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Group of Sault women using plastic bags to help the homeless (4 photos)

Process called ‘plarn’ turns plastic bags into sleeping mats for homeless
Talk about ingenuity for a good cause.

Heaps of plastic bags, the kind we get at supermarkets and other stores, can be repurposed with a crochet hook and made into sleeping mats.

A group of Saultites are busy crocheting as many plastic bags as they can get their hands on, turning them into sleeping mats for the community’s homeless who find themselves sleeping outdoors.

“It’s a sleeping mat that someone can put on the ground. They’d be laying on it with their clothes on with some sort of a pillow,” said Abbi Johnston, speaking to SooToday.

“I had quite a few bags and went through the process, where you essentially cut off the top and the bottom of the bag, you cut that into strips and loop them together, and you call that ‘plarn.'"

'Plarn' is a mix of 'plastic' and 'yarn,' though no actual yarn is used here.

The completed sleeping mats consist of approximately 750 plastic bags each, are six feet long, two and a half feet wide and about an inch thick.

Each mat takes about 10 to 12 hours to complete, Johnston estimated. 

“I found out about this project on Facebook through the Zero Waste Sault Ste. Marie group in January. I hadn’t heard of anything like this. I didn’t know that you could use plastic bags to repurpose them and could actually crochet with them. I thought it was a cool idea,” Johnston said. 

“I ordered the correct sized crochet hook you need because you need a pretty large one to be able to crochet with this material and just followed the instructions with all the plastic bags we had collected throughout the pandemic.”

After using what plastic bags she had for her first sleeping mat, Johnston went back to the Zero Waste Sault Ste. Marie's Facebook group page, displayed what she had achieved so far and asked for more plastic bags from anyone who wished to donate them, along with an invitation to anyone who wished to join in the ‘plarn for the homeless’ effort.

Any plastic bags will be valuable to the local sleeping mat effort, as the federal government wants to do away with such plastic bags by the end of 2021 (along with other plastic items such as stir sticks, six-pack rings for beverages, cutlery, straws and difficult to recycle plastic food packaging).

“I’m a huge proponent of a plastic bag ban. I don’t think that plastic bags should exist. They can’t be recycled so they end up in our trash and that’s why I was interested in this project. Each mat uses up almost 750 plastic bags so by doing that we’re keeping them out of the landfill,” Johnston said.

“The flip side is, in a nation as wealthy as this one, homelessness shouldn’t be an issue, but obviously especially here we’ve got quite a large homeless population, so this is a kind of ‘two birds with one stone’ volunteer project, where we’re keeping plastic bags out of the landfill and it’s also providing a little bit of comfort to someone who unfortunately has to sleep outside.”

The mats are waterproof, lightweight and warm, Johnston said.

This type of charity, known as ‘Bags to Sleeping Mats,’ is believed to have started in Kitchener-Waterloo, with hundreds of people involved.

Through Facebook, Johnston connected with Cathrine Van Atta of Zero Waste Sault Ste. Marie, partnering with her and making sleeping mats (12 local people involved in the mat-making group).

Johnston and Van Atta then linked up with Sault Ste. Marie Helping Hands.

“It’s exhilarating to co-lead a group. I love the idea of getting the plastic out of the landfills and using them for something that is totally amazing. The mats hold in warmth, you can hang dry them, they’re super light...it’s good they (the homeless) will have something to lay on,” Van Atta said.

Johnston’s first mat was donated to the Sault’s Save Our Young Adults From Drug Abuse (SOYA) group.

Johnston said she is hopeful up to seven mats can be made by herself and fellow volunteers and donated to the ‘Just One Day’ event at Sault Ste. Marie Helping Hands, located at 146 Gore St., from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on April 14.

The mats, and other items donated from the community, including bottled water, juice, non-perishable snacks, toiletries, shoes, socks and spring and summer clothing, will be distributed to those who show up and are in need.

An interesting addition to this story is that the Sault’s Lesley Walker has also become interested in making sleeping mats for the homeless, without knowledge of Johnston, Van Atta or their group’s efforts.

“On Monday, I had finished the one I was making and dropped it off at Helping Hands, and they told me that they did have some more ladies who were making them. I hadn’t realized anyone in the Sault was actually doing that. I thought I was alone,” Walker said, delighted to learn there are like-minded charitable local people making the mats.

Walker said she learned about the process through the ‘Bags to Sleeping Mats’ Facebook page.

“I’m a senior and we’ve been quite confined in our homes for the last year or so. We were wondering what we could do.”

“At first, a lot of us ladies were making masks. I always knit and crochet, and when I saw the mats on Facebook, and that part of the effort was to keep the bags out of the landfill as well as make everything a little warmer and more comfortable (for the homeless), I thought ‘okay, maybe I can have a go at this,'” Walker said, having begun her first mat just after Christmas.

“Getting the bags together was the hardest part. I didn’t know who to approach but when I took my first mat to Helping Hands they gave me a huge bag full of plastic bags,” Walker said, stating she’ll continue to crochet more mats.

“It’s been a really good thing for me.”

Anyone interested in taking a crochet hook in hand and making mats may contact Cathrine Van Atta through the Zero Waste Sault Ste Marie Facebook page or through the Sault Ste. Marie Helping Hands Facebook page.