Mary Banks was 33 years old in 1965.
A lot was happening back then — the Vietnam War, a dance craze called “the twist” and the first polyethylene shopping bag.
Hailing from Sweden, single-use plastic bags spread beyond Europe into the United States and eventually Kingston, Mary Banks’ seaside hometown on South Australia’s Limestone Coast.
A cheaper alternative to cloth and paper bags, she remembers their arrival clearly.
“Well, to start with, they were fantastic. We thought it was just wonderful,” Mary says.
Now well into retirement, Mary is part of an unexpected, yet devoted, force combating the use of single-use plastics.
Kingston SE Small Steps, affectionately known around town as the “bag ladies”, turn donated materials into hand-sewn recyclable bags.
When local Liz Wingard founded the group in October 2019, she thought they’d make a few hundred.
Prior to South Australia’s single-use plastic ban, one of Kingston’s supermarkets was issuing 3,000 plastic bags a week. A large amount for a small community with roughly 2,000 people.
“So our aim was definitely to reduce them,” Liz says.
The group’s gone on to make nearly 18,000 shopping bags and 8,500 produce bags out of recycled materials — everything from old curtains to tea towels and duvet covers.
“We’re able to save that and recirculate it, reuse it, and hopefully encourage others to do the same thing.”
Meeting at a retirement village every Monday for several hours, it takes five women roughly 15 minutes to make each recycled shopping bag.
“We have people who cut the fabric, someone who stitches the handles, and the next person turns the handles for us. Then we stitch the bags, we overlock bags, we give the bags back. And then they’re ready to go,” Liz says.
Starting in the supermarket, the bags are now offered free-of-charge in two-thirds of Kingston’s small businesses.
As well as making the bags, they offer an amnesty box at both the supermarkets where people can return the bags they’ve used.
“We encourage people to bring them back … providing the quality is still there,” Liz says.
“We wash them, re-iron them and put them back into circulation again.”
Much more than just sewing
While the environmental impact would be enough to motivate many of the women to take part, it’s the social element that keeps them there.
Of the women involved in Small Steps, several live alone.
For Mary, who lives at the retirement village, the passing of her husband was hard.
“It’ll be eight years in October he’s been gone. And we did everything together,” Mary says.
Despite not being a sewer herself, Mary makes herself useful.
“I iron, I turn handles, I make coffee. Not that it’s that good a coffee really,” Mary says.
“It’s a lovely group and we have lots of fun. And at the same time we’re doing things.
Something for everyone
Mary represents the higher end of the age spectrum. There are some younger women in the group.
Having owned her own fabric shop, Clair, from Melbourne, was glad to find the Bag Ladies when she moved to Kingston earlier this year.
When homesickness fell, the group made all the difference.
“They’ve just turned everything upside down and made it lovely, they’re wonderful,” Clair says.
“Having just moved here and knowing nobody, not a soul, Liz has hooked me up with all the clubs and activities, every interest that I mooted.
These days the bag ladies show no sign of stopping.
Far from an exclusive group, their doors are open to any who are interested in joining.
“If there’s ever any younger people who would like to learn a skill we have skilled people here that would be more than happy to show you the ropes,” Liz says.