From milk bags to bed mats

By Miriam King, Bradford Times

Students at Fred C. Cook Public School have been collecting plastic milk bags, the brightly-coloured outer bags used to hold four litres of milk, “for a very long time,” says Andrea Wappel, school volunteer, but weren’t really sure why. What was the point, students like Wappel’s daughter Lanna, in Grade 3, wanted to know.

So Wappel contacted Milk Bags Unlimited, the organization founded by Angela Kesthely in 2010 following the earthquake in Haiti, that encourages the transformation of milk bags into sleeping mats.

Volunteers collect milk bags, cut them into strips and weave them into mats to be used as mattresses by people who otherwise would be sleeping on the ground, or surgical table covers for hospitals, in countries like Haiti, Dominica and Ghana. The mats are shipped overseas as packing in containers of food and supplies sent by the charity Canadian Food for Children, and then are distributed to those in need.

On Sept. 21, Kesthely came to the school, to explain the process and the product to students. In the school library, in a session co-ordinated by Lanna, kids in grades 3 and 8 were shown how to cut the plastic bags into strips, knotting them together and then weaving them into mats, using simple wooden looms.

It takes 400 milk bags to make a single adult-sized mat, Kesthely told them, and nothing is wasted. Even the leftovers are used to stuff pillows.

In the first year of Milk Bags Unlimited, she and her volunteers produced 72 milk bag mats. Now there are about 400 organizations and groups — seniors’ residences, churches, camps, schools — that volunteer their time to make thousands of mats each year, over 17,000 to date.

Kesthely has received over 2.5 million “seconds” from milk bag manufacturers (bags with misprints or other errors) in addition to the bags collected by volunteers, and all 10 million bags kept out of landfill have gone through her garage, she says, describing it as “the happiest office in Kleinburg.”

Six classes participated in the sessions at FCCPS, and their enthusiasm was obvious. “The children are so engaged,” said Kesthely. “They understand they are keeping the bags out of landfill, and they are producing a useful product.”

“It’s great. I’m so proud of them — they were so attentive as she explained,” said Principal Madeleine Temmer. “We’re hoping that the kids who came down today can teach other kids,” and launch a milk bag mat club, that will weave milk bag mats during lunch breaks and at recess.

It gives kids an opportunity to recognize “how fortunate we are, and what we can do to help,” Wappel said.