Students collecting plastic shopping bags to knit durable sleeping mats for Chicago’s homeless

Megan Maloney sits with some of the collected bags.
Megan Maloney sits with some of the collected bags.

Members of NIU’s Alpha Phi Omega fraternity have set one goal for themselves this summer: to get their hands on as many plastic shopping bags as possible.

They are not planning a massive shopping spree; they plan to knit the bags into portable, durable sleeping mats for Chicago’s homeless.

It’s anyone’s guess how many empty Jewel, Target and Wal-Mart bags they will need, member Megan Maloney said.

They know it will be a lot.

“We are figuring it will take from 500 to 700 bags to make one 6’ x’2’ mat,” said the Crystal Lake junior who is studying Spanish and French. “And we want to make at least 10 mats.”

So, you do the math.

Maloney will be the first to admit she did not come up with the idea, but she did introduce it to the NIU community. She got the idea from her grandmother, who collected and knitted bags into mats so her Florida church could give them to the homeless.

The recycled bags mats are being used throughout Haiti where earthquake survivors depend on them to keep them dry and clean while they sleep. 

She has learned a few things from the project.

“It taught me those bags can be put to good use,” Maloney said. “And it taught me making one mat is time consuming.”

Plastic bags sewn into a sleeping mat.
Plastic bags sewn into a sleeping mat.

During the process, the bags must be cut into strips, tied together and crocheted. “I’ll have to learn how to crochet,” she said. “That shouldn’t be hard.”

Maloney is hoping the 30 to 40 other coed fraternity members who will help her make the mats in September, October and November already know how to work a crochet hook.

If they don’t, they won’t have much time to learn. The bags already are piling up, said Becky Harlow, assistant director of NIU’s Student Involvement & Leadership Development.

Since the project started this month, 500 bags have been collected.

“The initial response has been great. We’ve already filled one corner of a room in the Campus Life Building,” Harlow said. “I would imagine before the summer is over, we’ll have mountains of shopping bags.”

And that will be a good thing. Better the bags be put to good use instead of being tangled together in pantry cupboards all over northern Illinois, Harlow said.

To make the mats sturdy, the bags must come from department stores, dry cleaners and supermarkets. Bags used for produce and deli meats are too thin and cannot be used, Harlow said.

The bags can be dropped off from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday at Room 150 of NIU’s Campus Life Building.

For more information about the project, call Harlow at (815) 753-6703.

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