BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ -- On Jan. 4, three Girl Scouts talked to the Township Council about their Silver Award Project. That was pre-COVID-19, and the audience listened intently as they discussed their plans to upcycle used T-shirts and turn them into reusable and environmentally sound grocery bags. Once finished, the bags would then be given away as part of Earth Day celebrations, and the girls, Julie Piazza, Ava Klinck and Jasmine Mehta, members of Girl Scout Troop 40178, would have qualified for the Silver Award. The COVID-19 Pandemic postponed their give-away plans, but last month, the girls wrapped up the project and qualified for their award.

At the time they planned their project, the township was working on an ordinance banning single-use plastic bags and straws as of Dec. 31. The night they made their presentation, the ordinance, which had undergone hours of discussion over a period of several weeks, was passed.

Since the Silver Award Project must be one which makes their community a better place, the girls thought this project was a perfect fit. Residents and supporters threw their support behind the girls’ project and donated 480 T-shirts. “That was more than we expected …. We were really surprised and overwhelmed,” Julie said, adding they expected to get about 300.

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The girls collected the T-shirts in seven locations: the Berkeley Heights Public Library; Little Flower Church in Berkeley Heights; St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chatham; Mountain Park and Thomas P. Hughes Elementary schools and Mary Kay McMillin Early Childhood Center.

Even though “we asked for old or used T-shirts, we ended up getting many brand new T-shirts,” she said. “Some of them advertised alcohol, which we didn’t think was appropriate, we are only 14,” and others were political, Julie said, adding, “We didn’t sew any we didn’t think were appropriate.”

After sorting through the T-shirts, the girls spent “four months cutting and sewing,” Julie said. She and Jasmine sewed up the bags and Ava cut them. “Usually with a sewing project, you cut things before you sew them,” Julie said, but after watching videos and thinking about the project, they decided to do the part of the project that took the longest -- sewing. They sewed two lines across the bottom opening of the T-shirts, and then gave them to Ava to cut. 

Ava said, “I cut the sleeves out and cut out the neckline. “Most T-shirts don’t fray, so we didn’t have to worry about that,” said Ava.

Julie said she had some experience sewing. She took some sewing classes and her “mom and Grandma are very crafty.”

Jasmine said, “My aunt taught me a few years ago,” how to use a sewing machine …  “I already knew how to hand sew.” 

Ava, who did the cutting, said she had “prior experience using a machine,” but didn’t need to use one for her part of the project.

In the end, it took about 15 minutes to do one bag, between five and 10 minutes to do the sewing and about that long to do the cutting.

The hardest part of the project was “probably advertising the give-away of the bags,” said Julie. “It was really difficult to get people to come … especially because of power outages,” she said.

The original plan was to give away the bags on Earth Day, April 22. That didn’t work because by then the schools were closed and everyone was staying home. So they postponed the give-away until June, then postponed it again, until Monday, Aug. 3, 4, and 5, which gave them lots more time to sew the grocery bags. They put notices on the Environmental Commission’s page, Julie’s mom put notices up on her Facebook page, and TAPinto Berkeley Heights ran a brief announcement.   

Throughout the spring and summer, they worked in their own homes, “but stayed in contact with each other, via text message,” Julie said. They met in person on the Sunday before their giveaway, to discuss the last part of the project and finish preparing the bags.

Monday was slow. There was supposed to be a bad storm on Tuesday, so they canceled that day’s event. Good thing they did, the power went out, and wasn’t restored until 9 a.m. Wednesday. They set up a table at noon in the parking lot of the library, and “it worked very well,” Julie said. They returned, again on Friday, Aug. 7    

They managed to give away 280 of the 480 bags. At the time this interview was done, the extra T-shirt bags were available to anyone to pick up for free outside the library, 110 Roosevelt Ave., during library hours. The shopping bags can be machined washed. "Soap and hot water are effective at killing coronavirus, other viruses, and bacteria" according to the Berkeley Heights Environmental Commission.

Each of the bags has a tag with a QR code on it. Ava said, “put your smartphone camera over the code and a link will pop up. Follow the link and there will be a pamphlet” which will let people know more about the project.”

Julie said the upcycled T-shirts are already being used. “I was out with friends yesterday and one of them had to post something in the mail. She was using a bag to hold a large basket. We also gave a bag to the librarian, and we saw her using it.”

For Jasmine, the best part of doing the project was “having an excuse to see my friends and to work on something that would benefit the community, especially during the pandemic.”

Ava said she was happy “making something that would help the environment and would educate the community about upcycling fabric, as an alternative to using plastics.”

Julie said her favorite part was “knowing I was helping reduce global warming and contributing to the earth and the town.” She also appreciated seeing her friends and learning “leadership skills. I spoke to the Township Committee, corresponded with the Environmental Commission and spoke to many adults. I learned a lot of skills, had fun and had something to do during the pandemic.”

The girls, who are freshmen at Governor Livingston High School, were excited about returning to school -- which opened this week with in-school and remote classes.