A solution to plastic bag waste that helps the homeless? It’s ingenious

JACKSONVILLE, Florida. – For many of us, plastic bags are a way to bring our groceries and everything we buy home from the store.

And yes, although we can reuse them later for other things, in the end they usually get thrown away with the rest of the trash – and that’s a big deal.

Worldwide, 1,000 billion plastic bags are used every year; 160,000 are used every second; and around 300 million plastic bags end up in the Atlantic Ocean.

To try and stop at least some of these discarded bags from filling up landfills and waterways, we’ve come up with a unique recycling effort that also benefits the environment and the homeless population.

“We keep them out of the environment, we give something to do to feel good and help the homeless,” said Bonny Miller. “I just consider it a win-win-win.”

Miller is staying at an assisted living facility in Sarasota, Florida, and heard about the project through Michelle Penn.

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Both women say they just want to do what they can.

“I was looking at Facebook and saw these women in Ohio in a church at one table cutting the bags, another looping and crocheting them, then walking out and handing them to a homeless person,” Penn said.

Over the past five years, Penn has turned plastic bags into more than 200 mats.

These are for the homeless, so they can rest and have a layer of padding and protection from rough ground.

“It saves the environment because (we use) so many bags — 500 to 600 for each mat — and it takes the homeless away from the streets, from the hard streets,” Penn said.

It’s more than 120,000 plastic bags that have been reused for good, instead of ending up in the trash.

And Penn’s idea grew.

The mats are now a community-wide project. And people gave away so many plastic bags that she started teaching her talent to others.

“So we’re the loopers,” Miller said. “We roll it up and make balls.”

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Meeting once a week for an hour is like an assembly line at their assisted living facility in Bay Villages. Everyone has a role.

“How awesome is that? You can sit here for an hour and chat (and) gossip,” one resident said.

“First they’re over there cutting it, then they do this, which is plarn (yarn made from plastic bags), then we roll it up into balls and then we start crocheting” , explained another resident.

Granted, rugs take time to create and can be hard on the joints, but the work rarely stops because residents know that each bag and loop will become a rug that serves a greater purpose.

“It’s pretty exciting for me to see them accepting these things,” said one resident, as she spoke about donating the mats to the homeless. “They are so happy.”

After a dozen mats have been made, some of the women go out to distribute them personally.

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We went there and met a woman who says she has been homeless for two years.

“So you don’t have to sleep on the floor,” Penn told the woman, handing her a mat.

“And you did that with grocery bags?” asked the woman.

“Yeah – Publix, Walgreens,” Penn replied.

“It means I have something to sleep in and be comfortable in, and it was joyful to have that,” the woman said. “I wasn’t going to be here. I was just going to take the bus and was so grateful to have something comfortable to sleep on. I will sleep like a baby, yes.

Residents say they are proud to help make the rugs and make a difference for those in need, but one resident told us delivering them in person was just too much to do.

“I couldn’t go because I knew I was going to cry,” the woman said. “…I’m very sensitive and I knew I was going to cry because we have so much and they have so little. It’s just heartbreaking.

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This project is fairly easy for parents and caregivers with their children to do, Penn said, adding that the key is giving them the right task. Younger children can use safe scissors to cut the strips and older children can learn to crochet.

There are also a number of “how to” videos on YouTube:

More solutions to the problems created by waste can be found on SolutionariesNetwork.com or our Solutions YouTube channel.

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