Excess baggage

Local companies, state lawmakers work to eliminate disposable bags

THAT’S SEW ECO<br>Work Training Center employee Susan Harty works on an eco-groovy grocery getter at Deer Creek Sewing.

Work Training Center employee Susan Harty works on an eco-groovy grocery getter at Deer Creek Sewing.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Sweet tote:
Actress Jennifer Lopez recently placed a large order for totes made at Deer Creek Sewing. The organic cotton bags are said to be part of JLo’s clothing line, Sweetface.

Environmentalism has taken a detour into the fashion industry, resulting in a mobbing of a Taipei grocery store in July when thousands of Taiwanese citizens scrambled to get their hands on a limited number of British fashionista Anya Hindmarch’s designer shopping totes.

Retailing for $15 each and emblazoned with the declaration “I am not a plastic bag,” the canvas totes are being marketed in response to the efforts of a growing number of celebrities, such as actresses Keira Knightly and Alicia Silverstone, who are boycotting retail plastic and paper disposable bags in favor of reusable canvas, cotton or polyurethane totes.

On this rare occasion, the emulated actions of Hollywood’s A-list are, well, commendable.

Chico may not be the fashion capital of the world, or California for that matter. Still, sources for alternative bags are abundant here.

ChicoBags, the popular nylon bags created by Chico resident Andy Keller, are remarkably handy, as they are compact and easy to carry, although the fact that they are manufactured and shipped from China is a point of criticism. Overland Equipment, a bag-making company that has been in business in Chico since 1986, provides canvas totes, backpacks and daypacks that are manufactured locally and made from recycled and sustainability-focused materials.

Andy Olson, an employee at Mountain Sports, is currently working on a prototype reusable plastic shopping bag, which he hopes to market soon. His product is still in the early stages, but would ideally be manufactured locally, using a simple process that fashions a more durable plastic bag out of reused plastic from commercial disposable bags.

“There is a definite need for alternative bag sources, and a market as well,” Olson said. “It’s crazy that some consumers will come [into Mountain Sports] and purchase a ChicoBag, and then want us to put their purchase in a plastic carryout bag. It’s outrageous.”

Another local person with an eye for sustainability is Carl Ochsner, executive director of the Work Training Center, who also recognized the need for alternative bags that are locally made and distributed.

“It got our goat: ChicoBags are made in China!” he exclaimed.

JUST BAG IT!<br />ChicoBags (pictured) are among the many reusable totes sold at local stores such as S&S Produce.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Last April, Ochsner came up with the “eco-groovy grocery getter,” an organic cotton tote sewn at Deer Creek Sewing, a division of the nonprofit organization. These totes are made by a crew of 40 adults with developmental disabilities, along with other employees of the center, and are available online and at S&S Produce and Chico Natural Foods; prices range from $3.99 to $13.75, depending on the size of the tote.

Even chain grocers such as Raley’s, Safeway, and Trader Joe’s offer reusable bags for about a buck. These retailers also provide incentives in the form of a cash rebate, or, at Trader Joe’s, lottery tickets for drawings for free groceries.

But getting U.S. consumers to use reusable totes is completely voluntary. In other parts of the world, disposable-bag users are waking up to fact that their habits regarding use of these products needs some serious revision. From Taiwan—where single-use disposable plastic bags, plates, cups and cutlery are now banned, due to their negative environmental impact—to Ireland—where a tax equal to about 20 cents per bag is being chargde—plastic bags may soon go the way of many of the animal species that they are said to be endangering.

The problem is much bigger than most people realize. Since 1977, when plastic carryout bags were first used, demand has swelled to 500 billion bags annually worldwide—88.5 billion in the United States and 19 billion in California—resulting in disposal of 294 million pounds of plastic bags every year, reports Time magazine. That’s enough bags to encircle the Earth 250 times.

Less than 1 percent of these bags make it into the recycling bin. Many of them choke rivers and streams, get consumed by fish and wildlife, and create toxic waste in the food chain. It takes approximately 1,000 years for a plastic bag to decompose, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Cutting this waste in half would reduce our oil consumption by more than 2,000 barrels a day and keep 73,000 tons of rubbish out of landfills, reports California’s Integrated Waste Management Board.

In the United States, efforts to curb waste from disposable bags have been aimed at the retail sector. On July 1, California began implementing a landmark law requiring grocers and pharmacies with more than 10,000 square feet of retail space to provide onsite collection for recycling of plastic carryout bags. The bags are then reused in various ways, the Waste Management Board says, such as a remanufacture process that mixes them with wood pulp to make boards for patios and decks.

Assembly Bill 2449, the Plastic Bag Recycling Act of 2006 (which passed last September), sets a precedent for mandated responsibility by retailers for the collection, transportation and recycling of plastic bags. Due to the growing environmental hazard posed by the bags, which make their way from landfills into water sources, the new law, sponsored by Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys), is hailed as a solution to a monumental problem that threatens ecosystems and food sources for humans and animals alike.

In a recent press release, Levine said AB 2449 will make it easier for the consumer to help create a recycling market in California, but that the program works only if the public returns the bags to the stores.

Statistics on the amount of waste the bags create are overwhelming, and the only way that the problem will be addressed is through personal responsibility.

Fortunately, many Chicoans are aware of the problem, and increasingly more shoppers are choosing to bring their own bags rather than use paper or plastic, report local store employees. Ochsner says demand for his cotton totes has been growing steadily, as has the volume of recycled material that he sees come through the Work Training Center recycling facility, which is a strong indication that more people are thinking sustainably.

“We [at the WTC] made a pledge several years ago to adopt policies that would impact the environment less,” Ochsner said. “Now, the focus should be: What can we do at the manufacturing level, and at the retail level, to only produce products that are sustainable? As consumers, we need to commit to buy only sustainable, local products, and recycle what can be recycled.”