Even as more shoppers choose canvas, polyester or Tyvek, the humble plastic grocery bag remains ubiquitous. Along with recycling or reusing it, why not consider making something with it?
Artists and crafters have experimented with plastic bags for years. Virginia Fleck of Austin, Texas, hopes her work raises awareness about how the bags pollute the environment. She also likes the idea that something so pedestrian can be fashioned into high art.
Fleck creates vibrant, color-charged mandalas by layering plastic bags one on top of each other. From a distance, they appear to be fabric wall hangings. Up close, you can see Scotch tape holding them together.
Fleck layers bags to mix up new colors; she adds no pigments or dyes of her own. But it isn't simple.
"The bags are kind of hard to work with depending on your weather," says Fleck. "If it's dry in the winter, they have an electric charge - they stick to you."
She's been making her mandalas, which range in size from 3 to 9 feet in diameter, for a decade. They take a month or more to build, and cost between $3,000 and $9,500 each. She also sells prints of her work.
Stephanie Huffaker of Queens, N.Y., transforms plastic bags into jewelry that's deceptively high-end looking. She sells her skinny bangles and rounded rings at her Etsy online store, Garbage of Eden Design, and at boutiques and museum gift shops.
Huffaker cuts and tightly coils the plastic. "It's kind of like knitting, in a way," she says. "You get in a groove."
She teaches workshops at a library and is assembling an instructional booklet to sell on Etsy.
Cindy Endahl of Newport, Wash., makes "plarn" - plastic yarn - out of shopping bags, then crochets it into totes, doll dresses, cell phone holders, pot scrubbers, even a Christmas stocking.
"My stuff isn't fancy; it's just useable," says Endahl.
She sells purses and totes at her website, My Recycled Bags, where she shares dozens of patterns.
Brooke Helfen crafts full-time for a living and posts images of her creations at her blog, So She Sews. She sells items at an Etsy shop of the same name, and at craft fairs near her Atlanta home. Among the clothing and accessories she creates, Helfen sews owl-shaped coin purses and coffee-cup cozies using plastic bags. On her sewing machine.
First, she carefully fuses the bags, two at a time, usually 10 bags in all - that's 20 layers - with an iron to create the look and feel of leather.
Some people complain that fusing plastic bags emits a toxic odor, but Helfen has worked with them for more than three years and hasn't had a problem. The key, she says, is to set the iron just hot enough to make the plastic a little sticky. Helfen calls this temperature "the sweet spot"; on her iron, it's right above the nylon setting. Newcomers should experiment, she says, beginning at the lowest setting. She recommends sandwiching the plastic bags between two sheets of parchment or wax paper.
"They don't distort. They don't shrink crazy. The print doesn't burn off," says Helfen. "The process I use, one side is smooth and the other side ends up being wrinkly like faux alligator or leather."
She recommends ironing the prettiest and most colorful bags on the outside of a fused stack (the royal-blue newspaper bags used by "The New York Times" are prized by plastic bag artists).
Helfen recommends learning from the Etsy Blog video tutorial "Fusing Plastic Bags with the Etsy Labs," but she also has posted photographs of the process on Flickr. It's called "Fusing Plastic Bags: Step Three" (the first two steps list supplies and encourage recycling).