A growing national trend turns plastic bags into bedding for the homeless

An eighth grader shows how easy it is to turn plastic bags into cushy bed mats for the homeless

An eighth grader shows how easy it is to turn plastic bags into cushy bed mats for the homeless; photo by Debra Atlas

As cities around the country are banning or placing a tax on plastic bags, some people are turning lemons into lemonade. A growing number of church groups and students are turning single use plastic bags into bed mats for the homeless. If no shelter is available, homeless bedding consists of cardboard or whatever materials can be found. These are easily ruined by inclement weather. Bed mats made of plastic bags help bedding last longer and stay dry.

At Sequoia Middle School in Northern California, teacher Ramona Fletcher launched this project as a student elective. She was inspired to address the issue of plastic after viewing the Midden Exhibit this past spring at San Diego’s Children’s Discovery Center. The exhibit, which encouraged area schoolchildren to keep and bring in their recyclables, helps raise their awareness of their footprint on the planet. 

There is no “away” when you throw something away.

The mat project is part of the school’s STEM program – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. – through which students apply problem solving, teamwork, design techniques, and application of engineering principles.

Church groups and students are transforming single use plastic bags intoiding

Church groups and students are transforming single use plastic bags intoiding

The kids are excited about creating these mats.

“(This project is) really good for the community, helping the homeless out,” said eighth grader Mason Chappelle. “(The mats) give them a chance to lay down on something comfortable,” he said.

“It’s weatherproof so it won’t break down.” Student Grace Clements, whose mat was two-thirds done after less than two hours work, said “This is taking all the plastic bags we could be destroying the earth with and putting them to a good cause.”

It takes between 500 to 700 plastic bags to make one bed mat. To get enough bags, people are collecting and bringing them in. Some kids have grandparents collecting bags for them.

“We’re desperate to get more of them,” says Fletcher.

Creating the mats is a multi-step process. The handles and the bottoms must first be cut off each bag – about two inches all around. These are held over for later. Then the bags are tied together to make one very long plastic “rope”. The rope is then wound up like you’d wind up a hose and made into a ball of “yarn”. The students then crochet this into mats.

It’s not just the girls who’re involved. Basketball team members participate in the crocheting process. When Fletcher let slip that Shaquille O’Neal did crocheting, it was a slam dunk for the boys.

Plastic bags into bedding for the homeless 2A number of videos online demonstrate the crocheting process. The best of them, said Dina Dias, whose Women at the Village Woods Retirement Community in Baton Rouge, Louisiana is involved in a similar project, is the one posted by the Lutheran Church. A member of the First Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Dias and her group have been participating in this project for 1 ½ years. They have distributed approximately seventy five completed mats, generally producing one mat per week.

A steadily growing movement across the country, church groups, students and individuals are creating mats for the homeless in Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Mississippi, and more.

“The homeless really, really need these and use them,”  said Dias.

These mats are surprisingly soft and cushy feeling. And nothing from this project gets trashed. Sequoia eighth graders Claire Halsey and Olivia Lewis came up with the idea of using the “waste” pieces. Using the same crochet stitch they use for the rugs, folding it in half, they stuff the waste pieces inside the rugs, making a pillow.

Eighth grader Madelin Smith said “We’re trying to help the homeless but it benefits us in a way, knowing we can help other people and knowing we can do something good with all these plastic bags that no one has a use for anymore.”

“What people don’t realize (is that) middle school kids are so receptive to learning,” said Sequoia Principal Cass Ditzler, who’s very proud of these kids. “You give these kids a cause and they’ll solve almost any problem,” he said.

In a few weeks, the STEM program will change and a different grade will come in and take over the project, says Sequoia Project Tech Samantha Patten.

“All the students in all grades (will) have a hand in what’s going on,”  said Patten.

Sequoia Middle School will distribute completed mats to the homeless at the end of the school year. Bed mats for the homeless

This project keeps plastic out of our waterways, oceans and wildlife and does something positive for others.

“We collect bags throughout the years,” said Pastor Robert Brown of the Middlebrook United Methodist Church in Jackson, Mississippi whose senior ministry has been working on a similar project over the past year.

“Mostly we throw them away,” Brown said. “This is making something useful out of (them).” 

“Let’s recycle these plastic bags instead of throwing them in the garbage or on the roadside,” said Dias.

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