Each year, more than 4 billion plastic grocery bags get sent to the landfill and that was enough to inspire environmentally conscious Krista Johnson of Ashland to recycle them into something useful — namely eye-catching, durable purses.
Johnson knits the purses, which also have straps knit from the old bags, and outfits them with recycled buckles and flashy metal ornaments from thrift shops.
The handbags, which sell for $95, invariably serve as conversation starters.
"I think they're fabulous, clever, useful and intriguing," says Annie Hoy, outreach director for the Ashland Food Co-op, the origin of bags made into one purse.
"They make you immediately wonder how the bags are cut into the yarn for knitting," Hoy says. "I'm thinking about knitting one myself but I need to find plastic bags with blues and hot pinks. Ours are kind of camouflage tan and green."
Johnson, a seamstress and occasionally a costume maker at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, got the idea for the bags last year in an unusual manner.
She served as a judge at the "Trashion Show" last Earth Day at the ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum and found her inspiration.
She has found making them fairly labor intensive, with about six hours work required. She sets the price based on $15 an hour.
"They're very simple to make, as long as you know how to knit, purl, cast on and cast off — and you can line them with a plastic bag and decorate them with fun found objects," Johnson says.
Bag-hunting has become an adventure. She found white bags with red accents at Market of Choice, dark green at Harry & David, purple and tan at Staples and multi-colored polka dots at Old Navy. Johnson knits hers in a spiral so accents on the original bag turn out as horizontal colors on the purse.
The process of creating the material is easier than many people think. She makes "yarn" by cutting the bag in a long spiral or bunching it vertically and cut sections, which she then loops together in slip knots or she cuts strips and heats them together with a bag sealer.
Then she balls it up like yarn and starts with fat knitting needles. Johnson uses No. 19 needles.
If the purse wears or tears, it can be mended with strapping tape or a hot iron. If you get beige or tan grocery bags, the purse bears an uncanny resemblance to a straw or fiber purse. The only drawbacks are that they're time intensive and they do rustle as you move.
Jean Fyfe of Ashland is knitting a bag of her own — a shopping bag made of plastic bags. She's knitting it in sections and joining them together. She's found that plastic has less "give" than yarn and the process does take time.
Fyfe says she has found hereself asking, "Why am I doing this when the Co-op sells fabric shopping bags for $2.50?"
Johnson, meanwhile, is moving into simpler uses for the old bags, making belts (with real buckles, recycled) and tiny cell phone pouches with a shoulder strap made of old shoelaces.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.