ChicoBag vs. plastics
The maker of reusable shopping bags is David in a lawsuit filed by plastic-bag behemoths (Goliath)
Andy Keller has a vision of the world filled with less trash. At work, all his employees recycle just about everything that can be recycled. Other things, they reuse or they donate. Instead of paper towels in the break room or bathrooms, there are cloth towels that get washed and reused. Everyone has his or her own Klean Kanteen for drinks and heavy-duty plastic “to-go” containers for lunch out.
“I just see us as a society creating a lot of waste,” he said during a recent interview. The 38-year-old creator and president of ChicoBag Co., which manufactures and sells reusable bags that roll up into a compact form for easy transport, smiled with obvious pride in his brand and his commitment to the environment. But, truth is, he’s under quite a bit of pressure these days, thanks to a recent lawsuit.
“It’s been distracting,” he admitted.
Three major plastic-bag manufacturers—Hilex Poly Co., Superbag Co. and Advance Polybag Inc.—are arguing that ChicoBag falsely advertised against their products and therefore was competing unfairly. The lawsuit, filed in January in South Carolina, where Hilex Poly is headquartered, alleges that ChicoBag irreparably harmed the three companies’ business and requests damages be paid.
The false-advertising claim is linked to information posted on ChicoBag’s website about the environmental dangers associated with plastic bags. “Only one percent of plastic bags are recycled” is a biggie that the plastic-bag companies contend is absolutely not true. In a recent San Francisco Chronicle story about the suit, Hilex Poly’s Philip Rozenski gave a different number: 11.8 percent are recycled, he contended, quoting an Environmental Protection Agency report from 2008. (Hilex Poly did not respond to an interview request for this story.)
“I’d like to know where that 11.8 number came from,” Keller said, while pointing to numbers from a report released in 2008 by the EPA in which the number is 9.8 percent. “Whether it’s 1, 5 or 11 percent, that’s not the point. The point is it’s a low number.”
But Keller maintains that he does strive for accuracy on his website and in his marketing materials. That information hadn’t been updated in two years, he said, and he took it down as soon as it came into question.
The lawsuit is currently in the discovery phase, during which lawyers on both sides will collect information. What interests Keller, however, is that the suit was filed in a state where there is no anti-SLAPP law. Some states, like California, protect companies and individuals from Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, or SLAPP, that aim to intimidate critics with court costs.
Keller isn’t sure what this lawsuit will cost him and his company, but it’s clear the small office near Hegan Lane in Chico with 30 employees will be David in a fight with Goliath.
“That money could be so better spent on other things,” Keller said.
Sitting in his spacious but somewhat cluttered office, Keller explained the inception of ChicoBag and his “aha moment” one day back in 2004 at the Neal Road landfill, when he saw first-hand the amount of waste—specifically plastic shopping bags—that had piled up just that day.
“Up until then, I used plastic bags,” he said. “I knew I wanted to make a difference. I thought, ‘I’m going to help humanity kick their plastic-bag habit.’ ”
So he bought a sewing machine and some different fabrics, and started making prototypes until one stuck. Fast forward six years, and you see a man who has taken that inkling of an idea and turned it into a multimillion-dollar enterprise. And it’s not all about making money, either. He’s created the “plastic-bag monster,” a costume made with 500 plastic bags—to represent the number of bags one American goes through in a year—and donned it in cities across the United States and beyond. Most recently, he brought his costume on a trip to Easter Island in the South Pacific, where he went to witness the “garbage patch.”
That trip, this past April, was partially spurred by the lawsuit. Keller said he had information about the garbage patches on his website and he’d always wanted to see one first-hand. This was his opportunity. Pulling up photos on his computer from his trip, he scanned through images of the pristine-looking Easter Island and then a zoomed-in shot of the shore, with a few rocks removed to reveal layers upon layers of debris—mostly plastic.
“Plastic is an amazing material, but we’ve taken this amazing material and we make items that are meant to be disposable,” Keller said. “The whole idea of making something that’s disposable out of this miracle material that’s meant to last 500-1,000 years is insanity to me.”
The fact that ChicoBag is being sued by plastic-bag companies who claim it’s done them irreparable harm is almost funny, because the very thing Keller set out to do was reduce Americans’ reliance on and blind use of plastic bags. Apparently he’s been too successful.
Looking at the websites for the bag companies, like Hilex Poly, you’ll see that even they explain the environmental dangers of plastic bags. Their solution: recycle them or reuse them. There’s even a list of things you can do with your shopping bag once you get home—“pet waste,” “storage bags” and “cut into yarn for crocheting” are just a few. Hilex Poly is also taking charge in the recycling arena, placing bag-recycling bins in grocery stores and taking those bags and turning them into … bags.
A new slogan, “Gray is the new green,” aims to show consumers that while white bags are 10 percent to 12 percent recycled, gray bags are made with up to 35 percent of recycled materials.
Those ideas are great, Keller admits, but they don’t address the real problem, which is that some 90 percent of the plastic bags we use each year aren’t recycled. The majority of those go into landfills, but others end up as litter because of the ease with which plastic bags get airborne.
For now, Keller will wait for what comes next with the lawsuit. He’ll eventually have to fly to South Carolina to face his accusers in the federal court there.
“We’re fully prepared to defend ourselves,” Keller said. “We all care about the environment. We just have different ideas of what that looks like.”