Crocheting mats for the homeless using yarn (ahem, "plarn") made from discarded plastic shopping bags is a brilliant idea. Ruth Werstler, founder of the local volunteer group New Life for Old Bags, admits she didn't exactly come up with it.
In late 2009, her father saw a local news report about a group of elderly women in Palatine who were making the mats and e-mailed her a link to the story. Werstler, the "life enrichment coordinator" at a retirement home on the northwest side, initially thought it would be a great way to get her residents involved in something important—not just feeling useful, but being useful. She sent out about 100 e-mails and got an overwhelmingly positive response. "I wrote people back," Werstler recalls, "and I asked, 'Are you kidding, or are you serious?'" Apparently they were serious.
As of October 16, those involved in New Life for Old Bags—individual volunteers, Girl Scout troops, eco groups from colleges like Northwestern, and groups from other retirement homes, credit-card call centers, Chicago Cares, the Honeycomb Project, and loads of others—had produced 986 mats, many of which were distributed directly to the homeless at Cornerstone Community Outreach in Uptown. Each six-by-two-foot mat uses between 500 and 700 shopping bags and requires 80 man hours, taking into account the sorting and cutting of the bags, the making of the plarn, and, finally, the crocheting. In Werstler's estimation 690,200 bags have been kept out of landfills thanks to around 78,880 hours of labor. She jokes that if they sold the mats, they'd have to charge around $800 each.
Besides having helped almost 1,000 homeless people be more comfortable and recycled tens of thousands of plastic bags, Werstler loves that the project has brought people together. "This is good for the homeless and it's green but it's also a thing anyone can participate in," she says. "The program works for two-year-olds and 107-year-olds." NLOB holds sessions from 10 AM to 1 PM on the first Saturday of the month at United in Faith Lutheran Church (6525 W. Irving Park).