Some grandmas get together to play bridge or knit hats for their grandchildren. But a group of grandmas in Union City, a small city in Tennessee, get together weekly to turn discarded plastic bags into mattresses that are then given to people who are sleeping rough. The project not only helps people down on their luck, it’s also good for the environment.

The “Bag Ladies”, as they are nicknamed, started their initiative to turn plastic bags into mattresses in January 2015 at the Second Baptist Church, an evangelical church in Union City.

The person who launched this programme is Randy Pool, who works with Mississippi River Ministry, an organisation that brings together several Baptist churches in the area to work on volunteer projects.

“I’m not sure who had the original idea, but it’s become a popular activity among women in the Baptist community,” Pool said. “I thought it was a great idea so I started talking about it to churchgoers in my region, especially in Union City.”

The mattresses made by the “Bag Ladies” from Union City, Tennessee. Photo: Second Baptist Church, Union City.

“We’ve already recycled more than 100,000 bags and made 165 mattresses”

Patty Arnold is a 74-year-old grandmother. She’s also a “Bag Lady”, which is a tongue-in-cheek re-appropriation of the derogatory term sometimes used for homeless women.

Randy told us about how there were a lot of homeless people living alongside the Mississippi River and in downtown Memphis [Editor’s note: Memphis is about 115 miles away from Union City]. He taught us how to make these mattresses to help them.

To make our mattresses, we use the plastic bags that we get from the supermarket when we buy groceries. There is one grocery store that donates bags to us. We also set up a collection point in the church where people can drop off their old bags.

We meet at the church every Thursday morning to make our mattresses. There are 25 or 30 women in our group and nearly all of them are part of the congregation. However, there are also other women who aren’t church members. Everyone is welcome. Our group is growing all the time, in fact!

A group of about 25 or 30 women get together once a week to make these mattresses. Photo: Second Baptist Church, Union City.

“We make these mattresses using a crocheting technique”
 
First, we cut up the bags into strips, which we then knot together and wrap into little balls similar to skeins of yarn. We actually make these mattresses using a crocheting technique. During our workshops, each woman has a different task so that we can be more efficient.

The first step in making the mattresses is cutting the plastic bags into strips. Photo: Second Baptist Church, Union City Official.


How to make a mattress out of plastic bags: a step-by-step guide made by the "Bag Ladies". Source here.


“It takes 600 to 700 plastic bags to make a mattress”
 
It takes 600 to 700 plastic bags to make a mattress measuring 90x180cm. We’ve recycled more than 100,000 bags and made 165 mattresses.

Randy often stops by to see us and to pick up the mattresses that we’ve made. Next, he donates them to charities [Editor’s note: Pool says that he gives the mattresses to both religious and secular charities]. In turn, these organisations distribute the mattresses among the homeless population, especially in Memphis. We don’t hand them out in Union City because there aren’t really any people living in the street here. In August, we also sent some of our mattresses to flood victims in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The most practical thing about these plastic-bag mattresses is that they don’t get damp when you put them on the ground.

This man, who sleeps rough in Memphis, Tennessee, was given a homemade plastic-bag mattress. Photo: Randy Pool.

We got a little bit of media coverage and, since then, we’ve been getting messages from all over the United States. A lot of people have been asking if they can send us plastic bags, and asking us how we make the mattresses.

In 2015, an estimated 9,123 people were sleeping rough in Tennessee, which has a total population of 6.5 million people, according to a report by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development
Article written with
Chloé Lauvergnier

Chloé Lauvergnier , Journaliste francophone