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Grand Falls-Windsor college students turning plastic bags into mats for people experiencing homelessness

The instructor and community studies students at the College of the North Atlantic making plastic yarn, or plarn. From left: Patrick Curtis, Debbie Stroud, Robyn Philip, Hillary Warford, Sheila Trask, Ally Farr and Stephanie Janes.
The instructor and community studies students at the College of the North Atlantic making plastic yarn, or plarn. From left: Patrick Curtis, Debbie Stroud, Robyn Philip, Hillary Warford, Sheila Trask, Ally Farr and Stephanie Janes. - Jordan Maloney

One man’s trash

GRAND FALLS-WINDSOR, NL – An instructor and her students at the College of the North Atlantic are spearheading an operation that not only helps the environment, but also aids the homeless.

Sheila Trask, lead instructor in the community studies program at the college, and her students are turning discarded plastic bags into mats for the homeless, and in the process keeping as much plastic as possible out of the stomachs of aquatic life.

Stephanie Janes is project manager for the Grand Falls-Windsor chapter of Enactus, a group of college students dedicated to social awareness in business enterprise. 

“The project started in 2016,” Janes said. “I've been kind of running along with it as we go, and my class needed to partner with a non-profit and do a project with them for this last semester.”

The project is simple in theory. Plastic shopping bags are cut into strips and then woven into balls of plastic yarn, or plarn, as those involved call it. Ten to 12 heaps of plarn are used per mat, which can easily use up nearly 600 bags each.
The end product is roughly the size of a standard yoga mat, and nearly indistinguishable from other fabrics. The mats are sent to organizations with frontline workers who deal with the homeless both locally and abroad.

This idea propelled Janes and her classmates into third place at the regional Enactus competition in Halifax last year. They head back to the same competition in the middle of March for another chance at victory, but this time have upped the ante.
Instead of bringing one mat as they did the year prior, Janes and her cohorts will attempt to bring 20.

“Sheila had asked me, since Enactus is a non-profit, could she help me grow it a little bit,” said Janes.

Trask and Janes expanded the project beyond the classroom. What started out as a project amongst college students quickly turned into a community effort.

“I wanted to help take that idea and put it out into the community, to have it grow,” Trask said. “A shopping bag can last thousands of years. There's so much plastic right now in either the landfills or the ocean.
“Sea turtles think the plastic bags are jellyfish, so they eat them, and it's killing them. It's hurting sea life and also destroying the environment.”

Both Trask and Janes were adamant in their stance on ultimately banning plastic bags. Until that day comes, however, they will do their part to keep plastic out of the environment and attempt to inspire others to do the same.

“If a mat lasts for 100 or 1,000 years, who cares? At least it has a purpose,” Trask said, noting how beneficial those mats could be to those less fortunate.

The effort also continues online on the Community Matters Facebook page.

To bring the project to the community, the group taught volunteers to crochet and make plarn. Students at the high schools in Gander and Grand Falls-Windsor are involved, along with the United Church, Newfoundland and Labrador Housing, Exploits Community Centre, Exploits Valley Dental Office, and other local businesses and groups.

Making plarn, said Trask, is beneficial for all involved. Along with helping the environment and the homeless, the process also connects the community.

“We're not fixing the problem of the bags, and we're not fixing the problem of the homelessness,” Janes acknowledged. “However, we can try to keep as many bags out of oceans and landfills while giving someone a little extra comfort.”

Anyone able to help by donating plastic bags for plarn can put them in a box in the main lobby of the college.

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