Carrie Kushner makes plastic yarn.
Carrie Kushner makes plastic yarn. (Courtesy of NCJW)

Members of NCJW|MI’s Green Committee wanted to come up with a practical solution to reduce the plastic waste from plastic bags and learned that it was possible to create comfortable sleeping mats from plastic bags.

Plastic Bags Make Plastic Mats is the name of a new initiative from National Council of Jewish Women, Michigan (NCJW|MI), which is aimed at both addressing the plastic pollution problem while helping Detroit’s homeless community have a better night’s sleep. 

Members of NCJW|MI’s Green Committee wanted to come up with a practical solution to reduce the plastic waste from plastic bags and learned that it was possible to create comfortable sleeping mats from plastic bags. 

“Plastic bags are not recyclable curbside, and plastic pollution is a huge problem,” says Cathy Cantor, co-chair of the Green Committee. “Our thinking is that we don’t want anyone using plastic bags, but if you have them — and most of us do — we can do something good with them for Detroit’s homeless population.”

Marilyn Mossman, also co-chair of the Green Committee, reiterated that the aim was to repurpose plastic bags, not use new ones. “We have been offered new bags by companies, but we don’t want them. We don’t want people to take home their shopping in plastic bags, and eventually we would like to see all single-use plastics — like bags, bottles, cups and straws — replaced by compostable, biodegradable or washable products,” she explained. 

Volunteers will be doing their part for tikkun olam, repairing the planet. Informational flyers for the project provide startling statistics: According to the EPA, about 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are produced each year worldwide, requiring billions of pounds of fossil fuels and billions of gallons of fresh water. The bags lead to billions of pounds of solid waste as well as millions of tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere each year. 

Additional problems are that plastic bags never completely break down; plastic bags increase the risk of severe flooding by clogging storm drains and other sources where water accumulates; and plastic bags also pollute the oceans and shorelines and kill hundreds of thousands of avian and marine wildlife.

To find a way to reuse the bags now, and do some good, makes sense to the Green Committee. “I wish we didn’t have a homeless problem, but we do, and at least creating the mats with the bags is making these people’s lives just a little bit easier,” Mossman says.

To produce the mats, NCJW|MI has been asking for donations of used clean plastic bags, flattened, if possible, delivered to its office in. Then, volunteers create the yarn — known as plarn — by cutting the bags into strips and rolling them into balls. Others who like to knit or crochet then use the plarn to make the mats, which are then returned to the NCJW office. More information on the project is available at https://ncjwmi.org/plastic-mats.

So far, 10 mats have been made, all donated to the Corner Shower and Laundry, a nonprofit in Corktown that provides free shower and laundry access for those who are homeless or otherwise in need. Susan Goldsmith, who is both a board member of the Corner Shower and Laundry and a member of NCJW|MI, said that the mats have been gratefully received. 

“Our guests are living on the street, and these mats give them a little cushion, a little padding, and help remove them from the elements. It’s a little bit of comfort that they otherwise wouldn’t have,” she said.  

Marilyn Mossman and Susan Goldsmith, board member of the Corner Shower and Laundry, unload matts.
Marilyn Mossman and Susan Goldsmith, board member of the Corner Shower and Laundry, unload mats. Courtesy of NCJW

NCJW’s Green Committee started back in 2019 with a group of about 10 board members who were interested in ways to protect the environment. 

“We are a group of active, dedicated and environmentally passionate volunteers who want to educate the public about ways we can combat global warming,” Cantor says. Since then, the Green Committee has grown to about 25, and includes many NCJW general members who all want to work on this issue.

The group has organized talks, such as a program on climate change hosted by WDIV-TV meteorologist Paul Gross and another on plastic waste with National Public Radio journalist Laura Sullivan. 

Cantor and Mossman represent NCJW Green on the Great Lakes Plastic Pollution Solution Coalition, working with individuals from many organizations to have a larger impact on reducing plastic pollution. In summer 2021, NCJW|MI members were invited to take part in Plastic Free July, part of a worldwide initiative that aims to reduce plastic usage. 

“We sent out an e-blast to encourage our members to take the pledge and avoid using plastic as much as possible,” Mossman says. “Our hope is that any habits developed in that month, such as not using straws or using reusable shopping bags, will then become a year-round habit.” 

Anyone who would like to get involved with Plastic Bags Makes Plastic Mats can email ncjwgreen@gmail.com. Plastic bags can be dropped off at NCJW|MI’s office at Suite 306, 26400 Lahser Road, Southfield MI 48033 or call 248-355-3300, ext. 0.

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