The “bag lady” with a mission to get us to bin plastic shopping bags

It has been dubbed “socialable guerrilla bagfare” as volunteers approach shoppers an attempt to rid them of their plastic carrier addiction. But, there is more to it than just swapping plastic for reusable cloth bags, as sustainability correspondent Tara Greaves discovers.

A young minke whale was washed up in France on Claire Morsman’s birthday in 2002 and during the investigation into why it had died it was discovered its stomach contained one crisp packet, two English supermarket bags, seven pieces of bin bags, seven clear plastic bags and one food packaging wrapper.

This is just one example of how our marine wildlife, which can mistake our discarded bags for jellyfish, is impacted by our carelessness but although that story stuck in her mind, living on a canal in London, Claire often sees the consequences first hand.

Rather than simply get angry or ignore the problem, she decided to take action and founded Morsbags which, to date, has potentially taken 41million plastic bags out of circulation.

The method is simple, if volunteers spot someone about to accept a plastic bag they instead offer them a hand-made reusable cloth one - socialable guerrilla bagfare, as 34-year-old Claire calls it.

“It started out of frustration. We live on a canal boat and I was getting sick of seeing all the plastic bags floating by like urban jellyfish causing problems for wildlife,” she said.

“I was left a sewing machine by my grandmother but, to be honest, I was always a bit frightened of it. One day I thought ‘wouldn’t it be good if I could make my own reusable bags and then I am not part of the problem’.

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“My husband was, at that time, learning how to be a web designer and so I asked my mum ‘how do you make a really simple bag?’ and she made a pattern which he put on a website he designed.

“It’s really simple and takes perhaps 15- 20 minutes to make.”

That was in January 2007 and since then word spread and bag making pods have sprung up across the country and further afield.

So far more than 82,000 bags have been made and handed out to people across the world which has potentially saved 41million plastic carriers.

“We keep a record on the website of how many the pods make but many more are not registered so it is probably a lot more than 82,000 in reality,” she said.

“The bags have a label on with our web address which the pods buy, they cost about 3p each. We subsidise them and get them printed as cheaply as possible and sell them at cost so it’s not a money making exercise. The website address needs to be on there so that people can come and look and see what it’s about and hopefully join in. It’s that pay it forward idea.”

Claire is also keen to see Morsbags replace wrapping paper for birthday presents and at Christmas time and encouraging people to make use of any old fabric they have around – that way the person gets two presents.

The organisation has also received royal recognition and was one of those invited to attend the Garden Party to Make a Difference in the grounds of Prince Charles’ London home last year.

“I sent him some bags and he loved the idea and he volunteered to give us some of his old curtains and that came to fruition with the Garden Party,” said Claire.

“We have people from all walks of life, including Women’s Institutes, schools and even prisons get involved. If some people are shy or not interested in sewing there are other jobs such as cutting out the material.

“What often happens is people begin by sewing bags and then get hooked and you see them creating wonderful patchwork quilts, which is brilliant.”

Although Claire, who has a full time job as a lecturer, hopes that in time people will automatically go with reusable bags, she would like to dedicate more time to Morsbags.

“I think we are dragging our feet on this issue, other places have banned carrier bags out right. It’s up to consumers to take the initiative,” she said.

“The pods that have formed have their own energy and many of them are really active. Although we do workshops in London there is not one really strong pod and that’s something I would like to change. We started a campaign on tubes last month, leaving a bag on seats for people to pick up and spread the word about Morsbags.”

Originally from Plymouth but now living on a houseboat on the Grand Union Canal in west London, Claire and husband Joseph, 33, are desperately in need of somewhere to store donated material.

She said: “We are drowning in it. So if anyone has some space they can donate we are desperate to create a storage facility.”

For more information or to contact Claire about possible storage, visit