It's in the Bag

Issue: 
July 2009

Teresa Van Hatten-Granath knows a thing or two about recycling. Growing up in Minnesota, she remembers that her family was always environmentally friendly. “My family always recycled,” she says. “My dad was avid about fixing anything instead of throwing things away. We’d fix things five, six and seven times. I remember my parents saving the aluminum cans and glass and recycling everything.”

When Van Hatten-Granath’s mother passed away two years ago, her family found bags of margarine containers, toilet paper tubes and empty, plastic ketchup bottles in her house. As an art teacher, she saved anything that could be used as children’s art supplies. “After she died, we contacted some local art teachers and they came and took everything and loved it. She didn’t throw much away.”

Both of Van Hatten-Granath’s parents grew up on farms in the post-depression era and taught their children that recycling and sewing were important. So, in January of 2008, when her husband came home with groceries entangled in plastic bags, she knew she needed to do something. “I thought, ‘I can make bags. I have a stash of fabric.’ Everybody who sews has a fabric stash.”

Van Hatten-Granath made bags for her family and then brought the extras into her photography class at Belmont University. “I gave them to my students as long as they promised to use them instead of plastic grocery bags. I’d had the idea to stick numbered tags in the bags so I could keep up with them and see how many I could make.”    
When one of her students suggested that she needed to blog about it, the class started brainstorming for a name for the project, and the “Green Bag Lady” was born. Van Hatten-Granath made the first 800 bags herself before asking for volunteers to help with the process. She ended up with a team of about 15 women who sew, cut fabric and match handles for the bags. To date, more than 5,700 bags have been made, nearly 5,300 of which have been given away. Daunting, yes, but you have to start somewhere. In comparison, Americans use 100 billion plastic bags a year (roughly 425 bags per person). And of those bags, less than one percent is recycled.

The most amazing thing about the project is that money never exchanges hands to produce a bag or to send it home with a happy new owner. The bags are made from donated fabric and thread. The volunteers, fondly called Bagettes, donate their time and talents. The sewing machines have been donated by sponsors, and the bags are given away during Green Bag Lady events with the promise that they will be used instead of paper or plastic.

Van Hatten-Granath’s father even helps by running the website, answering e-mail and  paying for a large portion of any associated shipping costs. “I told him I was doing the project, and he thought it was the greatest thing,” smiles Van Hatten-Granath. “He does all the tech support and all the inputting of data on the site. I only do the posts. He also answers all of the e-mails because I have three kids, a husband and a full-time job. I couldn’t do it without him and my other ladies.”

Since she no longer takes requests for bags through her website (the demand was incredible!), she posted her patterns online so that anyone can make their own bags. She even recycles the leftover scraps of fabric into pet beds and gives those away to animal hospitals. Absolutely nothing is wasted.

Van Hatten-Granath hopes that this small step will start a revolution in the way the world sees waste. California has outlawed the use of plastic bags, and it has been rumored that some companies may start charging a few cents for each plastic bag used. Grocery stores such as Whole Foods and Kroger give you discounts for bringing your own fabric bag.

But apart from any monetary kickback, you’re keeping one more bag out of landfills and oceans. It’s not easy being green, but it sure is worth it. 

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