Around the world, we discard one million plastic bags every single minute. We use, on the average, a bag for 25 minutes, and it takes 100-500 years for the bag to decompose. Our plastic trash, disposed of on land, eventually flows from streams to rivers to the oceans. An ocean gyre is a system of ocean and wind currents, swirling like a whirlpool. The trash is ultimately drawn into the calm center of the ocean gyre and trapped. These plastics don’t disintegrate; they break into tinier and tinier pieces. Millions of tons, and growing, of microscopic plastic garbage kills the sea life that ingest these pieces. The seeping of petrochemicals alters the ocean ecosystem, often producing murky waters.
Kathleen Donofrio, a woman with a passion for helping others and protecting our environment, arrived in Nashville via Winston Salem, North Carolina. She and her husband had raised their family and relocated due to his job in academia. “It was hard to make the move,” she said. She left her friends and roots behind and had to reinvent herself in Tennessee. Kathleen and I talked about the history you have with longtime friends. New friends and acquaintances don’t really know about your roots, what your children are doing, things you have accomplished or are capable of doing. Kathleen admitted, “as difficult as it can be to go through, change and upheaval is typically good for a person.”
Kathleen longed to meet people, learn Nashville, and stay busy. The former nurse, with her caring and calm manner, said “Besides friends, I was looking for a place to belong and make a difference. I wanted a purpose.” Kathleen explained she began to pursue volunteer options as a way of helping herself acclimate to her new surroundings. Thus began her steady habit of giving back to others. She taught English language skills at the Nashville Adult Literary Council. She loaded boxes with supplies at The Pencil Foundation’s LP Pencil Box and the Second Harvest Food Bank.
Then, in 2008, Teresa VanHatten-Granath entered her world. Both women had subscribed to a Community Supported Agriculture program and were picking up organic food from local farmers. Kathleen noticed Teresa and her bright, pretty fabric grocery bags in the church parking lot. Teresa, an art professor at Belmont University at the time, gave Kathleen one of her bags and introduced her 5013c non-profit – the Green Bag Lady. Teresa, a fellow environmental enthusiast, had recently founded this project and was looking to recruit Baguettes (her pet name for her volunteers) to help her sew and distribute the bags. Kathleen, with her talent and love for sewing, readily agreed to give the group a try.
A handful of Nashville women meet twice a month to produce and assemble a mountain of fabric bags. Fabric manufacturers and designers donate and ship the fabric directly to the group. Kathleen “loves to sort through the piles of fabric and see where it originated – fabric that would otherwise go to waste.” Teresa’s father has helped subsidize the costs for thread and sewing notions since the project began. The energetic women who share a passion to protect our environment, set to work at their assigned stations. They fold and cut fabric, attach handles with a contrasting pattern, iron, and sew. The bags are numbered and labeled as they are produced. Since the founding in 2008, almost 40,000 bags have been made and distributed in Green Bag Lady chapters around the country.
The sturdy, eye catching bags are given to anyone who will promise to use them in lieu of plastic while shopping. The Green Bag Ladies willingly offer them to other shoppers or interested community groups. They have handed them out at Farmer’s Markets around town. The bags have even been distributed to city council representatives, hoping to encourage civic discussion of ways to decrease plastic refuse in our community. Admittedly, Kathleen says “the group would love to see more of the bags around town.” She and her group are disappointed many people continue to use amazingly high numbers of plastic bags, and cities haven’t done more to stem the flood of plastic to our oceans and landfills.
Kathleen estimates she has helped make “thousands” of the bags. It truly is a labor of love, and she is quick to point out she is not the leader or coordinator of the effort. “I’m just a person who wants positive change and enjoys putting my talents to good use. It makes me feel good to contribute.” She goes on to say, “Before I moved I had a well-defined role as mother and a job as nurse. I hadn’t imagined what else I could do outside that pattern. My interests have led me to new connections and new friends and, in small ways, I hope to make a difference.”
Note: Teresa VanHatten-Granath moved to Denver in 2013. Although the Nashville Green Bag Lady chapter, the very first one, holds a special place in her heart, she has managed the beginnings of 23 additional GBL chapters. A chapter consists of 1 or more people who make 10 or more bags per month. Information about becoming involved and a pattern for making your own bag can be found on the website. Also, you will find interesting articles about ocean gyres at NationalGeographic.com.