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How to give plastic bags a new lease on life as ‘plarn’


You’d never know Tonia Mercer’s creations were made of plastic shopping bags from looking at it. The Newfoundland woman upcycles the shopping bags into purses, baskets and gift bags.
You’d never know Tonia Mercer’s creations were made of plastic shopping bags from looking at it. The Newfoundland woman upcycles the shopping bags into purses, baskets and gift bags. - Contributed

Save the environment? It’s in the bag

Tonia Mercer’s unique hobby of using plastic grocery bags to make sturdy, reusable tote bags is just one way the woman from Torbay, N.L., does her part for the environment.

During a phone interview, Mercer explains how “noisy bags” are best to use to make plastic yarn – referred to as plarn.

Plarn is made by cutting plastic grocery bags into strips, which are strung together and rolled into a ball.

Plarn can be used to crochet everything from purses to doormats.

“Noisy bags are the best bags to use. You can pick up a Foodland bag, or a Walmart bag, or a Shoppers Drug Mart bag, or a Canadian Tire bag, or a Kent bag... they have a noisy crunch to them,” Mercer said of some of the bags she uses for her projects.

Inherited hobby

Mercer credits her grandmother, Elizabeth Fogwill, with teaching her how to make the tote bags.

Her grandmother is a master craftswoman, she said, and showed her how to make the bags about five years ago.

At 88, her grandmother has been quilting, knitting, sewing and crocheting for 60 years.

“She meets with a group of women in her apartment building and has taught many of them to knit and crochet,” Mercer says. “My grandmother has passed on to me many gifts: her patience, kindness, unwavering support, her youthful spirit and fabulous skin.

Mercer estimates it takes about 100 grocery bags to make a good-sized tote bag and 30 to 40 hours to complete the project.

She enjoys her weekly walk to the grocery store and her bags are “an incredible conversation piece,” she said.

“Sometimes, people think they are made of some type of twine but when they have a closer look and realize they are made of grocery bags; they are blown away.”

Honing skills

Making the tote bags is a great way to hone your skills as a crafter, she said. While she’s undertaken bigger knitting, sewing and crocheting projects in the past, Mercer said her tote bag project is one she can stick with and finish. It’s a great pastime while watching television or putting in time as a passenger on a road trip.

“The bags were interesting enough for me and a small enough project that I could get to the finish line with it. Then I’d start another one, and another one. Then, the next thing you know, there are 10 or 20 or 30 bags out there around the world that I actually completed,” she said.

Mercer’s bags have made their way to various parts of the world. She makes lunch bags, tote bags and wine bags, often giving them as gifts and donating them to various fundraising initiatives.

Krista Trask is a proud owner of one of Mercer’s bags.

“I’m always looking for ways to reuse items and this bag has been great to clean and it is super durable... it’s a great way to cut down on plastic in our home,” Trask said.

Environmental effort

Reducing her environmental footprint is important to Mercer.

She became a vegetarian in July 2017 and a vegan in January 2019.

“As a vegetarian I consumed cream in my coffee, butter, cheese and fish.”

As a vegan, she said, she eats plenty of fruit, veggies, beans, rice, and pasta.

“I prepare all my own food,” she said.

A mortgage advisor with East Coast Mortgage Brokers, Mercer works from her home office. Doing so has cut her gas consumption by 90 per cent.

“I went paperless; as a mortgage broker that can be a challenge but, with a few adjustments, I was able to reduce my paper usage by 95 per cent.”

Mercer also recycles bottles, cans, paper, and whatever else she can keep out of the landfill.

“I programmed my digital thermostats to consume less electricity and I buy in bulk to save money and cut down on packaging.”

Mercer jokes that, when she had her midlife crisis last summer, she bought an electric bike rather than a convertible.

“It has a little motor on it, but you still peddle it. It’s great for the big, steep hills in Torbay. I can ride it into town on fine days and I don’t have to use my car,” she said.

Using a tote bag is another way to ensure she’s buying only what she needs, according to Mercer.

“When I’m walking around the store I use it rather than a grocery cart... If it can’t fit it in the bag I don’t buy it. Then, when I get up to the counter, I take it all out and pass the bag for the cashier to refill it again.”

Mercer would like to see more people focus on becoming environmentally-friendly. Small changes can have a big impact on the environment, she said. She’s open to teaching people how to make the tote bags and suggests a class of eight to 10 people would work well.

“Anybody who can crochet can make a small adjustment to lessen their footprint. We can also use less energy... And that’s all part of my commitment to make small changes that become lasting changes,” Mercer said.

PHOTO TUTORIAL

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READ MORE: Members of Faith Baptist Church in Sydney recycle plastic bags into sleeping mats. 

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