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Keeping the Earth Clean with Chico Bag

10/26/2016 11:00AM ● By Jordan Venema

Bag It Up

November 2016
By Jordan Venema
Photo by Paula Schultz

In 2004, Andy Keller, the president and founder of Chico Bag, had come to a personal crossroads. He had just bought a home in Chico and was telecommuting for a company in the Bay Area when it was purchased by new owners.

“I got a call from my boss and they gave me an ultimatum,” says Keller. “I could either move back to San Francisco or take a severance package.” 

Keller took the severance. Unemployment brought all the small anxieties one might expect, especially with his new mortgage, but knowing what he knows now, even Keller might agree that those worries couldn’t compare to a plastic bag blowing in the wind.

One day after cleaning his home, Keller took some trash to a landfill, where he saw plastic bag on top of plastic bag. “And it was a windy day,” he says, “actually blowing bags into the adjacent ranchland.

“Up to that point, I believed that if I recycled, if I wasn’t a litterbug, then I was doing my part, but it’s kind of a broken model.” Keller realized he wasn’t doing enough.

That same day, he bought a sewing machine and fabrics and began designing the prototype for the original Chico Bag, a reusable, compact bag that he hoped to supplant single-use plastic bags.

Keller knows reusable bags aren’t always the most convenient product. “They’re hard to use because they’re bulky, and you have to remember to bring them with you.” Plus, canvas bags tend to get dirty and grimy with use. “I wanted something that I could fit in my pocket,” he says. 

By 2005, Keller had created the original Chico Bag, which he first sold at an Earth Day fair in the parking lot of Chico Natural Foods. Now the company has a product line of more than 20 different bags, ranging from backpacks to snack bags to grocery totes.

The original Chico Bag starts at $6.99, while some of the larger bags cost about 40 bucks, but the draw of the Chico Bag has to do with its design, which includes a small carabiner and pouch into which the bag can be conveniently and compactly stuffed. The bags are made either from a 100 percent postconsumer recycled PET plastic or from “basically the same material, but polyester, and it’s not recycled,” Feller clarifies.

“Not only does the bag fit in your pocket, but the carabiner allows you to strap it to your bag – they’re designed to be there when you need them,” Feller says, adding that Chico Bag also come with a one-year warranty.

The company and Feller’s mission is straightforward: “To bag the single-use habit.” It might seem a simple gesture—to replace single-use plastic bags with reusable ones—but Feller puts the problem with plastic in perspective.

“The average American uses about 500 plastic bags in a year,” he says, “and if everyone in the United States cut their consumption by half, that would be more than 15 billion plastic bags.” That number, he says, “is enough that if you tied them in a chain it would go around the circumference of the world 180 times.”

The biggest problem with plastic is that it doesn’t biodegrade. At best, plastic photodegrades, explains Feller, which means that “it gets brittle and breaks into little pieces after it sits in the sun.” But this creates its own problem, since the plastic only gets smaller, eventually ending up in the ocean by means of runoff into rivers and other water sources.

“Then it’s even worse for the environment because it gets ingested,” says Feller. That plastic “acts like little sponges and soaks up toxins that are in the ocean.” The plastic gets eaten by the smaller fish, which in turn get eaten by the bigger fish, and so forth all the way up the food chain until that plastic bag that you threw out a couple years ago comes back to your dinner table in the form of grilled halibut.

The solution isn’t just reusable bags, Feller says. It takes more than Chico Bag, and it does require something of a lifestyle change. “But you don’t have to go cold turkey,” he says. It might just take a little thoughtfulness. “I estimate that 50 percent of the time, you don’t actually need a bag.” 

Feller knows this takes effort, but he and his company are walking the walk as well as talking the talk. Chico Bag employees pledge not to use single-use water bottles, coffee cups or bags at work, and the company has eliminated plastic wrapping from its manufacturing end. Sometimes they slip up, he says with a laugh, and somebody walks in with a paper cup. “It happens, and no one is perfect, but they expect to get heckled for it.” 

A little jeering and ribbing, though, is a small price to pay for a cleaner environment.

747 Fortress St., Chico

(530) 342-4426, (888) 496-6166