the four strategic priorities at the library is stewardship so this fits in perfectly with the work the Oak Park Public Library is committed to doing in the community.”

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