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Upcycling Program Meets the Needs of Two Community Groups

by on March 5, 2019

“Helping Hands: Upcycling with Dual Purposes” is an arts and crafts program at the Miami-Dade Public Library System’s (MDPLS) Country Walk Branch Library. This program works to meet the needs of two communities — older adults and homeless populations — at the same time. Patrons socialize at the library while they make sleeping mats from upcycled plastic bags that are then given to persons experiencing homelessness. There are multiple goals: to upcycle plastic keeping it from landfills; to mitigate loneliness often experienced by seniors; and also to show dissimilar populations that they are valued, through the giving and receiving of a meaningful, time-intensive, multi-use hand-crafted item. MDPLS provides the facility and manages the program, collects and organizes the materials, mentors the newcomers, and connects stakeholders.  

The Helping Hands Program was the library’s response to five “how” questions:

  1. How can MDPLS entice patrons into a storefront branch with a maximum capacity of 18?
  2. How can MDPLS connect with neighborhoods populated with lonely and isolated seniors, many of whom English is not their primary language.
  3. How can MDPLS help Miami-Dade County resolve the issue of millions of polyethylene bags headed for landfills that are not collected in curbside recycling?
  4. How can MDPLS help connect persons experiencing homelessness with the library and other available county resources?  
  5. How can MDPLS bring meaningful purpose and community spirit to diverse participants?

Since 2016, tens of thousands of disposable bags have been diverted from landfills, transformed into string and then into mats. One bag generates 12 pieces of plastic yarn, “plarn.” Each piece of plarn makes four stitches — approximately 198 bags are need to create an adult-sized mat. Plarn’s advantages include making the mats waterproof, lightweight, and easy to carry. Rolled into a pillow, acting as a blanket barrier from the heat, the cold and the elements, it is also easily cleaned. This simple and impactful craft program is dedicated to linking total strangers in totally different socio-economic neighborhoods. Those who are making mats spend hundreds of personal hours to create utilitarian artwork for those who have nothing.  See photos:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/hh305.

The project has received several awards and other recognition:

August 2017, The American Library Association’s Programming Librarian’s recognition:  http://www.programminglibrarian.org/programs/helping-hands-upcycling-dual-purposes

May 2018, National Association of Counties (NACo) Achievement Award:


When plarn-making became an ongoing demonstration at the library’s front desk, it spiked interest. Mats evolved from a plain necessity into visually stunning pieces almost unrecognizable as plastic. Each participant finds a meaningful task in the process. If crocheting is difficult, then plarn-making is an option, if plarn-making is monotonous, collecting plastic bags is chosen. Planned and pop-up mat-making meetings are held at the library, but because this is a time intensive undertaking, most of the work is completed at home. There, whole families participate in the project: folding, cutting, and stringing plastic bags.

One 3’W X 6’L mat takes approximately two weeks to crochet. Additional time is needed to create a color scheme, which requires over 2,300 plastic strips that are folded, cut, and strung together. Mat distributions to Miami’s population of person experiencing homelessness have since been extended to the south in Homestead and then into West Miami.

Combining beauty with purpose, this simple project has had many unexpected positive impacts: upcycling trash into artwork, transferring one person’s skill into a training ground for an international group of strangers, bonding staff and patrons with a philanthropic purpose, and aiding persons experiencing homelessness.