by Roman Phillips
Roman Phillips is on a mission to make a difference in his community. In this series of entries, he chronicles steps he has taken to improve wildlife habitat and help clean up his neighborhood.
A Seed Is Planted
Many times I have heard the phrase, “Think globally, act locally” and wondered, “But, what can I do?” Thoughtfully investigating on how I can make a difference at such a young age has placed me on a local conservation path that I hope makes a global impact.
Often I watched my parents pick up litter while walking our dog in our neighborhood and even though I may not have understood why they did it, I realize I did not like seeing trash when I was out in the wild. Although I started picking trash up occasionally because I did not like seeing it, my attitude about litter changed significantly once I joined Cub Scouts as a first grader. By my ninth birthday, our Scout Den regularly picked up litter near our meeting place. While walking on the trails in our community, we earned the “Leave No Trace” award and even started our own chant, “Leave no trace or stay at home!”
On many Scouting adventures, I enjoy viewing wildlife. One particular area near my home always caught my attention.
My neighborhood has an extensive trail network stretching more than twenty miles. Many times I noticed how water was pooling up and attracting wildlife from storm drains that were draining under the road. An abundance of water and food will tend to attract wildlife, but not everyone’s diet consists of what we consider food. I soon discovered the food source for the wildlife was insects including an abundance of mosquitoes. I also learned about West Nile virus. Knowing how standing water attracts mosquitoes, I decided to do something about the standing water, but first I needed to remove the wildlife, particularly the ducks that had moved into this artificial pond.
Near this area of standing water, there are two small lakes in my neighborhood divided by a dam with a trail. Having visited the area on multiple outings, I noticed duck boxes around the lakes, but never actually saw ducks on the lake. Realizing these duck boxes were not maintained, I researched the boxes and learned they were for wood ducks. I decided to rebuild these wood duck boxes for my Eagle Scout project in the hopes of relocating the ducks from the storm drain area.
Plastic Film Recycling
Several times each year, I volunteer at Adopt-a-Stream and Adopt-A-Road outings with Scouts and the Baxter Trail Club. A common find is single use plastic bags and similar trash while picking up litter. I learned through my “Leave No Trace” studies these plastic items take an extraordinary amount of time to break down in natural settings.
At one time, York County accepted this type of material in the recyclables they collect. Unfortunately, York County stopped accepting plastic film, better known as thin one-time use shopping bags. Actually, York County recyclers were informed other recyclables could not be dropped off at convenience centers in plastic bags. I noticed the changes while dropping off our own household recyclables and decided to learn more about the changes.
After contacting York County Recycling, I was able to talk to Mrs. Leslie Hatchell. Not only did she answer my questions and supply me with useful information, but she also arranged for my dad and I to visit the newly finished Multifunction Recycling Facility (MuRF) located on Recycling Road in York.
Upon our arrival, we met the York County Recycling team and toured the facility. They informed us the new facility cost $8.4 million and whenever a piece of plastic film was sent through the machine, it would get caught in the many belts and rollers. They explained this happens about twice each week and each time it occurs, the sorting equipment is shut down for around three hours to remove the plastic film and return the MuRF back in operation. This costs York County with up to six employees unable to work due to lack of the necessary equipment to keep them working. Furthermore, I learned plastic film must remain clean and dry in order for it to be recycled. This creates another obstacle because York County does not have storage capability to keep plastic film clean and dry.
Upon leaving the recycling facility, I decided to make a difference. I needed to figure out how to recycle plastic film. Through research , I learned Trex, the composite lumber company, actually uses plastic bags with the number 2 and 4 to make their composite lumber.
Trex offers two different recycling programs. One for schools and colleges and one for towns and other groups. I decided to start a community recycling program. At fourteen years old, I am trying to make a local and global difference.
Plastic Film (Continued)
After making the decision to start a recycling program, I reached out to Ms. Hicks at Trex and informed her of my start date. A start date? Yes! With the Trex program, every 500 pounds an organization recycles in a consecutive six-month period, the organization receives a bench made with the recycled material. Initially, 500 pounds did not sound like very much. I was enlightened once I started collecting the material. I have discovered 500 pounds of plastic film is the equivalent of 40,500 plastic shopping bags.
