Parishioners at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Fryeburg and St. Joseph Church in Bridgton embrace bags to bench program

Parishioners embrace bags to bench program

When parishioners arrive for Mass at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Fryeburg or St. Joseph Church in Bridgton, they often don’t come empty handed. Instead, they bring with them bubble wrap, newspaper sleeves, empty storage bags, pellet bags, and other light plastics.

“People have been very good about getting into the mode of collecting,” says Ann Williams, a member of St. Joseph Parish’s Social Justice and Peace Commission, which is active at both churches.

Through the efforts of the commission, the churches are participating in the NexTrex Recycling Challenge. The Virginia-based Trex Company, which makes composite decking and other items out of recycled material, invites organizations to collect light plastics. For every 1,000 pounds turned in within a year’s time, the reward is a new bench.

Ann and her husband, Boyd Smith, spearhead the project. She says she saw information on it in an email from the Institute for Aging at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine in Standish and thought it would be a perfect fit for the parish.

“I just thought, ‘Those benches are great,’” she says. “I thought it’s something we can do that is not going to be too difficult, and it will involve the entire community. It’s a community-building thing,” she says.

And, of course, it benefits the environment.

“We want to take care of the earth. Like the pope said, it’s our common home. Think about two little churches gathering this much plastic, then think about the volume of plastic in our waste stream and in our landfills,” Ann says.

After getting approval, Ann signed the parish up for the program. Trex provides collection bins and informational material, along with a list of drop-off locations from which to choose. Ann and Boyd selected the nearby Hannaford supermarket.

Every Sunday, Boyd collects the plastics brought into St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, and every Thursday, he travels to St. Joseph Church to do the same. He brings them to their barn in Lovell and then goes through them to make sure everything meets the recycling guidelines.

“Right now, I have four big trash bags I haven’t gone through. I’ll have two more out of here today, and I’ll have some more Thursday. I’ll spend an hour and a half or two hours just going through and sorting it out,” he says. “There is certain plastic you can’t have.”

“If it crinkles, you can’t take it,” says Ann.

There also can’t be any paper, such as mailing labels.

“We have someone in the parish who has a relative who works at Ralph Lauren, and articles of clothing that come in there are all in plastic bags, but they have paper on it. So, we watched a football game one day, and we were just cutting paper off the plastic,” says Ann.

When ready, Boyd puts the recyclable plastic in large, clear bags, weighs them on the scale in his barn, marks the weight on the side of each bag, and then Ann takes a picture of them, which is uploaded to the company’s website. Boyd then drops them off at Hannaford.

“We just take it there and leave it. They don’t know it’s from us. It’s the honor system,” says Ann.

Originally, the company only required 500 pounds of plastic to earn a bench, which the churches already achieved, as evidenced by the new bench in the parish hall at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Parishioners are now well on their way to collecting the necessary 1,000 pounds for a second bench.

“It just resonated with parishioners, but not only that, in the end, you have such a lovely product. To actually see that this bench was compressed with the plastics that were collected is just amazing,” says Kathleen Stevens, a member of the Social Justice and Peace Commission.

“It’s made us aware of recycling and the things that we would normally put in the trash stream. Once you start doing it, it’s difficult to put something in the trash can that you’ve been putting in the recycling bin,” says Father Edward Clifford, pastor. “It’s in keeping with Laudato Sí and protecting the earth and helping to preserve God’s creation.”

Not only have parishioners gotten on board, but some businesses have as well, with the thought that some day benches from the program could dot the town’s parks.

“It’s just been wonderful,” says Kathleen.

This isn't the first environmental endeavor embraced by the Social Justice and Peace Commission. Back in 2021, a new garden, which was declared a St. Kateri Habitat, was dedicated at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church. Other ongoing initiatives include Blessing Bags containing toiletries and snacks that parishioners take and keep in their cars in case they encounter someone who might need one. There is also the Dinner Bell, a weekly community dinner, and the parish uses Equal Exchange coffee.

“Everyone is very, very supportive,” says Ed Stevens, a commission member. “We definitely know that God is with us.”

“It reminds us to be aware of the needs of others,” says Father Clifford. “It’s a way that we can put our faith into action.”

Recycling box
Kathleen Stevens
Green bench
Father Edward Clifford celebrating Mass
Ann Williams and Boyd Smith stand next to a recycling box.