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Trash Bags to Handbags

It all started with a question.

"Could Doane help a local effort to replace plastic shopping bags with a better alternative?" Linda Kalbach and Karla Cooper asked Brad Elder.

If you meet these three faculty members you'll understand how the question leaped from "Can we do this?" to "How big can we do this?"

And then to the answer: start local and make an international impact.

Those flimsy plastic bags that carry so many groceries home around the globe each day are the scourge of environmentalists, the detriment of municipal infrastructure and the enemy of wildlife.

Using a host of existing Internet sites on recycling the nuisance sacks, Brad perfected a process of layering, ironing and sewing to turn 16 single-use plastic bags into a re-usable tote capable of holding more than 40 pounds (or four great big biology textbooks).

Brad made the prototype and Linda and Karla got the students involved to take it to a whole new level of cool.

Doane Roots & Shoots members made everything from shoulder bags to iPod cases, masterpieces of color, pattern and brands in "Trashbags to Handbags" workshops.

The goal of the project was to spread the idea locally and then take it global.

Roots & Shoots secretary and education major Tessa Prucinsky became the project's student leader, and, working with faculty, conducted workshops at Doane and an area YMCA, local schools - even an interterm class.

The demo workshop made its way to YouTube and Jane Goodall's Web site where it is viewed around the world.

A recent Doane graduate and former Roots & Shoots officer took samples along on her mission work in Kenya.

Brad's sister, Debbie, with Partners in Conservation, took samples to Namibia and will take more samples to Rwanda and the Congo later this year.

On a mission trip to India, Karla (Doane's chaplain) shared the process with village leaders. She later demonstrated the concept for Dr. Wangair Maathai - a Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate - at the "Ecological Justice Day of Awakening" conference in Los Angeles. Dr. Maathai invited the Doane group to Kenya to demonstrate the project's potential.

But that's just the beginning.

In each bag, the Trash Bags to Handbags bunch sees possibilities.

Raincoats and water filters. Mosquito netting and window screens to fight malaria in developing countries. Woven sandals. Roof-patching material, erasable writing boards for school children, school backpacks, woven hats, woven mats, small-scale irrigation channel liners or water pipes, temporary water tanks for livestock and more.

Brad is back at the drawing board, perfecting a prototype of plastic bag-turned-mosquito netting.

Looking back, the question they were really asking themselves a few months ago was what could they do about this problem from Crete, Nebraska?

Turns out, a lot.

They couldn't stop world production or recycle every bag.

But they could teach.