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Hand-sewn bags help the poor, planet

Nathalie Gil of Dorchester participated in a sew-a-thon to make reusable bags that people can use instead of having to buy bags.
Nathalie Gil of Dorchester participated in a sew-a-thon to make reusable bags that people can use instead of having to buy bags.jessica rinaldi/globe staff

When Boston’s ban on single-use plastic shopping bags went into effect in mid-December, grocery stores across the city stopped offering free plastic bags at checkout stations. The ordinance, a major win for environmental activists, requires customers either provide their own reusable bag or purchase a single-use compostable or paper bag for a fee of at least 5 cents per bag.

Critics of the ordinance said the fee would hurt low-income and fixed-income families. Now a group of Boston women is organizing an effort to make reusable bags accessible to the city’s poorest families.

On a recent Tuesday night, five women gathered at Sierra Rothberg’s home in Dorchester to iron, cut, stamp, serge, and sew reusable cloth grocery bags to donate to those in need. In a corner were piles of finished bags, with fabric scraps, handle strips, and loose pockets stacked nearby.

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Their organization, called Boomerang Bags Boston, was started by Rothberg and her friends in May 2017. It is a local chapter of an international movement that started in Australia in 2013 with a mission of sewing reusable bags to bring awareness to sustainable living.

“There’s so much about this project that hits right at the core of what communities can do together,” Rothberg said.

Participants assembled reusable bags that are given to people to use at stores following a Boston ban on plastic bags.
Participants assembled reusable bags that are given to people to use at stores following a Boston ban on plastic bags.jessica rinaldi/globe staff

The ban’s impact on low-income families and seniors was the main criticism raised against it during the legislative process. Ceyhun Elgin, visiting professor of economics at Boston University, says that although the price of each shopping bag seems relatively low, it can quickly add up.

“Depending on the size of the household, they may need 10 bags per shopping trip,” Elgin said. “I’m sure it won’t be a problem for high-income families, but even if it’s a small problem it will create a problem for the low-income families.”

Rothberg said it was that argument that motivated her to start Boomerang Bags Boston. Her preteen daughter Calida, along with Eleanor and Clare, the daughters of fellow members Mary Grady and Ann Walsh, were active in pushing for the plastic bag ordinance, speaking with city counselors, circulating an online petition and writing the mayor.

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“The argument to not support it because of low-income families and seniors, I was really like ‘There’s got to be a way,’ ” Rothberg said. “And so I started talking to communities of people that already had a bag ban.”

These conversations inspired her to take action. Today, Boomerang Bags Boston creates several types of bags, each one with unique contrasting patterns and colors, made of sturdy fabric with long handles. The front pocket is stamped with the organization’s logo, and the words “sustainably handmade by your neighbors” written in eight languages.

The group also makes fancier bags that they sell to raise money for supplies and sewing machines. The fabric they use is donated from businesses and community-members, which keeps their efforts sustainable and cost-effective.

The group periodically hosts “sew-a-thons” at Stitch House in Dorchester and welcomes volunteers to help assemble the bags. The ability to sew is a plus, but not a requirement, they say.

“A lot of people have the ability to just iron and that makes a difference, and some people do just pinning and that makes a difference,” Rothberg said. “It’s not just the sewing that’s important, it’s all of the parts.”

Grady, a teacher at Boston Community Leadership Academy, said that she hadn’t sewn since she was in sixth grade before she became involved with Boomerang Bags.

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But on a recent Tuesday night she was running the serging machine, making clean edges on some donated cloth. She also sews bags at school with her students.

“It’s consciousness-raising,” she said of the project.

The women estimate that they’ve made over 1,300 bags, the majority of which they donated to Boston Medical Center’s Preventive Food Pantry.

Deb Gregson, quality improvement specialist at BMC, helped connect the pantry with Boomerang Bags. She said BMC handed out most of the bags to needy customers during its annual Thanksgiving turkey giveaway.

“They were definitely happy,” Gregson said of the clients. “They were surprised when they saw that it was handmade. They thought it was an added gift, getting their food that week.”

Gregson estimates that the average family that attends the food pantry could end up spending an extra $50 or $60 per year without access to free reusable bags.

Boomerang Bags has also supplied ironing boards and sewing machines to a group of women at the Spanish Immersion community center in Jamaica Plain that has been contributing to the reusable bag-making cause.

“We all have different skills,” Rothberg said. “The idea is to maximize people’s efforts and get more bags to people who need them.”


Eileen O’Grady can be reached at ogrady.e@husky.neu.edu