LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — While the state and local towns grapple with ways to reduce the use of plastic bags and their impact on the environment, an elementary school district in Ocean County is helping in its own way.

The Little Egg Harbor Township School District is collecting plastic bags and other packaging materials to be recycled as part of a nationwide contest by the composite decking company TREX.

“Think about it, you a get a plastic bag at the supermarket and you just throw it out,” said Trina Reigelman, a paraprofessional for Little Egg Harbor Township schools. “And we’re keeping the plastic out of the ocean and out of the street.”

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TREX, based in Virginia, mixes wood and plastic to create decking materials. According to the company, the average 500-square-foot composite Trex deck contains 140,000 recycled plastic bags, making the company one of the largest plastic bag recyclers in the U.S.

Reigelman serves as the energy manager for the school district, a position started about seven years ago as a way to save money and encourage environmental consciousness. This year, she started the “year of recycling.”

“If you get them now, if you get them as kids, to make these changes and make their parents make these changes, how great is that going to be down the road?” said Reigelman.

Plastic pollution is a global problem and one New Jersey legislators have begun to take notice of. Over the summer, legislators in Trenton proposed a bag fee of 5 cents that was vetoed by the governor for not being strong enough and introduced a bill to ban the bags, which has yet to advance. Municipalities have also enacted ordinances that implement fees for the use of plastic bags.

Last year, of the more than 370,000 pieces of debris collected along the state’s waterways during the annual Clean Ocean Action Beach Sweeps, 85 percent were plastics. More than 40,000 food wrappers and bags, 9,000 shopping bags and 8,000 other bags were collected.

“I think the contest is great because a lot of the communities are banning the bags and now we’ve found a way to do something constructive with them,” said Little Egg Harbor Superintendent Melissa McCooley.

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Since the district began collecting from students, parents and community members, nearly 700 pounds of plastic have been dropped off at the local Acme, which serves as a plastic collector for TREX.

Each week, parent Dawn Stein, 34, of Little Egg Harbor, contributes two large bags of plastic for the drive from her father’s lumber yard. She estimates in total she has donated more than 150 pounds.

She said she often takes her kids on bike rides to clean up debris from the sides of the roads and hopes to instill in them her passion for the environment.

“I think they should have done this a long time ago,” Stein said of the drive.

McCooley praised Reigelman’s efforts. She said that over the past five years the district has avoided $1 million in extra costs.

“Her passion spreads to the school community,” McCooley said. “She’s changed my mindset in my own home.”

The winners of the TREX contest, which runs through April 15, will receive a composite bench from the company, and each of the district’s three schools are participating in different enrollment and age categories.

Reigelman said it would be exciting to win, but there is a bigger lesson.

“The fact that the kids are learning why it’s important to do this is the big thing,” she said.

Those interested in dropping off plastic can do so at each of the district’s three schools or at the administration building. The contest winners will be announced April 22, Earth Day.

Contact: 609-272-7251 Twitter @clairelowe

Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.

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