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Arizona Science Center workers turning used plastic bags into plarn mats, blankets for the homeless

Published: Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Updated: Thursday, February 16, 2012 12:02

Science Center Plarn

Ryan A. Ruiz

Program interpreter Kamlynn Thomas (left) and volunteer Larry Clewley knit and crochet plastic shopping bags into sleeping mats for homeless at the Arizona Science Center.

Visitors notice the knitting needles. They see the beginnings of a final product. What they don't see is that she isn't using yarn – she's using plarn.

Volunteer Larry Clewley first introduced Ecoweave, which turns plastic bag into mats for the homeless, to the Arizona Science Center a few months ago. About a month into the project, Kamlynn Thomas, a program interpreter at the museum, joined the project and began walking around the Science Center knitting to get the word out about the project.      

The concept of using plarn is not new, Thomas said. In fact, people have been using it for decades, but this project is unique in that it is using the bags to make something that will help others.

"It's turning trash into something usable for someone else," Thomas said. The mats are weather-resistant and insulating.

Thomas and Clewley collect plastic bags and cut them into strips. Those strips are then looped together to make yarn

"Anything you do with yarn, you can do with this," Thomas said. "And it's free."

Knitting with the plastic bags is mostly the same as knitting with yarn, Thomas said, although it can become more difficult in places where the loops meet.

"You have to be a little more careful because it may stretch or tear," Thomas said. "But the finished product is surprisingly soft."

It takes 700 to 800 bags to complete one of Thomas' mats, which she said are large enough to be used as a blanket or folded in half to be a mat. Clewley, who crochets instead of knitting, takes about 400 to 500 bags to complete one mat, Thomas said.

Since Thomas works on the mats for about an hour a day while walking through the museum, it will take approximately six months to complete her first mat, she said. Clewley, who has completed about four mats, works on them at the center and at home and takes about two months to complete a mat.

Knitting the mats allows Thomas to work on them in panels, so she can walk around the museum and reach out to visitors about recycling.

"It shows kids what they can be doing instead of throwing the bags away," Thomas said.

People ask a lot of questions when they see her knitting, Thomas said. Most people realize she's knitting but they don't recognize the material as plastic bags until they feel it, she added.

At the Science Center, Thomas said she has already spoken to visitors from 30 states and four other countries about the program as well as local church groups, school groups and Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops.

Support in the Science Center and from the public has been wonderful, Thomas said. She has people come up to her at least once or twice a week and say they have bags to donate to the project. Bags can also be dropped off at the information desk in the Science Center, she said.

Only one person has given negative feedback so far, Thomas said. The person asked why they don't just buy the mats from somewhere else if it takes so long to make them, but Thomas said the point of the project is to show that there are ways to turn trash into something useful for someone else.

Currently, there is no organization that the two weavers go through to dispense the mats. Instead they just pass them out to those who live in the area, Thomas said.

"We see them getting used which is the best feedback you can get," Thomas said.

The project is still in the early stages and the two are testing out what works so they can do as much good as possible, Thomas said.

In April, Thomas will attend the American Association of Museum's annual meeting. This year's theme is "Crafting a Community," and she hopes that the information she gains will help them improve and expand the project.                                                       

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