Archived Outdoors

Bring your own bag, Haywood: Reusable bag project aims to shine light on dangers of single-use plastics

Lori Stephens works on a bag during a Feb. 11 sew-a-thon at the Haywood County Public Library in Waynesville. Holly Kays photo Lori Stephens works on a bag during a Feb. 11 sew-a-thon at the Haywood County Public Library in Waynesville. Holly Kays photo

In mid-November 2021, a group of friends was passing the evening gathered around a campfire at Lake Keowee, South Carolina, when the conversation turned to plastic, its tragic overabundance in the world, and how a small group of people might address the issue at home in Western North Carolina.

“We wanted to do something hands-on, not just spend years waiting for legislation to happen,” explained Kathy Odvody, president of Outdoor Mission Community ’s board of directors and one of the people huddled around that campfire in November. 

The result was Bring Your Own Bag Haywood , an initiative led by OMC and area churches to transform scrap fabric into 1,000 cloth bags by Earth Day, April 22. The group hopes to distribute these bags to shoppers at local retailers and on campus at Haywood Community College. 

So far, the group has held two sew-a-thons at the Haywood County Public Library in Waynesville — with a third planned — and keeps bag-making supplies stocked at the Sunset Inn at Lake Junaluska for those who would like to help from home. They’ve also been working with HCC’s environmental science class taught by Susan Roberts, holding two in-class sewing dates with another two on the schedule. 

A dozen people filled the basement community room at the library during the most recent community sewing date Friday, Feb. 11, engaged with measuring, cutting and sewing pieces of fabric into completed bags. So far, BYOB Haywood has produced 250 bags, with more to come as people keep sewing. 

Unlike the laminated tote bags often enlisted as reusable options for grocery runs, the bags BYOB Haywood is creating are plastic free and nearly waste-free, as almost all of them are crafted from scraps that might otherwise be thrown away. Odvody estimates that about 95% of the materials are repurposed fabric. 

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“I hope that it will raise people’s awareness of the problem of single-use plastics,” said Lori Stephens, a Bethel resident who was one of those gathered around the campfire in November, while working a sewing machine in the library Feb. 11.  

Plastic is now a ubiquitous substance on planet Earth, found everywhere from the largest cities to the most remote oceans. Fragments called microplastics have been found on Mount Everest , in deep ocean trenches and everywhere in between. However, plastic is a relatively recent creation, with the first entirely synthetic plastic created in 1907 by Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland. The material’s popularity skyrocketed from the mid-1900s on, with manufacturers using this lighter, less expensive material to replace items traditionally made of glass or paper. 

A July 2017 research paper  published in “Science Advances,” estimated that about 7.8 billion metric tons of plastics in the form of polymer resins and synthetic fibers were created between 1950 and 2015, with about half of those produced between 2000 and 2015. Of the total metric, about 6.3 billion metric tons resurfaced as plastic waste —79% of which accumulated in landfills or in the natural environment, the study found. 

According to an ourworldindata.org  visualization of data from a research paper  published Feb. 13, 2015, in the journal Science, the U.S. is much better at managing its waste than many other countries — particularly less prosperous nations in south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa —  but on a per capita basis it produces much more plastic than most other nations. As of 2010, the United States was producing 0.75 pounds of plastic waste per person per day, one of the world’s highest rates. The country’s total is estimated at 41.7 million tons annually. Though China had the lower per-capita rate of 0.26 pounds per day, its large population gave it the highest total output, with 65.1 tons annually. 

 

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Completed bags display a variety of colors and Completed bags display a variety of colors and patterns. Donated photo

 

The United States’ large share of global plastic consumption doesn’t necessary correlate to an equal share of the plastic pollution problem, because waste management is more important than total waste output in determining that impact. But anyone who has looked to the shoulder when cruising an otherwise scenic country byway can attest that there’s plenty of plastic litter  marring WNC’s otherwise world-class scenery and making its way into streams, rivers and eventually oceans. There, plastic bags and other flexible packaging products become deadly, with strangulation and ingestion killing wildlife  ranging from whales to seabirds. 

Unlike organic materials such as paper, plastic never truly breaks down — instead, it breaks up, fragmenting into smaller and smaller pieces. These pieces, called microplastics, end up in snow, air, soil, water and even in the human gut. Jason Love, associate director of the Highlands Biological Station, recently studied the issue  locally in the Little Tennessee River watershed, to his surprise finding concentrations of microplastics that dwarfed levels reported from a similar study of the Yangtze River in China — which a 2017 paper  published in Nature Communications ranked as the world river responsible for the largest overall input of plastic to oceans. 

Microplastics are an emerging issue in science, with the term first coined in 2004. Little is known about their impact on people, animals and ecosystems. 

“We’re inhaling it, we’re ingesting it — it’s hard to know the effects if you have something that’s everywhere,” Love told The Smoky Mountains News in 2020. “People shouldn’t be panicking, but people should be concerned, and we as scientists need to start really looking at what those impacts could be.”

The group behind BYOB Haywood hopes its efforts will make more people aware of the problems plastic pose, and the role they can play in addressing them each time they go shopping. 

 

Get involved

Help raise awareness of the issues that single-use plastics cause while taking action to reduce consumption during a community sew-a-thon planned for 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, March 18, at the Haywood County Public Library in Waynesville. 

No sewing skills are necessary to help measure, cut and sew scraps of repurposed fabric into washable, reusable bags that the group hopes to distribute across Haywood County on Earth Day, April 22. Those who would like to help from home are welcome to do so, with bag-making kits available at the Sunset Inn at Lake Junaluska. 

For more information or to RSVP, contact Kathy Odvody at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or join the Facebook page titled “Bring Your Own Bag Haywood.”

Leave a comment

2 comments

  • where can I get a pattern and directions?Great Idea...

    posted by Debbie Cart

    Tuesday, 03/15/2022

  • What an informative article about these important events! Single use plastic bags, like those you get at the grocery store, are used for an average of 12 minutes and last for centuries. As the article stated, they don't break down but break up into particles that infiltrate all ecosystems and living creatures. Plastic production is expected to quadruple in the next 30 years unless grass roots such as these can help stop it.

    posted by Laura Armour

    Thursday, 03/10/2022

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