Since its inception two years ago, Kingston SE Small Steps has made more than 14,000 reusable shopping bags and 8000 produce bags in an effort to reduce reliance on plastic bags.
The 15 volunteers meet once a week to create the upcycled bags out of donated materials, before distributing them to retail outlets throughout Kingston for customers to use free of charge.
Small Steps facilitator Liz Wingard said the materials included everything from curtains, pillowcases, sheets, doona covers to fabric scraps.
“Furniture places donate sample swatches and people donate (fabric) remnants from their cupboards so we’ve had constant supply,” Wingard said.
“We’ve been really well supported.”
Local schools and community members have also gifted sewing machines, overlockers and thread to help Small Steps continue its sustainable initiative.
A retired teacher, Wingard said she had plenty of practice delegating roles and tasks – a skill that had proven “quite handy”.
Jobs include sewing, cutting fabric, ironing, turning handles, quality control checks, trimming threads and labelling.
“We get a whole production line going, and chat about what’s going on in our lives,” Wingard said.
Though lightweight single-use plastic bags were banned in South Australian checkouts in 2009, shoppers can still purchase heavier-duty plastic bags for about 15 cents.
“We thought giving our bags away would be the best way to go about it to encourage people to use them instead,” Wingard said.
“A big part of our mission is educating people to use less plastic in general and be more responsible for the environment.”
In 2020, Small Steps lobbied for Kingston District Council to run Plastic Free July ‒ a global initiative to help reduce single-use plastic waste.
“With the help of the community, we collected rubbish around the town throughout the month, of which more than 80 per cent contained plastic,” Wingard said.
The waste was disposed of in specifically market bins, allowing the council to conduct an audit of the content.
Council will weigh the total amount of rubbish collected during July over the next three years to gauge the pollution trends in the district.
With Kingston being a seaside town, Wingard said Small Steps was particularly concerned with keeping plastic waste out of rivers and oceans.
To further encourage re-use, Small Steps allows people to drop off any soiled bags and washes them before putting them back into circulation.
While the district only has about 1500 permanent residents, Wingard said many bags go out of town with tourists.
“We never thought we would be making this many – it kind of got out of hand a little bit along the way,” she said.
Donation tins are left in participating retail stores for consumers to leave a gold coin in exchange for the handmade items, with all proceeds dedicated towards community projects.
So far, the group has raised about $500 which they have donated to a local school to help create a plastic bottle top mural ‒ a project aimed at educating students on plastic consumption.
Small Steps’ mission has had a visible effect on local consumer habits.
Having begun with just two participating supermarkets, more than 90 per cent of the town’s retail shops now stock the reusable bags.
A spokesperson from Kingston SE IGA said they had seen more than a 30 per cent reduction in the number of plastic bags purchased by shoppers since having Small Steps bags in store.
Kingston SE Foodland assistant manager Tahlia Troeth also said its branch had seen a significant decrease in demand for paper bags, which it provides rather than a plastic option.
“Having the Small Steps bags has made a huge difference in that people are being a lot more conscious in reusing bags,” Troeth said. “And customers choose to use them instead of paying for a bag.”
Moreover, Small Steps has become a much-needed place of friendship for its volunteers, some of whom are socially isolated.
Volunteer Sandie Elsden joined the group shortly after the death of her husband.
She said invitations to events or social outings started becoming less frequent once she was no longer part of a couple.
“I quickly learned there’s not a lot of things to do unless you make an effort to get involved in them,” Elsden said.
During times of lockdown or gathering restrictions, volunteers have continued to make the bags from home.
Elsden said being part of the supportive group had given her a purpose and improved her mental health.
“I’m really thankful for this group because lockdown on my own would have been really challenging,” she said.
“Just sitting at home not doing anything your thoughts just run wild, so it’s good to have an outlet.”
Looking forward, Small Steps hopes to start making bunting from recycled fabrics to replace balloons and other traditional plastic decorations.
The group will also be lobbying Kingston council to purchase a plastic shredder that would allow coloured plastic bottles to be melted down and used to create new products.
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