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Stitching up an alternative to plastic bags

Under vibrant quilted tapestries, an army of five diligent volunteers hunched over their creations on a recent Sunday. The hum of sewing machines echoed throughout the room. Sunlight poured in through an open door of the Sew Crafty studio in downtown Durham.

“Jill! You’re a machine down there!” said Margie Pikaart to a woman at the other end of the assembly line. Jill Dalton, sporting hand-sewn overalls, grinned and shrugged. She continued hemming her plaid tote bag.

Toni Mason, owner of Sew Crafty and leader of the volunteer sewing army, looked on attentively, while also occasionally feeding treats to her dogs Rosie and Daisy. Once the session finished, Mason would hand-deliver the bags, packaged in groups of 10, to King’s Red and White supermarket on East Club Boulevard.

Volunteers sew reusable Boomerang Bags at Sew Crafty in Durham. Photo by Esme Fox — The 9th Street Journal

Don’t Waste Durham, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing trash, facilitates sewing circles at Sew Crafty bimonthly as part of Bull City Boomerang Bags. The local effort is affiliated with Boomerang Bags, an international organization started in Australia working to create reusable bags for community members who might not otherwise have access to them.

Bull City Boomerang Bags is just one of the 1,145 chapters worldwide working to enact the organization’s low-waste mission since August 2019. The international nonprofit has diverted 182,826 kilograms of waste from landfills, according to its website.

Mason, along with other members of Bull City Boomerang Bags, recently traveled to the Saturday farmer’s market at Durham Central Park to hand out reusable bags for shoppers for the first time. Halfway through the morning, the group had given out nearly 50 bags. The group hopes to have a regular stand at the farmer’s market.

“You’ll have to promise me that you’ll use these and not plastic bags,” Mason said to each person who received a tote on Saturday.

At King’s Red and White Supermarket, cashier Jennifer Rasmussen says customers love picking up Boomerang Bags.

“At first, there was some confusion,” Rasmussen said. “‘These are really free?’ people would ask.” But now, regulars are used to the idea.

The store, which has offered the bags since 2021, encourages people to return with their reusable tote rather than picking up another one. That doesn’t stop the store from handing out all 100 bags Mason brings every few weeks.

When Mason was approached with the Boomerang Bags program, she saw a perfect opportunity to use her skills for a greater purpose. Mason admits that growing up, she rarely thought about where her trash went. Now, the thought motivates her to reduce her plastic use as much as possible.

“People just think it goes away,” Mason said. “You throw it away and it’s gone.” But with Durham’s already overcrowded landfill, Mason says that’s not the case. The city resorts to shipping its waste over 90 miles away to Sampson County, where 25 million tons of trash sits rotting, according to a 2023 report from NC Newsline.

“There’s so many different aspects to environmental work, like driving an electric car, or not eating meat,” Mason said. “But you can’t do everything. Somehow I was always interested in creating less trash.”

Reusable totes made from T-shirts are one type of bag made produced by Boomerang Bags. Photo by Abigail Bromberger — The 9th Street Journal

Most people arrive at the sewing circle with little to no sewing experience. Mason, who remembers sewing her first-ever project in seventh grade home ec class, is eager to pass on her knowledge.

Others, whom Mason calls “the regulars,” are skilled sewers and craftspeople. Having a space to use their love of sewing for good keeps them coming back every week.

Dalton, who has been sewing since she was eight, first noticed a plastic bag problem when she went grocery shopping with her mom growing up in Hawaii. Her family had a designated spot under the counter to put used plastic bags.

“What are we doing with those bags?” she remembers wondering. “There wasn’t a recycling program at the time. So it was just a way to keep them contained before going in the garbage.”

Mason and the rest of the sewing circle create two different types of reusable totes. The first, made out of T-shirts, is slightly more flexible and able to handle more produce. The other, a neatly hemmed tote bag, uses donated fabric scraps. The sewing circle takes donations of any type of fabric in order to keep the operation running.

Moving forward, Mason hopes to supply the bags to more local stores. 

“Since we only make them twice a month we can never keep a constant supply in even one store. But we do what we can,” Mason said.

The team also wants to expand beyond Sew Crafty to facilitate sewing circles at other locations in Durham. The Scrap Exchange, an arts and crafts thrift store in Lakewood Shopping Center, will start making Boomerang Bags once a month during regularly scheduled sewing sessions.

“We’re just a tiny drip drop in the bucket to try and reduce the use of plastic bags they give away at the grocery store,” Mason said. “And to try and educate people — make them aware.”

Above: Toni Mason hands out Boomerang Bags at the Durham Farmers’ Market. Photo by Abigail Bromberger — The 9th Street Journal