Earth Day: 2 Florida women find a way to help people by using plastic bags

To 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, one 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 homeless people as well.

“We are keeping these out of the environment, giving us something to do to feel good about and helping the homeless,” said Bonney Miller. " I just consider this a win, win, win.”

Women making mats for the homeless using plastic bags (Copyright 2022 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

Miller and Michelle Penn both live at an assisted living facility in Sarasota, Florida, and both 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 explained. Over the last five years, Penn has turned plastic bags into more than 200 mats for homeless people.

“It saves the environment because so many bags, 500 to 600 for each mat and it keeps the homeless off the street, the hard street,” said Penn.

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

HOW TO VIDEOS: How to Prep Grocery Bags to Make Sleeping Mats for Homeless | How to make sleeping mats for homeless people out of plastic bags | Learn to Plarn Mats for Homeless People with the DeSales Center for Service and Social Justice

And Penn’s idea is growing. The mats are now a communitywide project. And people have given so many plastic bags, she started teaching others her skill.

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

Women making mats for the homeless using plastic bags (Copyright 2022 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

“How great is this, you get to sit here for an hour and chit chat, gossip,” said one resident. “First of all, there 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,” explained another.

Admittedly, the mats are time consuming 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. They’re so pleased,” a resident explained about giving the mats to those living without homes.

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 last 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 answered. “It means I have something to sleep on and be comfortable and it was joyful to get this. 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,” the woman said.

Women making mats for the homeless using plastic bags (Copyright 2022 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

Residents say they are proud to help make these mats and make a difference for those who are in need, but one resident says delivering them in person is just too hard for her to do.

“I couldn’t go because I knew I would cry,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking. I’m very sensitive and I knew I would cry because we have so much, and they have so little. It’s just heartbreaking.”

Penn said this project is easy enough for parents and caregivers to do with their kids. She said 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.

Women making mats for the homeless using plastic bags (Copyright 2022 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)