Dear Umbra,

I am the cofounder and current president of the Recycling Club at R.L. Paschal High School in Fort Worth, Texas. We have started collecting cell phones and plan to donate them to Verizon, since they refurbish and recycle or sell them. With the money they make, they buy new ones with airtime for (in our town) ladies at the Women’s Haven shelter. We plan to start recycling plastics too.

I need a bag for all this paper.

Anyway, the reason I’m writing you is because we don’t know where to start with one of our plans for the year. We go around the school every Friday at lunch and collect the recyclable paper in normal trash bags. But I would rather use reusable bags — burlap, hemp, or cotton. The plastic bags often rip and just generate more waste. We need at least 10 bags, with the capacity of big garbage bags that can hold a lot of paper.

I’ve turned to the internet looking for big bags, ideally sweatshop-free, organic cotton bags, but I have been really unsuccessful. One member told me his dad sells burlap and would give us the material for free, but I don’t know where I could get the stuff stitched into sturdy bags.

Where can I find cheap, eco-friendly, reusable, big bags?

Zack
Fort Worth, Texas

Dearest Zack,

My 2005 New Year’s resolution: I’m not going to answer any more questions about plastic bags or paper recycling, and may not answer any recycling questions at all. But your letter is so charming, and I am so past deadline, that I must push back the approaching Period of Resolution. Lucky you.

You mention cell-phone recycling as part of your recycling club and I want to strongly point out to all other readers of this column: Cell-phone recycling is important. Electronics are filled with small, lightweight toxic things, and recycling them keeps those toxics out of the waste stream. What a fabulous task for a school recycling club. Also: Way to help the ladies. Huzzah. Toolaroo. Yip yip.

How about a burlap sack?

When I personally am in need of large burlap sacks, I go to my local coffee roasters. Though Fort Worth cannot compare with Seattle for sheer availability of coffee bags, I know there must be a few roasters down there happy to hand their old sacks to high-school clubs. The large coffee-store chains may have a nearby roasting plant; give them a jingle.

The other hardy bag you may easily find is the 50-pound feed sack, made of woven plastic and doubtless piling up at your local horse corral. The feed sack and burlap sack will both hold plenty of paper.

For sewing free burlap, we must turn to the true resource of the high schooler: parents. If you don’t have a coffee roaster or livestock owner in the parent pool, you certainly have an avid seamstress or someone who knows someone who sews canvas into boat sails and can whip that burlap into bags on an industrial sewing machine in a jiffy. Exploit your high schooler status to its fullest extent, Zack. You’re charming and young and parents will do anything to assist you.

Resolutely,
Umbra