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‘Eco-art’ turns out to be just her bag

Lou Leelyn of Wendell is the woman behind Lou's Upcycles, where she has been "upcycling plastic bags into eco-art." She makes totes, wallets, pouches, purses, accessories and more out of potato chip bags, for instance. Submitted photo

Lou Leelyn of Wendell is the woman behind Lou's Upcycles, where she has been "upcycling plastic bags into eco-art." She makes totes, wallets, pouches, purses, accessories and more out of potato chip bags, for instance. Submitted photo

WENDELL — Several years ago, Lou Leelyn found herself immersed in convenience, watching everyone around her litter the beaches where she lived and dispose of plastic without a care.

“I was living in San Diego and was pretty much the only one I saw using reusable bags when I went shopping,” said the Grand Rapids, Mich., native. “I thought, ‘I have a lot of work to do!’”

That’s when Leelyn decided to start a new business called “Lou’s Upcycles.”

For the past six years, she has been “upcycling plastic bags into eco-art.” She makes totes, wallets, pouches, purses, accessories and more out of potato chip bags, for instance.

“I grew up with recycling in the mix, but it was limited,” she said. “We did it because the town told us to. I really didn’t understand the ramifications, at the time, of not paying attention to everything I was doing, everything I was throwing away.”

Leelyn started composting, recycling everything she could and she grew a small garden, but had limited space in San Diego.

That’s when the 37-year-old decided to move to Massachusetts. She said she had friends here and wanted to finish her bachelor’s degree in nursing, which never happened.

“When I got here, I realized that many people had already come to the same conclusion I had,” she said. “We had to do something about all the waste.”

Leelyn said she started paying attention to what she was buying and tried to reduce her plastic consumption as much as possible.

“That was really difficult, because everything was either wrapped or packaged in plastic,” she said. “I wanted to find a way to use plastic again in a more permanent way.”

Leelyn, who said she has always loved to create and do crafts, pulled out her mother’s old sewing machine and started to relearn how to sew. Also, she had to learn how to melt plastic and turn it into a textile.

“I did it and started making pouches and purses and selling them at the local farmers market,” she said.

“People seemed to really like them,” said Leelyn.

She said her products are not only unique and environmentally friendly, but also make good conversation pieces.

“It all began through trial and error, but I’ve got it down now and I now teach adults and children what I’ve learned,” said Leelyn.

“I feel like I’m being part of the solution to plastic waste, but at the end of the day, there are still plastic bags left over,” she said.

“I’d like people to carry my bags, not just because they’re unique and fun, but as a reminder that we can each do a little something each day to make the world a better place,” said Leelyn.

She said she once made a three-month pledge to not purchase anything that used plastic and found it was virtually impossible, so she decided to use some of that plastic in a good way.

She said her snap pouches, made from snack plastic bags, like DORITOS, are the most popular right now.

“I never realized how much people love their chips,” said Leelyn, who receives donations of between 10,000 and 12,000 plastic bags from all over the world each year.

“UPS is always tossing a box of trash at me,” she said.

Leelyn said what she hopes people bring away from one of her workshops or from carrying one of her products is that they can make a difference with their choices.

She said she hopes to grow her business one day, but doesn’t ever want it to get too big to handle.

“It would be nice to find investors, though,” she said. “I only have two hands and I’d love to be able to hire at least a couple of employees. I’m working on a long-term, sustainable business plan.”

She said her work is not a commodity.

“Each is handmade and unique and I would love to keep it that way,” said Leelyn. “I really want to keep my home base out of my home in Wendell.”

She also hopes Aria, her 14-year-old daughter, decides to join her in the business someday, but said she won’t push her to do so.

“I’m all about sustainability and keeping things local, including Lou’s Upcycles,” said Leelyn.

You can find Leelyn and her products at Greenfield Farmers Market on Court Square in Greenfield each Saturday morning now through Nov. 22 from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and at local fairs and festivals throughout the county and western Massachusetts.

For more information or to find out how to donate plastic bags (she is not accepting any until summer), visit: www.lousupcycles.com.

Besides The Recorder, Leelyn and Lou’s Upcycles have been written about in Amy Korst’s book, “The Zero-Waste Lifestyle and on the website: www.allthingsnewengland.com.

I've been carrying Lou's bags since she has been creating them. Whenever my wife and I travel we collect our plastic waste, bring it home and have Lou make us a custom tote so we will always remember our travels. I've even had newlyweds collect their trash while honeymooning and had Lou make them a truly custom memory bag for the happy couple, there's no end to what she can do with plastic. She's the Upcycle Queen!

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