Since 2008, a community of volunteers, schools, churches, community groups and businesses across Canada has been participating in the MILKBAGSunlimited project
Selected volunteers in South Georgian Bay are creative ways to reduce waste and help the community’s homeless population: milk bag mattresses.
Using samples provided by a Toronto-based nonprofit organization MILK POUCH unlimited, volunteers weave old milk bags to make waterproof, reusable mattress toppers for those in need.
The initiative was started by Angela Kesthely from Kleinburg after the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010. In parts of Canada, milk is sold in strong, UV-resistant plastic bags that won’t break down in landfills. When this plastic is woven, it becomes a very soft and comfortable sleeping mat with a long lifespan. The concept of making sleeping mats from these discarded milk cartons has been around for a long time, and a chance meeting at Kesthley’s son’s basketball game a few years earlier introduced her to the âupcyclingâ project.
Kesthely started researching the concept further and found a way to make the mats more efficient. She wove the mats with a wooden frame, a process that was much gentler on the body than the traditional crochet method of upcycling in front of over 1,000 students and employees.
“I remember being scared to speak in front of so many people, but when I started speaking the words just flowed,” said Kesthely. “And from then on it just started.”
A process that took a week from start to finish now took just a handful of hours, and in the first week Kesthely started weaving, she made nine mats in a matter of days.
Milk bags are cut into strips and knotted together in lengths of four before they are looped onto a frame. Each mattress requires around 400 milk bags and has a lifespan of around 25 years. They are also waterproof, bug-proof and easy to clean and dry.
In collaboration with other charities, MILKBAGSunlimted sends mats of various sizes to over 40 countries and to Canadian organizations that care for the homeless.
âIn our biggest year, we sent 11,000 mats,â says Kesthely.
Hundreds of organizations across Ontario and parts of eastern Canada are now participating in the volunteer effort. One such group is called The Bag Ladies, which is part of the Helping Hands Craft Club based in Owen Sound.
âI started the Craft Club in the community to help individuals and families in need in every way possible,â said Beth van Aalst, founder and president of the Helping Hands Craft Club.
She first learned how to make milk bag mattresses from her aunt, who at that time still worked according to the traditional crochet method. Then van Aalst discovered MILKBAGSunlimited and got in touch with Kesthely, and she said when she started using the web method it was a ‘game changer’.
âI thought this was really great, so one day I had a couple of friends from the craft club and taught them all how to do it. You loved it, âsaid van Aalst. More and more women in the community showed interest, so The Bag Ladies were born.
Before COVID, the group met twice a month for so-called âStitch and B * tchâ sessions. They were able to meet outside a few times during the summer months, while it has been safe to do so in the past two years, but otherwise the ladies continue to weave on their own at home. However, Val Aalst said fewer mats are produced this way, especially without group responsibility. She is therefore happy to resume the group sessions when it is safe to do so.
“The people not only need the mats, the bag ladies also need this sociability and connection,” said van Aalst. “It’s the whole kit.”
Given the impact the Bag Ladies had on the Owen Sound community and beyond, Van Aalst was inspired to help others start groups within their communities as well. She encourages anyone in South Georgian Bay who is interested to get in touch with the Helping Hands Craft Club for information and advice.
This connection is also the driving force for Kesthely.
“It’s therapeutic, I really enjoy it,” said Kesthely. âWe have all learned to share in each other’s sadness and happiness. It’s not just about the mats, it’s about getting people together. “