I have had the opportunity to travel to many destinations over the past 15 years, coast to coast in the United States as well as internationally to countries where the culture and infrastructure of waste and recycling are 180 degrees from the United States.
Even before my role at Waste360, I watched what was happening to my waste. Where are you going? What should I do with it? What is the exact shape of the waste infrastructure? All humans create waste. So it’s a curiosity that still hangs somewhere in my consciousness.
On a recent trip to the Florida Keys, I met Sea Bags, a Maine-based brick-and-mortar and online retailer whose catalog includes handbags and accessories made from old sails.
Sea Bags was founded in 1999, before the word “upcycle” was even a household term. The raw materials come from the New England region and the United States. Accessories, handbags, home décor and rope are made by 200 Maine artisans at the company’s 20,000 square foot headquarters and shipped worldwide. The company currently has 45 stores, with aggressive expansion plans targeted in coastal cities from Maine to Florida via the Great Lakes and California.
Prior to its creation, there was no second use for the beautiful fabrics that adorn sailboats and ships, they were simply deemed unseaworthy and discarded. To date, Sea Bags has saved over 700 tonnes of sails from entering landfills.
I contacted Sea Bag’s Beth Greenlaw, President and Chief Sustainability Officer, to learn more about the company and how it puts sustainability into action.
Waste360: What is the state of waste/plastics in the oceans? What did Sea Bags observe?
Green law: Although we cannot speak with precision about the state of litter/plastics in the oceans, we know that it is a global problem. We’ve seen a major effort by everyone who loves the ocean to commit to being more responsible. We work with North Sails, a global sailmaker, to commit to keeping sails out of landfill and to work with the wider industry on how to reduce waste and use materials after their useful life; Mount Gay Rum and 4Oceans to clean up the ocean, and several well-known regatta organizers to commit to clean sailing.
Waste360: What was the motivation behind the creation of Sea Bags?
Green law: It was above all a question of giving a new use to a beautiful fabric and of preserving it from being buried. However, in creating the company, we also created the cornerstones we stand by today: creating jobs and retaining our products made in the United States and specifically in Maine, including the sourcing of our raw materials. first, be good stewards of our community, be environmentally friendly in our products. and practices and to continually improve in these areas.
Waste360: How many suppliers/sources do you have for your materials?
Green law: We source used sails from everywhere, but primarily from the United States. Sourcing for the rest of our raw materials stems from the policy we created when the company was started: in an effort to create jobs in Maine and the United States, we deliberately source Maine from first, New England next, United States third and we try to stop there. We believe there is a real ripple effect in creating jobs by supporting our US suppliers.
Waste360: Did you have difficulty finding materials at first?
Green law: At first it was word of mouth. We traded tote bags for used sailboat sails. Now we have a team that is paid to bring recycled sails from everywhere and we also have over 40 stores that act as sail drop-off points and work with sail makers like North Sails to keep sails out of landfills. We love that everyone has a Sea Bags product to remind them that sails have another use, but the product comes after the act of recycling.
Waste360: What initiatives or partnerships do you have in terms of ocean conservation efforts?
Green law: Last year, we teamed up with Mount Gay Rum and actor and environmentalist Adrian Grenier to create a limited-edition collection to support 4ocean’s ocean cleanup efforts. We were able to fund the cleanup of over 150 pounds of trash from our oceans and coasts. This has since evolved into a clean regatta partnership with Mount Gay. We are a regular partner of the Atlantic Cup and will also be the enduring sponsor of the Newport to Bermuda race. We are working with North Sails to promote clean sailing through our sail transmission efforts and plan to measure our results with North Sails.
Waste360: What kinds of opportunities does having a physical store offer in terms of consumer education?
Green law: Our more than 40 stores act as sail exchange hubs. Our retail teams are the ambassadors of sail recycling. We also promote our Green Circle certification in these stores so consumers know to trust our efforts.
Waste360: Are there any other company efforts you would like to mention?
Green law: In 2021, we became Green Circle certified for the recycled content of our bins. It has become abundantly clear that consumers are looking for third-party verification in sustainability efforts. We will continue to develop this certification in the future.
Waste360: Sustainability is the “cornerstone” of your brand. Can you please tell me more about what this means?
Sustainability is of course about saving our earth and becoming more environmentally friendly. For us, it’s also about saving our active waterfront in Portland and bringing the cut and sew back to the United States and specifically to Maine. We built the company around these pillars and still use these principles to guide us today.
Editor’s note: Coast to Coast is a new series that explores waste, recycling and sustainability from the perspective of Waste360 editors.