A purposeful use for plastic bags

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” The expression suggests taking something undesirable and turning it into something positive. And that is exactly what groups across America have done with plastic bags. When life gave them hard-to-recycle, single-use, plastic grocery bags and a large population experiencing homelessness in their communities, they made durable, water-resistant, portable sleeping mats for people in need.

No one seems to know who first came up with the idea of taking used plastic grocery bags, cutting them into strips, looping them together into plastic yarn (plarn), and then crocheting it to make sleeping mats for people experiencing homelessness, but the idea is brilliant. According to the Earth Day Network, Americans throw away about 100 billion plastic bags each year — about 371 per person! Sadly, only about 10% of all plastic bags are recycled. Many bags end up in nature, cluttering our parks, polluting our oceans, and killing wildlife. In many areas of the country, plastic bag recycling is limited or unavailable, so repurposing them makes a lot of sense.

With an estimated 550,000 people in our country living on the streets or in shelters on any given night, homelessness is a huge concern. It seems incredible that diverse and unrelated volunteer groups across the nation would find a rewarding solution to address both of these problems in an amazingly creative way.

To make the mats, “First, you collect plastic grocery bags, cut off the tops and bottoms, and then cut them into strips to make plarn (plastic yarn),” explains Annette Phillips, one of seven volunteer mat-makers at Cummings Memorial United Methodist Church in Horse Shoe, North Carolina. “We have one volunteer who is a woman with Alzheimer’s. The woman has lovely hands, and she does the best job at smoothing out the bags so that her daughter can cut them into strips. The two find great peace working together.”

Phillips’ sister, Emilie Williams, is a retired teacher with lots of time on her hands. Williams compared the dynamics of their volunteer group to that of a quilting circle in times past, finding purpose in helping others by working together. “I have been given the biggest gift in belonging to this group and to be helping others,” Williams reflects.

Making mats for the homeless is not just a retired person’s activity. Quan Taylor, a senior communications major at Mississippi State University, organizes the Popcorn and Plarn volunteer initiative on campus. “I am proud to be involved in an effort that both helps the homeless population and also does something productive with plastic bags that would otherwise pollute our community,” notes Taylor.

Students meet, eat popcorn, and earn volunteer hours flattening, cutting, looping, and rolling the plastic bags together to make balls of plarn. They send the resulting product to members of nearby St. Joseph Catholic Church where volunteers crochet the material into mats to be given out on church mission trips. These two groups may never have interacted were it not for the common goal of creating mats for others.

Gail Potter heads up the Mats for a Mission group near Buffalo, New York with over 60 active members. To date, they have distributed 469 mats and have about 65 more ready to go. Potter notes that each mat uses about 700 plastic bags and estimates that they have kept about a half million plastic bags out of the landfill. Group members give school and community presentations and enlist volunteers of all age groups to help them.

The Chaz Project, based in rural Texas, makes mats in honor of the group founder’s Uncle Chaz, who died in a homeless community in Portland, Oregon. “I wanted to do something positive in honor of his name,” explains Jasmine Stephens. Chaz Project volunteers include a small group of Stephens’ friends, her 11-year-old daughter, and her daughter’s classmates. “So far, we have only completed about five mats,” notes Stephens. “It’s something small, but imagine the impact we would have if everyone did something small.”

These groups and individuals are truly inspiring, reminding us that even the sourest lemons can be made sweet and help build community and purpose along the way. To learn how to make plastic bag mats, visit Bags to Beds, a Salt Lake City, Utah organization that aims to reduce plastic waste while creating a resource for individuals experiencing homelessness. Or search the internet for the many video tutorials and instructions available.

Photo of volunteers courtesy of Mats for a Mission

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