I've had the opportunity to travel to many destinations over the past 15 years, from coast to coast in the United States as well as overseas to countries where the waste and recycling culture and infrastructure is a complete 180 degrees from the United States.
Even before my role at Waste360 I observed what happens to my trash. Where does it go? What should I do with it? How exactly is the waste infrastructure shaped? All humans create waste. So, it's a curiosity that always hangs somewhere in my consciousness.
On a recent trip to the Florida Keys, I ran across Sea Bags, a Maine-based brick-and-mortar and online retailer whose catalog is comprised of purses and accessories crafted from old sails.
Sea Bags was founded in 1999, before the word "upcycle" was even a colloquial term. Raw materials are sourced from the New England area and the United States. The accessories, hand bags, home decor and rope are manufactured by 200 Maine craftspeople at the company's 20,000 square foot headquarters and shipped across the globe. The company currently has 45 stores, with aggressive expansion plans targeted in coastal towns from Maine to Florida to the Great Lakes and California.
Before its inception, there was no second use for the beautiful fabrics that adorn sailboats and ships, they were simply deemed not sailable and thrown away. To date, Sea Bags has saved more than 700 tons of sails from entering landfills.
I reached out to 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 ocean trash/plastics? What has Sea Bags observed?
Greenlaw: While we can’t accurately speak to the state of ocean trash/plastics, we do know it’s a global issue. We have observed a large effort from all that love the ocean to commit to being more responsible. We are working with North Sails, a global sailmaker, to commit to keeping sails from the landfill and to work with the entire industry on how to reduce waste and give use to materials after their useful life sailing; Mount Gay Rum and 4Oceans to clean the ocean, and several well-known Regatta organizers to commit to clean sailing.
Waste360: What was the drive behind the creation of Sea Bags?
Greenlaw: It was primarily to give a beautiful fabric a new use and to keep it from the landfill. However, in creating the company we also created the cornerstones that we stick to today: to create jobs and keep our products made in the USA and specifically Maine including sourcing our raw materials, to be good stewards of our community, to be green in product and practices and to continuously improve in those areas.
Waste360: About how many suppliers/sources do you have for your materials?
Greenlaw: We source our used sails from all over but primarily the US. Sourcing for the rest of our raw materials comes from the policy we created as we started the company: in an effort to create jobs in Maine and the U.S., we purposely source from Maine first, New England second, the U.S. third and we try to stop it there. We believe there is a real ripple effect in job creation by supporting our U.S. suppliers.
Waste360: Did you have any challenges sourcing materials in the beginning?
Greenlaw: In the beginning it was word of mouth. We traded tote bags for used sails from sailboats. Now we have a team that is paid to bring in recycled sails from all over and we also have 40 plus stores that serve as sail drop locations and work with sail makers like North Sails to keep the sails out of landfills. We like everyone to have a Sea Bags product to remind them that the sails have another use, but the product is second to the act of recycling.
Waste360: What initiatives or partnerships do you have in terms of ocean conservation efforts?
Greenlaw: Last year we partnered 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 coastlines. That has since transitioned into a partnership for clean regattas with Mount Gay. We are a regular partner for the Atlantic Cup and will also be the sustainability sponsor for the Newport to Bermuda race. We are working with North Sails to promote clean sailing through our sail drive efforts and have plans to measure our results with North Sails.
Waste360: What types of opportunities does having a brick-and-mortar provide in terms of consumer education?
Greenlaw: Our 40+ stores act as sail redemption centers. Our retail teams are ambassadors for recycling sails. We also promote our Green Circle Certification in these stores so the consumers know to trust our efforts.
Waste360: Are there any other company efforts you would like to mention?
Greenlaw: In 2021 we became Green Circle Certified for recycled content in our totes. It became very clear that consumers are looking for third party verification in sustainability efforts. We will continue to expand on this certification moving forward.
Waste360: Sustainability is the “cornerstone” of your brand. Can you please tell me more about what that means?
Sustainability is of course about saving our earth and becoming more eco-friendly. For us it's also about saving our working waterfront in Portland and about bringing cut and sew back to the U.S. and specifically to Maine. We have created 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 viewpoint of Waste360's editors.