You need tools to create change. And those tools can take different forms. Sometimes, they’re petitions and motions to city council. And sometimes those tools are sewing machines, scissors, and old T-shirts. In Jasper National Park, Alberta, a dedicated group of local citizens is using both sets of tools to reduce the mountain town’s reliance on plastic. Julie Des Becquets is passionate about both.
Saving Mountains of Plastic (SMP) brings together locals to create reusable bags made of donated or repurposed fabrics, like T-shirts. “People clean out their closets and donate their T-shirts, and thrift stores give us the shirts they don’t think will sell,” explains Julie. “All the fabrics are repurposed. We’ve even had donations of sewing machines.”
The cloth bags get donated to local stores, where customers can opt to use them rather than plastic. Ideally, SMP bags would be returned or recirculated throughout Jasper, “but we’re a tourist town, so we know that a lot of bags will leave, and we’re okay with that,” says Julie, 34, who has been part of the initiative since it began in January. It does mean, however, that they need a continuous supply of new bags to replace the ones that travel. The group is also seeking donations from local businesses to purchase additional bags — made of organic cotton and bamboo — to complement the ones they’ve made.
For the uninitiated, it’s surprisingly easy to create a reusable cloth bag from an old T-shirt: just cut out sleeves and around the neck opening (voilà: handles!), and sew the shirt closed along the bottom. Tank tops are even easier — no need to cut the sleeves. And there’s a “no-sew” version that involves cutting the T-shirt bottoms into strips and then knotting them. You can even double or triple the number of T-shirts depending on how strong you want your bag.
So far, about 20 volunteers have created 500+ bags in twice-weekly evening sewing sessions at a local school; their goal is 20,000. Ambitious, yes, but also fun: the evenings bring together a diverse group of citizens — among them seniors and high school students (many as part of a sustainability club), business owners and hotel workers, Parks Canada employees and residents like Julie, who manages a seniors’ facility. “What we all share is a passion for the cause,” she says.
Julie’s wider goal is to have the city ban plastic bags outright or at least move toward that end by requiring retailers to charge for bags or ask before automatically supplying them. This kind of advocacy is at the heart of Create Change Jasper, a citizen group that has put together a petition to that effect. They’d like to model their bag ban after the one in Victoria, B.C., where businesses can no longer provide single-use plastic bags to customers but can sell them paper or reusable bags.
Julie is chuffed that Create Change has already collected 600+ signatures — much more than the 10% of Jasper’s citizens — they’ll need. “It’s great to see that a sizeable chunk of the population is passionate about the issue.” The group plans to bring the petition to City Council in the coming months. They also aim to tackle other plastic-related issues, like single-use drinking straws (some local restaurants have already nixed them, thanks to the efforts of that high school sustainability club) and water in plastic bottles. “We live in a national park. We have beautiful, glacier-fed water — it’s delicious. And so the idea of people buying cases of bottled water seems like insanity to me.”
Create Change, SMP, and other initiatives like it are resonating more and more with Julie as she and her boyfriend, Nic Bazin, prepare for the arrival of their first child in November. “I’ve been googling ‘minimalist parenting’ a lot,” she says, laughing. And she’s happily amazed at the wealth of used and hand-me-down items the couple has already received: a crib, clothing, cloth diapers. (They’re hoping to avoid the mountains of plastic created by disposables, but also know that cloth may not always be a realistic choice for them when they travel, something they plan on doing a lot of during their baby’s first year.)
Impending parenthood comes with a world of unknowns. Julie’s primary concern is that once the baby arrives, she won’t have enough time (or energy!) to devote to her action and advocacy work. “I tend to go all in, and I know I’ll have to dial that back.” But she does know that she’s helping now to create and sustain the kind of world she wants her child to grow up in — one reusable bag, and one signature, at a time.
SUSAN GOLDBERG is a regular contributor to the Whole Family Happiness Project, where she is thrilled to be able to eco-geek out on composting, reducing plastics, and other low-carbon life hacks. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Ms., Toronto Life, Lilith, Today’s Parent, Full Grown People, and Stealing Time magazines, and several anthologies, including Chasing Rainbows: Exploring Gender-Fluid Parenting Practices. She is a regular contributor to several websites, including CBC Parents, and coeditor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. Susan is based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she can often be seen picking up cans to recycle on her neighbourhood walks.
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