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Andy’s Story: How a Trip to the Landfill Turned Into a Business That’s Bagging Single-Use Plastic

When ChicoBag founder Andy Keller saw plastic bags flying into adjacent farmland from his local landfill, he decided right there and then that things needed to change to preserve the environment. So he bought a sewing machine on his way home and got straight to work making the very first reusable bag prototype for ChicoBag.

Today ChicoBag is a Certified B Corporation that sells reusable bags which can be easily be attached to your purse, backpack or keychain. Whenever possible, they’re made from recycled plastic bottles, effectively closing the plastics loop and keeping even more of it out of landfill – and away from the cows, birds and fish who too often end up eating the plastic after it either flies away or breaks down into smaller pieces in our oceans.

Throughout the years, Andy has employed some pretty innovative strategies, like his Bag Monster character and blog, to fight the status quo and encourage more consumers to kick their single-use plastic bag habit. Here he shares how he’s overcome what seemed like insurmountable challenges, especially when it comes to marrying profits with purpose, to launch and grow a startup that creates positive environmental impacts and drives lasting social change.

We’re asking everyone who reads this post (even if you don’t make it to the end!) to take the #21DayChallenge and make a personal pledge here to stop using single-use plastic bags for 21 days! You’ll receive a special ChicoBag discount and ongoing support to kick your habit!

What were you doing before you started ChicoBag? What inspired you to start a purpose-driven business?

I was selling software, enterprise-grade expensive software, and I had a telecommuting gig where I was able to work at home in Chico (which is a small town in Northern California). I was getting a Bay area salary living in a small town and (doing) well! But the company got bought and my boss said I needed to move back to San Francisco if I wanted to keep my job.

So I ended up taking the severance package which was a huge risk because I had just bought a house and I lived in a small town where there weren’t a lot of jobs – so up until that point, it was one of the scariest times in my life. I ended up doing yard work, trying to figure out what I was going to do next. I brought a bunch of trash to the landfill and came face to face with that place called ‘away.’

You know when you throw something away where it goes?

One of the places is the landfill. I woke up that day to the reality of our consumption – I was a plastic bag user up until that point and I had never really thought about how many plastic bags I used or how long I used them, which was generally counted in minutes, or how long they lasted (essentially plastic never goes away once it’s created – it’s incinerated or recycled and there’s issues with both of those).

I was always told you don’t litter and you recycle and you’re doing your part. But being at the landfill I quickly realized that everything in there was disposed of properly … however, it was windy and the plastic bags were blowing around and the birds were pecking at them. Then the plastic bags (were) actually taking flight and blowing out of the landfill to the adjacent land where there are cows. It occurred to me that … it’s not about littering and that the plastic bags have a fundamental design flaw and can become wind blown litter despite proper disposal. At the landfill I just had a visceral reaction….

every piece of plastic ever created since the 50s is still here on the earth.

So that was the point where I got inspired and I decided that I was going to stop using plastic bags. And then the entrepreneurial, problem-solver side of me kicked in and I was like ‘why don’t I use reusable bags?’ At that point most (reusable) bags were made out of canvas and (weren’t) great-looking. So I wanted something that I could easily remember and have on me at all times because who knows when I will go shopping. I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be cool to have a bag that I could just keep in my pocket’ and have whenever I need it. That’s when the unemployed side of my brain kicked in and went ‘oh wait a minute this is such a cool concept’ – a bag you could have with you wherever you go.

It was great because I was unemployed and probably the worst experience of my life turned into a blessing. On the way home from the landfill I bought a sewing machine and some fabric and started making prototypes.

When I was little my mom had a sewing machine and I would sew and made Santa hats for my stuffed animals! I never had an allowance when I was a kid, I always had to work for my money so that gave me the confidence to go knock on doors and find my first real job at a fabric store.

What steps did you take to bring your idea for ChicoBag to life after making the first prototypes?

I gave the prototypes to friends and asked them for feedback … and I ended up going through at least three different revisions of the design to come up with the final version. Once I had the final version, I had a local seamstress make a pre-production sample. Then I took some detailed photos of it and Googled bag manufacturing and started looking for a factory that could make these in bulk for me.

I found a factory and put in my first production run for 3,000 bags. Then while the bags were in production, I went to the small business development center in town (a lot of  towns have these – ours is connected with the community college) and they helped me with getting a patent on my design.

Which initiatives or insights have helped grow your business the most?

There’s probably two things:

1. (For) anyone that’s trying to start a reusable bag habit, the biggest obstacle … is remembering their bags. And so every product that we create is designed to be unforgettable: it’s compact, it fits in a pocket or purse, you can clip it on to your keys, your backpack, your purse strap or your cup holder in your car. It’s designed to help people remember. So there’s an inherent need here for a solution.

