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This heavy-duty tote bag, made of recycled fabric and produced by the Material Resources Center in Ephrata, Pa., can be used to carry groceries or other items instead of using paper or plastic bags. Silas Crews

This heavy-duty tote bag, made of recycled fabric and produced by the Material Resources Center in Ephrata, Pa., can be used to carry groceries or other items instead of using paper or plastic bags. Silas Crews

Volunteers give fabric a second life in earth-friendly bags

Cathryn Clinton and Linda Espenshade
September 25, 2009

AKRON, Pa. – Paper or plastic? Neither choice of bag often offered at grocery stores is the right choice for Mary Martin, a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) East Coast worker.

She prefers fabric bags, particularly those made of recycled fabric at MCC’s Material Resource Center (MRC) in Ephrata. After all, these bags were her idea.

In early 2008, as Martin became aware of the ecological problems associated with paper and plastic bags, she immediately thought of one solution: The MRC volunteers could sew cloth bags for shopping and other uses, and they could be made with donated and recycled material.

Evanna Hess, manager of the MRC in Ephrata, liked the idea. Soon Martin designed a pattern, and volunteers began to cut and sew 100 bags, using yellow and white striped awning material donated by the Platt Cove Bruderhoff Community in New York and other fabric that would have been discarded.

They took the bags to the 2008 Pennsylvania Relief Sale in Harrisburg where they sold all but four. That’s when Hess and Martin recognized the consumer demand and potential market for the product.

They just didn’t realize how big the demand would be.

Soon they were filling an order of 500 bags for a woman who purchased a bag at the relief sale. She was planning a conference for the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency with a focus on going green and wanted to give the participants environmentally friendly gifts. The MRC staff and volunteers saw this as an opportunity to make money for MCC's work and to help the environment. They finished the order in six weeks and earned $1,250 for MCC.

That order was nothing compared to their next challenge.

In 2008 an MCC task force began planning for its involvement in Mennonite Church USA’s 2009 biennial convention. Task force members wanted environmentally friendly giveaways that were practical and inexpensive but also connected people with MCC. Preferably, they would be made of recycled or donated materials and produced locally.

Jan Siemens, MCC worker and task force participant, thought of the cloth shopping bags at the MRC and knew they would fit all the requirements. She contacted the MRC to see if 5,000 bags could be made within the next year.

Martin, who had worked on the original order of 500 bags, did the math. It would be an impossible task for volunteers to accomplish in one year, even two years. Nevertheless, the MRC was convinced of the value of the project and promised 3,000 bags instead.

The power of volunteers was soon evident. Members of a former Albuquerque voluntary service unit met for a reunion and decided to work for a week at the MRC. The timing of their visit was “perfect,” Hess said, because it coincided with the initiation of this marathon project.

“The Albuquerque volunteers were cheerful and enthusiastic, working out an effective assembly line process that gave a much appreciated boost to the project,” Hess said.

Some volunteers who came to the MRC took bags with instructions and precut fabric to sew at home. People from other MCC relief centers and resource centers worked on the project. Within nine months, seamstresses had finished the 3,000 bags, plus an extra 500. They even gave all the bags their own unique identity by ironing on an MCC label.

The labels featured MCC’s logo in combination with the words “2wice the Life.” Along the edges of the square patch are MCC’s website address and the line, “Made from recycled materials.” Fred Yocum, a graphic designer for MCC, said he created the labels to draw people’s attention to two kinds of recycling –  recycled material and recycled lives.

“Just like the material is used in more than one way, people can use their lives in more than one way,” Yocum said. The website describes many opportunities for the latter.

The MRC in Ephrata stands ready to fill bulk orders, with or without an MCC logo, for organizations looking for creative ways to care for creation. Anyone wanting to place orders may call 717-733-2847 or e-mail swiest@mcc.org.

Who knows what the next big order will be?