I decided to start the program on January 1, 2020. This gave me a month to educate my neighbors about my intentions and what to start saving. I contribute articles to my neighborhood newsletter which is distributed to over 1,500 houses so the next article informed my neighbors about my recycling plans.
Trex supplies each organization with two cardboard boxes and a few printed posters. I approached the HOA Board and they eagerly approved the recycling project, but they wanted collection containers to match the exterior of the buildings where they were to be installed. The HOA Board also wanted one of the collection containers placed in a parking lot so I had to design a roof for my second collection container.
I reached out to Ms. Hicks for the container measurements to design containers to be approved by the HOA Board. I made some basic drawings and with the help of my grandfather, a retired engineer, we came up with a design plan. Soon afterwards, the Board approved my plans and I set out to build two collection containers.
After completing the first container, I believed it was too large. So, I modified my plans and I built the second one half the size of the first container. I also designed a roof for the second box to protect the film from getting wet.
While working on these boxes, I scheduled dates on my Plastic Film Facebook page, @BaxterFilm to pick up plastic film directly from my neighbors. By March, both boxes were installed and I pick up the film about once each week. I sort through the film and remove labels and non-recyclables. Then, one of my parents helps me drop it off at approved Trex locations.
Since January 1, 2020, my neighbors have recycled over 1,000 pounds of plastic film, approximately 81,000 plastic shopping bags.
As previously stated, I participate in Adopt-A-Stream and Adopt-A-Road activities through Scouts and the Baxter Trail Club. On my walks to the lakes to observe duck activity from my Wood Duck boxes, I always pass a stream that seems continuously full of trash. I researched where the litter originates and decided to do my local part in helping keep the area clean.
I traced the streams to their source and discovered the stormwater drains from Interstate 77 are the start of the stream and they were inundated with trash!
I reached out to my Plastic Film Project Advisor at York County, Ms. Alysen Woodruff, and she connected me with Mr. Dissington with York County Community Outreach. I informed him I wanted to fix this problem. He was more than happy to drop off some supplies. I also had my dad pick up some bags from the York County office which normally handles the Adopt-A-Road program.
After formulating a plan and gathering supplies, the only thing I needed was manpower. Projects requiring lots of hands and help require creativity. Normally my Scout Troop would be a great resource for manual labor, but most Scouts live near our meeting location and I’m roughly 45 minutes away. A great source to ask for help includes like-minded people. In my neighborhood, we have a trail club, the Baxter Trail Club. Although it’s named after the Village of Baxter, where the group started, it has members in many area neighborhoods. Living in a large neighborhood, I was also able to recruit friends and local residents, who have followed me on my other projects.
Since March 15, 2020, I have coordinated more than ten workdays and my volunteers have removed over 5,500 pounds of trash that came from storm drains on Interstate 77 or from under Interstate 77. I am now working on tracking where the storm drains originate and will start a educational plan to inform office workers in the business park across the Interstate where trash they leave in their parking lots actually goes.
I’ve also sent soil and water samples from the storm drains to a new friend in the Environmental Toxicology Laboratory at Clemson University. The initial results are very interesting. However, the most important thing I have learned since starting these projects is it never hurts to ask anyone for help. The answer is usually, “Yes, I can!”
January 2021 entry
My neighborhood ended up recycling over 2,000 pounds of plastic film, and we ended up picking up more than 7,500 pounds of trash from my stream clean up project by the end of 2020!
We started a third cycle of plastic film recycling, and I have encouraged the YMCA in my neighborhood to start their own plastic film recycling program.
We have a Stream Clean-Up day scheduled for January 18, 2021. The few times I have made it around Lake Elliott in the last two weeks, I have been encouraged by the return of the ducks.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on South Carolina Wild are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect official policies, positions, or endorsements of activity or products by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.