Bristol's effort to replace plastic bags gains steam


PATTY HEATHER-LEA TRIMS the thread on a tote-bag-in-progress last Thursday evening. In anticipation of a state law banning single-use plastic bags, which will go into effect next July, Heather-Lea and other community members have volunteered to produce and give away reusable shopping bags. Independent photo/Christopher Ross

LISA POWELL SEWS handles onto what will become a tote bag. Powell and other members of Sewing for Change–Bristol gathered in the basement of St. Ambrose Church last week to make reusable shopping bags. The group plans to distribute the totes for free to Bristol residents, as a replacement for single-use plastic bags. Independent photo/Christopher Ross

BRISTOL — Last Thursday evening in the basement of St. Ambrose Church in Bristol, the hum of a powerful oscillating floor fan masked other sounds. A small group of volunteers with Sewing for Change–Bristol unpacked sewing machines and bags of fabric, threaded their needles and got to work.

“Sewing for Change–Bristol, a group of people concerned about the effects single-use plastic bags are having on our environment and the health of all living things, has been sewing reusable bags to give to residents, with the idea that they will be used instead of single-use plastic bags,” said organizers Patti Hunt and Linda Brown in their event announcement.

At one table Thursday evening, Lisa Powell, whose sewing experience spans decades and several local theater companies, churned out reinforced-bottom shopping bags with a material called Oly-Fun, which she found on clearance at Walmart.

At another table, Sandy Desorda, constructing a bag out of floral-patterned fabric, stopped and patiently undid a mistake she’d made.

In a particularly well-lit spot, Patty Heather-Lea worked according to a pattern and technique she learned from Powell. And she was smiling.

“I grew up sewing,” Heather-Lea said. “I’m tall,” she added, laughing. “I wanted clothes that fit.”

She has attended three of the group’s four meetings this summer, she said.

“I love the idea of doing something positive in the world.”

Hunt and Brown estimated that Sewing for Change–Bristol has produced more than 60 bags so far. They’ve also collected and distributed more than 40 totes and other reusable bags.

But they have a long way to go.

“Bristol needs thousands of reusable bags,” Brown said. “Our goal is to put as many bags into as many hands as possible.”

They’re also hoping to help residents get used to using those bags, which will require a change in the town’s shopping culture.

NEW STATE LAW

Their cause will get a big boost from a new state law, which goes into effect next July, prohibiting shops and restaurants from giving out single-use plastic bags, plastic straws and Styrofoam containers.

But Sewing for Change–Bristol isn’t waiting for the new law to force people to adapt.

During this year’s Fourth of July festivities in Bristol, the group set up tables on the town green and distributed free bags, as well as information about strategies for replacing single-use plastic bags — even for people who reuse them once or twice.

Next they hope to participate in the town’s Harvest Festival on Sept. 28.

In the meantime they’re trying to engage businesses to help.

Carol Wells owns and operates a number of Bristol businesses, including Vermont Marketplace on Main Street. She’s also co-founder and special projects director for the Wells Mountain Initiative (WMI).

Earlier this summer Wells donated a box of 100 WMI tote bags to Sewing for Change–Bristol, which the group plans to distribute for free.

“We wanted to support the cause and this was an easy way to do that,” Wells said.

The Wells family has been using reusable bags for years, she said, and their retail businesses, like Vermont Marketplace and the former Deer Leap Books, never gave out plastic bags.

Two of the largest distributors of single-use plastic bags in Bristol are Shaw’s Supermarket and Walgreens (formerly Rite Aid). The Independent reached out to both corporations to find out what they’re doing to prepare for the new law and, more important, how they’re planning to help their customers transition.

“At Shaw’s and Star Market, like many local communities, we care about the environment,” said Teresa Edington, the company’s manager of external communication and community relations.

Shaw’s encourages its customers to bring in reusable bags for their shopping orders, she added, and the company will continue to comply will all local ordinances and bills regarding the use of plastic bags.

Walgreens also complies with local and state laws and supports the actions of lawmakers to curb the use of plastics, said Fiona Ortiz, director of financial communications and CSR reporting at Walgreens Boots Alliance.

“We recognize it as an issue and are working to implement a transition,” she said. “We sell reusable bags in our stores, so there are options we already have.”

Brown has no doubt the stores will comply with the new law, but she said Sewing for Change–Bristol would like to see those companies participate more meaningfully in the transition.

“Right now Shaw’s sells reusable bags for two dollars each, and one dollar of that goes to the local food shelf,” she said. “That’s great, but what if one day a week these stores were to offer free reusable bags with a certain purchase amount?”

She’d also like to see more signage outside those stores reminding customers to bring in their reusable bags.

CULTURE CHANGE

Part of the transition, however, will need to come at the community level — one homemade bag at a time.

“One woman asked if we could make something her husband wouldn’t mind carrying,” Heather-Lea recalled. “So I said, Well, what do you want it to look like? And she said, How about something orange? Or camo?”

So Heather-Lea made the man a bag.

“I used ‘camo’ material, with extra support at the base, using black material and black handles.”

She asked for feedback on the bag, but has not heard back yet.

ALL ARE WELCOME

Sewing for Change–Bristol was born from a similar organization in Middlebury.

Anyone is welcome to help, even if they don’t own or know how to operate a sewing machine.

“Some people just cut or iron fabric,” Brown said. Some people even work from home.

And fabric donations are always welcome.

For more information about how to help, email Linda Brown at lindabrown@gmavt.net or Patti Hunt at chattypattihunt@gmail.com.

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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