San Francisco Department of the Environment

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Fabric scraps help curb COVID-19 and waste. 

In early March of 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned the U.S. was running low on personal protective equipment (PPE), an amount insufficient to combat coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). As the CDC asked that  N-95 respirators be reserved for frontline health workers, many flocked to disposable plastic surgical masks. This  in turn, has increased ocean pollution and litter in city streets. To help combat the COVID-19 and waste generation, SCRAP–a creative reuse depot–gathered its crafting  community to make  reusable masks for San Francisco’s historically excluded communities out of fabric SCRAPs that would have otherwise been discarded in the landfill. More than a thousand reusable masks have been made to-date.

SCRAP is the nation’s oldest creative reuse center, established in San Francisco’s Bayview district in 1976. SCRAP is also currently one of SF Environment’s Zero Waste Grantees. Zero Waste Grants are awarded every two years to non-profit organizations whose work in source reduction, reuse, recycling, composting, and outreach helps San Francisco reach its environmental goals. As experts in creative reuse, SCRAP offers workshops on how to upcycle buttons, yarn, and other items to create new creations, like jewelry. They continue to make a huge impact on the City’s zero waste goals; every year, San Francisco-students and artists divert about 200 tons of arts and crafts materials that would have been headed to the landfill.

Historically, SCRAP has been the go-to place for San Francisco Unified School Districts (SFUSD) teachers to access  free or low cost recycled material for arts and crafts projects and lessons in the classroom. However, in early March of 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, SCRAP closed its doors and paused in-person workshops like Printmaking for Children, Mixed Media Techniques, and Teacher Workshops. In March, there was not a lot of information about the novel disease and no timeline set in place for re-opening, but there were three things that were certain: PPE was in shortage nationwide, increased use of disposable masks would create waste, and SCRAP had an abundance of recycled fabric at their reuse center. SF Environment and the Zero Waste Grantee quickly acted to serve its community. With a ten-thousand-dollar grant, SCRAP led the Face Mask Making Program to handmake reusable masks and distribute them to historically excluded communities in San Francisco’s Bayview and Tenderloin districts via partner nonprofit organizations. 

Relying on their network and word-of-mouth, SCRAP mobilized quickly. SCRAP community members, including donors, customers, artists, and friends, of all sewing skill levels, made hundreds of reusable masks to help combat the spread of COVID-19 and keep San Franciscans and the environment safe. Leah Fong, one of the mask makers contributed her sewing skills to the mask making endeavor  said “During this pandemic, many of the most-at-risk residents may not have time to sew or buy masks. I wanted to help as much as I could with the extra fabric and materials I had at home because everyone deserves to have a mask to feel protected.” Any and everyone could volunteer to make a reusable mask; expertise in sewing is not required as SCRAP provides a variety of patterns for beginners to use. SCRAP also provided materials for volunteers from their reuse center, although many either had their own or had previously purchased SCRAP fabric from the depot center prior to closing–yes reuse!

Mask makers, like Laura Chinn-Smoot, understand what the impact the SCRAP mask making initiative has had on the environment and the community. Laura had been a SCRAP regular since the 1980’s. As a former SFUSD public school teacher, Laura relied on SCRAP for her classroom arts and craft projects. Laura recounted, “When I graduated from my 36-year SF public school teaching career, I knew exactly where to send my cool ‘SCRAPs’ as I cleared out my classroom.” Upon retirement, she donated all her school supplies to SCRAP to give them a second life. Now Laura contributes to the San Francisco community by making comfortable and stylish masks with SCRAP. Laura makes each mask with care. She sews her masks for comfort and durability –carefully selecting durable elastics, fun patterns , and always making sure to include instructions for care and handling.

By July of 2020, 63 sewers dropped off or mailed five to 50 reusable masks each, totaling 1,100 masks that were delivered to the African American Art & Culture Complex. 

These masks benefited MoMagic, Reginas Door, The Village Project, SF Collective Impact, and many other San Francisco community-based organizations. In November, SCRAP surpassed their initial goal of 2,000 with 2,238 masks made, and now their new goal is to make 3,000 masks. They’re still in search of more mask makers– no sewing experience necessary and materials can be provided. The goal is to make sure San Franciscans are masked, and to extend the life of the fabrics.

To get involved, volunteer as a mask maker, donate fabrics and materials, or shop at the SCRAP reuse center.  

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