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Sew sustainable: Avid seamstresses launch reusable grocery bag program

From left, Pam Brock, Jeanne Marie Troge, Toni Napier and Kelly Blackledge have launched the Park Rapids Bring Your Own Bag Program, along with (not pictured) Rhoda Jackson and Denise Knowles. (Shannon Geisen/Enterprise)

Forgot your reusable bag?

Borrow one.

To help everyone "be a friend of earth" and reduce the use of plastic bags in the Park Rapids community, a group of ladies is sewing and distributing reusable cloth bags.

They launched the Park Rapids Bring Your Own Bag (BYOB) Program, providing fun and free cloth bags to customers while they shop.

The bags are stored in a compact, wicker hamper. They are free to use and reuse. Shoppers may return them or keep them.

Hugo's is the first grocery store to accept the Park Rapids Bring Your Own Bag (BYOB) Program. Organizers seek other businesses willing to give away the bags.

There is no cost to the program. Park Rapids BYOB founders will manage the program and work with local retailers about where to place the cloth bags in the stores.

"A lot of times I'll go to the store and realize I forgot to bring my bags, and that's what it's really mainly for, is for people who are conscious about that to begin with," said Jeanne Marie Troge, one of the organizers.

The group ordered ready-made ones, but also sewed hundreds more.

"We had a sew-in, like an old sewing bee. We'll be setting another time for people want to come pick up patterns, pick up fabric or sew with us," Troge said.

About eight "soul sisters" gathered for the first sew-in. They have crafted roughly 300 bags, so far. Their goal is 500.

Blackledge designed a logo which they've ironed onto the cloth bags.

"It was a fun day," Troge said. "We have all different kinds and sizes and shapes."

"The quilter got complicated," joked Toni Napier.

"Her bags are beautiful. They'll never come back," Troge said.

"Wouldn't that be nice?" Napier said.

"My interest was to really to try to eliminate the plastic that we use in our community," said Kelly Blackledge, an environmental educator and park ranger at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge.

"It's pretty heart-breaking to see plastic bags in the environment and our natural places—hooked in trees or floating down the river. It is a danger to wildlife."

Troge lives on the Fish Hook River. Bottles and refuse frequently wash up onto her shore.

"Go down and look at the dam," said Pam Brock. "There's junk right there. It's terrible."

Similar reusable bag projects are happening all over the world in large cities, Troge noted.

"Other cities are embracing it," she said.

While visiting Ireland in 2012, she discovered there are no bags—plastic or otherwise—at grocery stores. Shoppers are expected to bring their own.

A grassroots, community-driven movement in Australia led to Boomerang Bags, a volunteer organization devoted to up-cycling materials and providing a sustainable alternative to plastic bags.

"We just thought we could do our own thing. We're a little town," explained Troge. "The idea is you take a bag and you return it. The next time you come to the store, you put that bag back. Or if you have extra bags you don't want, throw them in there. That way they are being reused. We know bags are going to disappear, but that's ok, too, because they'll still be getting used."

"It's a perfect time for us to influence not only the people here, but the tourists that are coming in. They see us willing to do this in our community, hopefully it sparks interest in other communities," said Toni Napier.

"What people don't realize is a lot of plastic is not being recycled. There's really a lot of plastic that's not recycled. That's where reducing your use of plastic is so critical," Blackledge said.

According to a BYOB Program flyer, only 2 percent of plastic bags are recycled. Roughly 50 percent is buried in landfills, a small portion is made into durable goods and the remaining is "unaccounted for" or lost in the environment where it gets stuck in trees, pollutes wildlife habitat or washes into streams and lakes.

It takes 12 million barrels of oil to produce the estimated 100 billion plastic bags Americans use every year. Choosing reusable bags saves on these non-renewable resources and protects the environment, argues BYOB organizers.

Blackledge spent one year living plastic-free.

"It's about creating those habits. It takes awhile before it becomes just what you do," she said. "It certainly changed the way I live. I haven't bought a bag of baggies or cellophane ever since. I don't need it. I've found others ways to live without those things."

The next "bag-making day" will be Sunday, Aug. 20 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Volunteers are invited to assist with cutting out and sewing bags, ironing, marketing and much more.

Fabric donations are welcome, along with extra-large women's t-shirts or medium and larger men's t-shirts. Rummage through linen closets, fabric trunks or second-hand materials suitable for making cloth bags.

"You don't need to know how to sew," Troge said.

T-shirt bags, for example, don't require any sewing.

"A lot of people don't sew any more, but you can tie things together," she said.

"We have fabric. We'll always take some. We just need a place to put them and we'll start major sewing," Napier said.

"I think being a tourist area, too, where this is beautiful, beautiful country, we should really be working on the environment. That's what keeps the town alive," Troge said.

"Protecting our forest, lakes and streams, it's important to us in Hubbard County to do that. We know how special this place is. We want to keep it that way," agreed Blackledge. "One way is reducing our use of plastic. This is one of the biggest impacts we can make if we reuse bags."

To get involved, contact the BYOB Program by emailing