JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – For many of us, plastic bags are a way to get our groceries, and anything else we buy, home from the store.
And yes, while we may reuse them later for other things, in the end, they typically get thrown out with the rest of the garbage -- and that’s a big problem.
Worldwide, 1 trillion plastic bags are used every year; 160,000 are used every second; and an estimated 300 million plastic bags end up in the Atlantic Ocean.
To try and keep at least some of those tossed-out bags from filling up landfills and waterways, we found a unique recycling effort that’s benefitting the environment and the homeless population, as well.
“We are keeping these out of the environment, giving us something to do to feel good about, and helping the homeless,” Bonny Miller said. “I just consider this a win-win-win.”
Miller stays at an assisted living facility in Sarasota, Florida, and learned about the project through Michelle Penn.
Both women say they just want to do what they can.
“I was looking at Facebook and I saw these women from Ohio in a church at one table cutting up the bags, another one looping them and crocheting them, and then actually going out and handing them to a homeless person,” Penn said.
In the past five years, Penn has turned plastic bags into more than 200 mats.
These are intended for the homeless, so they can rest and have a layer of padding and protection from the rough ground.
“It saves the environment because (we use) so many bags -- 500 to 600 for each mat -- and it keeps the homeless off the street, the hard street,” Penn said.
That’s more than 120,000 plastic bags that have been reused for good, instead of ending up in the trash.
And Penn’s idea is growing.
The mats are now a community-wide project. And people have given so many plastic bags, she started teaching others her skill.
“So, we’re the loopers,” Miller said. “We roll it up and make balls.”
Meeting once a week for one hour, it’s like an assembly line at their assisted living facility at the Bay Villages. Everyone has a role.
“How great is this? You get to sit here for an hour and chit-chat (and) gossip,” one resident said.
“First of all, they’re over there cutting them, then they make this, which is plarn (yarn made from plastic bags), and then we roll it up into balls and then we start crocheting,” another resident explained.
Admittedly, the mats are time-consuming to create, and can be hard on the joints, but the work rarely stops because the residents know each bag and each loop will become a mat that serves a greater purpose.
“It’s kind of thrilling for me to watch them accept these things,” said one resident, as she spoke about giving the mats to the homeless. “They’re so pleased.”
After a dozen or so mats are made, some of the women take a field trip to personally hand them out.
We went along and met a woman who says she’s been homeless for the past couple of years.
“So, you don’t have to sleep on the ground,” Penn said to the woman, giving her a mat.
“And you made these out of grocery bags?” the woman asked.
”Yes -- Publix, Walgreens,” Penn responded.
“It means I have something to sleep on and be comfortable, and it was joyful to get this,” the woman said. “I wasn’t going to be here. I was just going to catch the bus, and was so thankful to get something comfortable to sleep on. I’m going to sleep like a baby, yes.”
Residents say they are proud to help craft the mats, and make a difference for those who are in need, but one resident told us delivering them in person is just too hard to do.
“I couldn’t go, because I knew I would cry,” the woman said. “... I’m very sensitive, and I knew I would cry because we have so much, and they have so little. It’s just heartbreaking.”
This project is easy enough for parents and caregivers to do with their kids, said Penn, adding that the key is giving them the right task. The younger ones can use safe scissors to cut the strips and the older ones can be taught how to crochet.
There are a number of “how to” videos on YouTube, as well: