'Plarn' - plastic bag yarn - puts those ubiquitous bags back to work

Posted: April 16, 2012

At long last, people who care about the environment have something nice to say about those ubiquitous, fossil fuel-based, all-too-disposable plastic bags.

Apparently, they make great eco-art.

And great purses, placemats, floor mats, chair covers, you name it.

Some years back, an ingenious soul -- no one is quite sure who -- figured out how to cut the bags into strips that could be fused into longer lengths or loops, which in turn could be linked the same way as a string of rubber bands.

“Plarn” is what they become -- a cross between plastic and yarn.

Philadelphia artist Melissa Maddonni Haims started with the material about four years ago. At first, she was fusing plastic into what she called “plabric” and sewing things with it. But since the process used heat, she began to worry about what toxins might be in the fumes she was breathing.

So she started cutting the bags and joining the pieces to make long strings. “At first I thought I was creating this brand new thing,” she said. But then she googled “plastic bag yarn” and realized it wasn’t just an idea, it was a phenomenon. She even found a YouTube video on the subject.

People were weaving it, crocheting it, knitting it.

“My hopes were dashed ever so slightly at not being the creator of this new found item,” Haims said. But with the tips she learned, “it became much easier to create. It’s a very long and difficult process, but once you’ve got a big bulky ball of plarn in your hand, it’s worth every second.”

Maybe all this shouldn’t be so surprising. Artists and crafters have found beauty in cast-offs and utility in leftovers since before the patchwork quilt.

Some eco stores now sell plarn bags. How’s that for an iconic, even ironic, reusable bag to take to the grocery store? They’re also popular as beach bags -- waterproof, sturdy, and the sand falls through.

And now, plarned objects are showing up in galleries. Haims has an exhibit at the Third Street Gallery that incorporates plarn. More of her work is in on exhibit through May 20 at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education -- she’s covered a metal chair in colorful plarn, making it look like a throne, and she has made tree trunks festive with plarn coatings.

After all, plastic bags are frequently caught in the branches of trees. Why not make something out of them for the trunks?

Over at the Moore College of Art, artist and educator Amy Orr, who also is director of the FiberPhiladelphia celebration taking place now in the city and its galleries, teaches her students how to plarn. They’re loving it. Saturday they’re planning to have an explosion of plarn on the lawn in front of the school -- plarned poles and parking meters.

Orr has incorporated plarn into her art as well. “It’s the material we’re seeing,” she said. Indeed, when she takes her dog out, she no longer brings a plastic bag for the waste. Instead, she looks for one along the walk, “and it’s not very hard” to find one.

Not long ago, after her husband cut down some of the overgrowth in their West Philadelphia yard, she was trying to come with an “elegant, urban way” to fill the space. You guessed it: a fence made from plastic bags. It will be 20 feet long and 10 feet high. “I sit under it and crochet every night,” she said.

Although Philadelphia’s City Council has twice considered imposing a fee on plastic bags as a way to rid the city of the litter -- the industry succeeded in getting an expansion of recycling programs instead -- plarners are unlikely to run out of material soon.

Haims has a collection basket at the Schuylkill Center, and Moore has one at the school. They’re never empty.

There are somewhat rare bag specimens, however. Most plastic bags are white or beige. Pink and red are prized. Blue, too. And -- I can’t resist the plug here -- plarners say that newspaper bags are a favorite. “The material is very silky and smooth,” Orr said.

Haims is so seized by the material that she’s planning to plarn-bomb a piano, covering it with crochet. The folks at the Philadephia Airport may not realize this yet, but she’s also planning to incorporate plarn into an installation she’s mounting there in 2013.

One way or another, we’ve got to find things to do with all this plastic, because it’s not going anywhere. I’m reminded of the boat, Plastiki, made of plastic water bottles, sailing through a garbage patch of plastic formed by ocean currents in the Pacific.

Industry is recycling the plastic, too, making it into new bags and other items, including clothing. So now, researchers of the University College Dublin in Ireland have found, it’s breaking down in our washing machines and “microplastic” is winding up on our coasts.

Perhaps the plarn art is a more hopeful, if more rustic, use. For Haims, it’s “my own little personal stand against societal waste.”

“GreenSpace” appears every other week, alternating with Art Carey’s “Well Being” column. Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147, sbauers@phillynews.com or @sbauers on Twitter. Visit her blog at www.philly.com/greenspace.

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