2. The other driver is that ChicoBag reusable bags are giftable. They’re small, compact and unique and a lot of people like to give them as gifts. I’ve heard many stories of people in line at the cash register at the grocery store where somebody doesn’t have a bag and people will pay it forward to strangers and just say ‘hey have my bag.’ Then that person goes and buys another bag from us. This social aspect to the product has been a huge part of our success.

Every person (that can) reduce their single use with our product is a win for the environment. When they do that, they stop using what the average American uses which is about 500 plastic bags a year.

Tell me more about what it’s like to be the Bag Monster! How did you come up with the idea?

With Bag Monster what I’m trying to show people is what I saw at the landfill day – that there is no place called away! Most people don’t think about the plastic bags they use in a year and the Bag Monster embodies that, representing what the average American uses which is about 500 plastic bags. When people come face-to-face with the Bag Monster they come face-to-face with the reality of their consumption. And most people have a reaction to it, either ‘I had no idea I used that many bags’ or ‘ I use way more than that!’

bagmonster-horizontal-images-03
Andy as the Bag Monster.

So the Bag Monster‘s been a great, lighthearted way to bring awareness to the fact that we use more plastic bags than we actually need, that this plastic is hard to recycle and that the bags don’t go away. Most people conclude that they could use less. And I estimate that if people were aware and only took a bag if they needed it, they could cut their bag (consumption) in half.

What’s the biggest lesson you’re learned or challenge you’ve faced as a purpose-driven business founder?

The hardest thing is just overcoming the inherent status quo that exists in our society. And I don’t know if I even overcome it. It’s a work in progress and I hit up against the status quo all the time that we’re trying to do business differently. We’re a certified B Corp and as a mission-driven company a lot of what we’re doing doesn’t necessarily translate into more revenue often.

People buy based on price not necessarily on value so when you think about reusable bags a lot of people go ‘well the $1.99 bag seems good, I’ll buy that.’ A ChicoBag (can cost) $5.99, so getting someone to see the difference between a $1.99 bag and a $5.99 bag and enticing them to buy the $5.99 bag requires the shopper to think about the cost per use. Because if you buy a $1.99 bag and it lasts only a quarter of the lifespan of the ChicoBag, which one is more expensive?

The other issue (with the less expensive reusable bag) is that it’s not portable, it’s more easily forgotten and it’s probably used less (versus) if you have a bag that lasts longer and is used (remembered) more. It’s just getting people to think about it differently – getting people to think about value and buying quality over quantity, it’s one of the things that I bump up against, especially when you’re talking about traditional grocery stores. The shopper at WholeFoods is definitely interested in quality but at more conventional grocery store it’s more about quantity.

What advice would you give to other purpose-driven entrepreneurs, who might be struggling right now?

What I found (most) beneficial is to have a clear intention.

Our mission is to help humanity bag the single use habit. That’s pretty bold and we’re serious about it.

We want to provide education solutions to help people kick those habits. Some people might say that’s not very realistic but I set the intention ten years ago and it was even crazier back then! So my advice is to set a clear intention to take the first step.

It’s like you have a flashlight and you’re shining a flashlight in the direction of your intention and you can’t see further than the flashlight shining, but you can see far enough to take a couple steps in that direction. And as you take the steps, more of the path is revealed and that’s been my motto and my advice.

When I was at the landfill I had no idea how to create a bag company and ultimately grow it into a products company. But I took the first step, which for me was buying a sewing machine and getting the fabric. And I did it that day. The next step was finding someone to help me make (the bags), so I took that step.

I also made decisions on when to take risks and when not to. For example I kept a part-time job when I was doing ChicoBag until the point when I realized ChicoBag could support me on it’s own.

My other piece of advice would be start small and constantly be taking steps forward but live within your means too. I worked out of a bedroom in my house for as long as I could,  then it was two bedrooms, the garage and the kitchen table and then the day when the semi truck pulled up in the cul-de-sac that’s when I knew…

What types of positive environmental and/or social impacts are you making with ChicoBag?

A lot of our products are made out of recycled materials (whenever we can), so in closing the loop, that’s important. What a lot of people don’t realize is that just because it has a recycle symbol on it and you throw it in your recycle bin, it doesn’t mean it actually gets recycled. There has to be a market for it and the market has to be close enough to where you live in order for it to be profitable for the recycler.

For anyone reading this using single-use bags, they can make a big difference collectively!

For example if one person uses less single-use plastic bags, that 500 number could be reduced by 250 or even 100 and that’s a huge impact. Even if you reduce your consumption to 400 bags a year x 10 years that’s 4,000 bags!

In the United States, we use 100 billion plastic bags every year – that’s enough that if you tie them together it would go around the earth 760 times! And that’s just the United States in just one year and when you think about how long each of those bags was actually used it starts becoming obscene.

Just by being aware, you could reduce probably 50% of your consumption. If you want to go further than that, using reusable products can help get some people down to zero. But you don’t have to go cold turkey, you just have to reduce something – everything helps!

Did this post inspire you? Then please don’t let it stop there!

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