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From Bags to Mats

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— July 15, 2019

From Bags to Mats

By Violet Snow
  • In cities around the country, concerned citizens are working on a project that addresses both of these issues at once by crocheting plastic bags into sleeping mats for homeless people, converting one of the planet’s most alarming environmental scourges into a cushion for those who have to sleep on the ground or on sidewalks.
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Creative crocheting tackles environmental issues and homelessness at once.

Being confronted with environmental or social crises can be overwhelming and spur feelings of helplessness. But bright ideas can lead to creative ways of confronting troubling issues such as homelessness and the superabundance of plastic bags that are causing pollution, killing wildlife and depleting natural resources.

In cities around the country, concerned citizens are working on a project that addresses both of these issues at once by crocheting plastic bags into sleeping mats for homeless people, converting one of the planet’s most alarming environmental scourges into a cushion for those who have to sleep on the ground or on sidewalks.

“I’m doing everything I can to not use plastic, or else to repurpose it,” says Peggy Buggy of Reno, Nevada. In her city, economic growth and a lack of affordable housing have created a population of 2,500 homeless people. “The mats we make are really durable and comfortable, and they’re pest-free. I’ll find someone lying on the concrete and say, ‘Brother, do you want a mat?’ People are very grateful.”

Peggy is married to Kevin Buggy, vice president, and general manager of the Western Division of NaturesPlus. “Peggy has always been a crocheting machine,” says Buggy. “I come from a large family—seven brothers and sisters, plus in-laws, nieces and nephews. It’s likely all of them have luxurious and warm hand-crocheted lap blankets and bedspreads, and even ultra-thick sleep pads for their dogs and cats”—all created by his wife.

Buggy recalls coming home to find his wife working with strange-looking yarn, using the biggest crocheting hook he had ever seen. She explained that she and her friends were making mats for homeless people. “They needed as many plastic grocery bags as they could get their hands on,” says Buggy, “and she asked, with our office being in central Reno, if we could put a collection bin in our parking lot.”

A second bin was placed in the company’s staff cafeteria. In less than a month, employees had brought in thousands of bags collected from their homes, and from friends and neighbors who saved up bags as well. The mat-making group also gathers bags from bins in other locations around the city.

The women who make the mats all have experience with crocheting, but other volunteers can help by preparing the bags. Experimentation has shown that only clean plastic shopping bags with handles are suitable for crocheting mats; the produce bags used for vegetables, for example, are too thin and tend to fall apart. About 20 people get together to sort the bags, rejecting unusable types. Then the bags are smoothed flat, folded and cut into strips that are looped or knotted together to create plastic yarn, or “plarn.”

“Once you have the strips, it’s easy enough to make the plarn and crochet on your own,” says Peggy Buggy. “Each mat takes 1,000 bags and about 100 hours. It’s a labor of love for the planet.”

One bag makes about nine feet of plarn, which is rolled into a ball. The strings of plarn are crocheted together with the same stitch used for yarn, so for people
experienced with crochet, the process is familiar. “This is saving me a lot of money,” says Peggy Buggy. “When I’m watching TV, I like to crochet because I need something to do with my hands. I’m always crocheting something, and yarn is expensive.”

Some people crochet other items with plarn, such as throw rugs, kneeling mats for gardening, sturdy shopping bags, drink coasters, shower scrubbers and artworks composed of bags in assorted colors, arranged in bright patterns. The Internet abounds with websites that provide instructions for working with plarn.

Each year an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide, according to Conserving-Now, an environmental watchdog group, and on average, only one plastic bag is recycled for every 200 used. Since Chinese recycling companies have recently rejected US materials as contaminated, Peggy says, “Someone has to figure out a solution. We have the technology not to use plastic—we just have to implement it. There’s bamboo and other materials we can use.”

Meanwhile, making mats out of plarn prevents a significant chunk of the world’s plastic bags from joining the giant garbage patches swirling in the ocean or from sitting in landfills, where they take 400 years or more to break down.

From one good cause to another: Homelessness is getting worse in Nevada. Reno, located on the California border and known for its good weather, has attracted new residents since a Tesla factory opened in nearby Sparks in 2016. Rents have quadrupled, spiraling out of the reach of residents whose wages have failed to increase proportionately. The city council and state legislature are trying to address the causes of homelessness by encouraging the construction of affordable housing for workers. “Developers can build whatever they want,” says Peggy Buggy, “but people have to be more community-minded.”

Although shelters are available in winter, homeless people are forced outside in warmer weather. The crocheting women bring their finished mats to encampments in Reno’s riverfront area, where they hand out their creations alongside Salvation Army volunteers distributing clothing and food.

Currently, the women are working to produce 30 mats for a Military Stand Down, a homeless veterans fair to be held in Reno in mid-September. Veterans in need will receive health screenings, haircuts, clothing, Veterans Administration benefits counseling and referrals to other services. The plastic bag mats will no doubt be in demand.

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