The issue of homelessness and protecting the environment are two major topics today. Over half a million people are homeless on a single night in the United States. About 65% are in homeless shelters, but 35% are left on the street. 
In addition, billions of plastic bags are made every year, according to Worldwatch Institute, and one hundred billion are thrown away with only one percent being recycled. This causes about one billion birds and mammals dying every year from ingesting this plastic. 
This high school senior from Lakewood decided to create an after-school club to help both problems.
“Bev’s Bag Brigade”
Shelby Tillema saw a news report about a group of women who called themselves “Bev’s Bag Brigade.” Since 2009, they created hundreds of sleeping mats for Volunteers of America, a nonprofit organization that has pledged to help anyone in need, including at-risk youth, homeless people, individuals getting out of jail, recovering addicts, the elderly, veterans, and those with disabilities.
However, these mats were not made of yarn, straw, or bamboo. They were made of “plarn,” a plastic type of yarn made from plastic grocery bags that are crocheted into warm mats for the VOA to give to whoever needs them.
The Plarn Club
Shelby took this idea and formed the Lakewood High Plarn Club, where high school students come together to recycle plastic bags into something that can help the less fortunate. With an average American family using 1,500 bags a year, they can be put to better use than lying in a landfill for 500 years, which is how long they take to photo-degrade according to the Center of Biological Diversity. Plus recycling saves many marine animals from potentially choking on these bags as they contaminate the ocean.
Like Bev’s Bag Brigade, the Plarn Club meets every day after school to create mats.
“You take recycled plastic grocery bags or just any plastic bags and you cut them into strips, and you tie those strips together and that makes this thing called plarn, plastic bag yarn,” president and club founder Shelby Tillema.
After the plarn is made, students with crocheting experience weave them into sleeping mats. Although lying on plastic doesn’t sound so appealing, these plarn mats are actually soft, comfortable, durable, water-resistant, and may help keep bugs at bay.
Once the mats are completed, they are given to the Jeffco Action Center who distributes them to homeless individuals.
Every volunteer in the Plarn Club deserves a round of applause for participating in a project that is saving the environment and people who are stuck sleeping outdoors on the frozen ground this winter.
Shelby declares that the club won’t end after she graduates and hopes her idea will spread.
“It’d be awesome if other Jeffco schools imitate this idea,” Shelby said, and we all agree. If you live near their area, donate your plastic bags to help the cause. Instead of the grocery bags polluting the environment, it will become something useful for a person who needs it.FG
Crochet sleeping mats: form bags to beds.
Fortunately, plarn mat clubs seem to be on the rise.
Kaitlyn McLean from Salt Lake City saw a Facebook video about the material. She thought the idea was neat but assumed she wouldn’t ever make one. A few days passed and she read about the devastating number of people who freeze to death in her city every day in her local newspaper.
“And I had this realization maybe we could turn those mats that were for back porches and maybe make them into something someone could sleep on,” McLean said. “I just kind of sat in my living room and I thought this could really help a lot of people. … A way that you can help without having money.”
McLean was a college student at that point who had learned to crochet from her mother. She created the small, grassroots organization she called “Bags to Beds.” From 2017, the group has turned almost 100 plastic grocery bags into mats for the homeless in Salt Lake City.
Crocheting is something that could be done easily at home watching TV.
“It’s not something that you have to devote a long time to, you can do a little bit, a few hours, couple times a semester,” explained Aleatha Leader, a regular volunteer for Bags to Beds. “Honestly, part of it, it’s something I can do. I can’t just give them a house and I can’t make sure that they eat every day, but I can take two hours and I can try to make it so they are a little bit safer, a little bit warmer, a little bit more comfortable.“
If you crochet but there’s no plarn group in your area, join the club by turning your family’s grocery bags into plarn, working on mats whenever you have the time, and donating them to a local shelter or organization.
As McLean said, “The most heartwarming response I’ve received was the understanding that you can tell just looking at the mat that someone made it by hand for you. And someone expressing to me that being given this was a sign that somebody out there cared enough to take the time and the energy to make that.” 
Keep Reading: Girl, 12, heads to college with plans to work for NASA
- “The State of Homelessness in America.” White House. The Council of Economic Advisers. September 2019.
- “Preserve the environment.” PSU.
- “High School Students Make “Plarn” Blankets For The Homeless.” Shareably. October 2, 2019.
- “Salt Lake volunteers crochet plastic bags into sleeping mats for homeless.” Deseret News. June 22, 2019.