The first time Patty Krupp heard about plarn, she knew she’d hit on something special. Plarn turns plastic bags into yarn that can then be crocheted into mats.
“It was like a light bulb went off for me,” Krupp says.
As a University Colloquium administrative assistant, she immediately thought about a service-learning project centered on plarn. The project would reduce plastic bags in the trash, and the final products could go to the local homeless community.
It was a win for everyone involved — FGCU students, the environment and Southwest Florida’s most vulnerable populations.
This was in 2018, and Krupp quickly got approval to launch a plarn-based Colloquium service-learning opportunity. She isn’t much of a crocheter herself, she admits, but the project tied together two of her most avid interests.
“I have a passion for helping the homeless and a passion for sustainability,” Krupp says. “This was a way of combining both.”
The program started out having students make balls of plarn. Krupp would collect plastic bags from recycling bins at local supermarkets.
She’d assemble a group of Colloquium students and spend hours transforming the plastic bags into rolls of plarn. First, they’d remove the handles from the bags along with the seams on the bottom. Then they’d cut the bags into strips and loop them to make a continuous strand of plarn.
It was a time-intensive project. Each roll required 40 plastic bags and roughly two hours to make. Krupp would then donate the plarn to local knitting and crocheting groups, who would turn the plarn into useful mats for homeless people.
For the first two years, the project went swimmingly. Plastic bags were staying out of landfills. People experiencing homelessness could keep their sleeping bags off the wet ground using the mats. And FGCU students were earning service-learning hours for a good cause. Everything was perfect. “And then COVID hit,” Krupp says.
The students involved could no longer gather on campus to make plarn, and the knitting circles around Southwest Florida that had been transforming the plarn into mats had also stopped. “At that point, I’m like, OK, we have to pivot,” Krupp says. “I decided the best way to approach it was to offer plarning as a virtual opportunity for students.”
Even in pandemic isolation, some students continued producing plarn on their own, but Krupp also gave them a new option: crocheting the mats themselves. “I didn’t think many students would be interested,” she says. “But I was very much surprised.”
Her students were more than willing to try, especially when many were isolated at home during the pandemic. Some even had parents or grandparents who taught them how to crochet. “The project took off in a new direction,” Krupp says. At first, she was getting 10 or so mats a semester, then 20 mats and now her students produce anywhere from 25 to 30 mats every semester. Each mat is 3 feet by 6 feet. It requires 12 balls of plarn and roughly 40 hours to make. “It’s a time-consuming commitment,” Krupp says.
For Erica Boaz, a junior psychology major, it’s well worth investing her time. “I’ve worked with the Abuse Counseling and Treatment Center and the Harry Chapin Food Bank, and I knew I could go back to those places and help — I’m sure they need it. But I wanted to use a different outlet and challenge myself to help in a way that I hadn’t done before.”
Helping improve someone’s quality of life with her final product was important to Boaz, even if she wasn’t a natural crocheter. Not at first, anyway. “It was pretty intimidating,” she says. “But it was so satisfying to see it complete. And now I have some calluses on my hands.”
Boaz’ mat will go directly to the Lee County Homeless Coalition, like the other mats created in the program.
“Our clients are very appreciative,” says Michael Overway, the coalition’s executive director. “I’ve experienced it personally.” Overway has distributed supplies, including the mats from FGCU, at local homeless camps. He explains how the mats can help people stay dry if they sleep on the ground or in tents. Once they realize the benefits, they’re grateful to have them, he says. Then they ask, “How did somebody make this?”
That’s the part Overway finds the most amazing. Students are putting in hours of their own time and have the ingenuity to take thrown-away plastic bags and transform them into something useful. “I love that somebody’s great idea also has this incredible downstream benefit,” Overway says.