Doane Faculty Working to Turn Plastic Shopping Bags into Reusable Totes, Mosquito Netting and More

View the How-to Video on YouTube
View the online photo album | View photos of the bags in India.

When Brad Elder sees a plastic shopping bag, he sees much more than a flimsy bag to tote groceries.

He sees a pollutant that kills scores of wild animals and marine life each year.

A nuisance that clogs municipal infrastructure and landfills.

But in the same bags, he also sees possibilities - raincoats, mosquito nettings, water filters and recycled tote bags.

Someday, he and other faculty members hope the world will see those possibilities, too.

Their first effort toward that end began November 11, 2007, when Doane's Roots and Shoots club conducted a workshop to turn "trash bags to hand bags."

The workshop demonstrated how to turn 16 plastic shopping bags into a sturdy tote bag, iPod case and more. It is distributed as a YouTube video to spread the efforts beyond Crete.

The idea for the project came a few months ago, when several Crete residents approached Doane's Roots and Shoots chapter about making cloth bags to reduce reliance on plastic shopping bags. (Roots and Shoots is a program of the Jane Goodall Institute. Chapters plan and implement projects that promote care and concern for animals, the environment and the human community.)

Grocery stores in Crete alone go through several thousand of the bags a day, according to Elder, an assistant professor of biology and Roots and Shoots advisor.

Elder did an Internet search looking for ideas. Then he stumbled across a YouTube video through Make Magazine, demonstrating how to turn plastic sacks into a reusable tote. The tote was as sturdy as canvas but with the added benefit of taking existing plastic sacks out of the environment. It was one of many Internet sites devoted to giving the bags a second life.

"As soon as I saw those, I knew this was a no-brainer. We had to do this instead of cloth," Elder said.

He spent the next days working on the bag, finally turning 16 bags into a reusable tote through a process of cutting, ironing on wax paper and sewing. The finished product holds four large textbooks, or roughly 40 pounds.

Elder began working with two other faculty members at Doane to take the idea beyond Crete. The bags are a worldwide nuisance and health hazard, banned in cities such as San Francisco and in some foreign countries.

"San Francisco saved $25 million in infrastructure a year by not having to clean up after these bags," Elder said.

Elder brainstormed with Doane Chaplain Karla Cooper and Linda Kalbach, assistant professor of education.

They started to talk about what they could do beyond the Crete area, possibly as far reaching as Third World countries.

Could the bags be a revenue source if people in those countries collect them and make tote bags to sell?

Could they be raincoats or shoe covers in the monsoon season?

Could they be mosquito netting or a water filter?

Elder began working on a way to make mosquito netting from the bags - a cheap and abundant material that with education and distribution could lower rates of malaria.

The three are searching for funding to further the project. Elder is completing a prototype of the plastic mosquito netting, an arduous project that requires a tool that can space tiny holes uniformly and quickly into the plastic.

"I spent $100 at Wal-Mart buying every goofy thing I could think of to try to punch holes in plastic," he said.

He feels the mosquito netting could someday have the biggest impact.

But for now, the group will start with the bags. The permanent shopping bags are extremely durable, can be reused indefinitely and will reduce the number of single-use plastic sacks in the environment.

Doane's Roots and Shoots chapter collected plastic bags from the campus and community. Sunday, they and other volunteers set up, assembly-style fashion, cutting and prepping, ironing, sewing and teaching.

They hope the world will watch through the YouTube video and a posting on the Jane Goodall Web site.

Three local grocery outlets have agreed to let Doane put bag collectors in their stores.

Rev. Cooper will take a completed bag and a prototype of the plastic mosquito netting on her trip to India this week, where she will also demonstrate the recycling projects.

"In all the places I've traveled, I have seen these bags pile up," said Cooper, who has done missionary work internationally for several years.

"It would be great to train people to put a small dent in the pollution."

She will start in the southern India village of Chennai, showing the bags to local leaders through a service organization. She hopes to return next year with Doane students who could work there as a service-learning project.

Once they began thinking about it, Cooper said, ideas for plastic bag re-use go on and on.

Her favorite?

She found one can write on the plastic bags with a marker and wipe it away, much like a dry erase board.

"In areas where school supplies are lacking, they could make a large plastic slab and have their own dry erase board."

For more information on the workshop or recycling projects, contact Elder at 402.826.8587 or


Interested in Doane? Let us know.

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.