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RLC Employees Give Plastic Bags New Life

Students at Richland make yarn from Subway plastic bags.

Students help make plastic yarn from Subway bags. 

By April Ellis
Some crafty Richland College employees are drawing attention to the volume of plastic bags used on their campus – and giving some of those bags new life – by crafting crocheted totes from used Subway bags.
The project is being led by a campus group called Sustainable Conversations. Founded by Richland’s Michael Iachetta, Liesl McQuillan and Susan Wehe, Sustainable Conversations gathered a dozen students and employees to discuss sustainability issues several times last fall. Participants exchanged ideas about ways to reduce waste on campus and productively recycle and reuse discarded materials.
On her own, Richland employee Lindsay DeMoss had been collecting plastic bags from co-workers and using them to craft crocheted purses. She contacted Wehe, wondering if Sustainable Conversations might be interested in making similar bags as a group project. The idea was a hit, and the Subway Bag Special Re-Use Project was born.
“This is a way to extend plastic bags’ life before they are ultimately recycled,” Wehe says.
Subway plastic bags are spun into yarn for tote bags.
Plastic yarn made from Subway bags.

An Idea Is Born

Why use Subway bags? “We asked ourselves, ‘What are we generating on campus that could end up contributing to ocean garbage patches?’ We wanted to focus on waste Richland produces, not bags from other sources,” Wehe says.
“We’ve only recouped a tiny fraction of Richland’s plastic bags,” she notes. “We want to raise awareness of the number of plastic bags being used on campus.”
The group hoped to collect 10,000 clean, dry, used Subway bags in one semester. The plan was to crochet tote bags that could be used to carry books or groceries in time for Earth Day celebrations in April.
“We wanted to sell the bags during our International Festival and Earth Day festival and contribute the money toward a scholarship fund,” Wehe says. She expects the finished bags to sell for about $20 each.
While the original plan turned out to be a bit too ambitious, the group has gotten an impressive start, collecting 2,700 bags so far. A large percentage of those were collected by Wehe’s part-time employee Glenn Dillon, who decorated and staffed a table during March’s RecycleMania competition with the help of a couple of Service Learning students.

Next Step: Plastic Totes

In early April, volunteers used the Subway bags to make thousands of feet of plastic yarn for crocheting. The next step is transforming the plastic yarn into reusable tote bags.
Fortunately Richland has an ideal group of crafters on campus willing to help. You may have heard of Richland’s knitting group, led by Claudia Goodson, which meets twice a month to knit baby caps for Parkland Hospital. Several members of that group and some students hope to get together before the semester ends to learn the crochet patterns to turn the plastic yarn into totes.
Wehe and the rest of the Sustainable Conversations group would like to continue the project during the next school year, benefiting from the lessons they’ve learned to date. “By Earth Day next year, we’ll be ready to knock everyone’s socks off,” Wehe says.
She is very thankful for the many Richland employees and students who have contributed to the effort, including many hours “donated” at lunch or after work. Co-workers and student assistants in Richland’s Language Center supported the project, as did other volunteers who have helped make plastic yarn and crochet bags, and everyone who has contributed their used Subway bags to the cause.
Thanks to Jenni Gilmer, author of the original article about this project that appeared in a recent issue of Richland’s Thunderbridge newsletter.