Island Java Bags, creating bags from another company’s discards

This week, Zero Waste Canada is pleased to talk with Jackie Kitzler, a “kitchen table” entrepreneur from Cowichan Valley British Columbia, about her small business, Island Java Bags. Island Java Bags is a wonderful example on how businesses can reduce waste and prosper by exchanging materials.

Small businesses can have a real positive impact on their community. Last year Jackie’s business kept 2,190 kg burlap coffee bean bags, 780 (19.5kg) foil coffee bags, 521 (240kg) retired zip line harnesses,140 malt bags and 120 (67kg) of used jeans from going to a landfill by repurposing them into new products.

Can you tell us about kind of products your business creates?

My company produce mainly bags and accessories. The full list is : purses, totes, messenger bags, 3/4 messenger bags, large bags, backpacks, coin purses, french press cozies, forever coffee sleeves, growler carriers (both coffee burlap and malt bag), foil market bags, burlap grocery bags, retired banner grocery bags, wine carriers as well as coffee soap (made from green beans in the burlap bags), coffee body scrub (made with roasted coffee seconds) as well as new products this year, burlap paper and retired zipline harness bags (used for hardware and parts on other bags right now).

Where do you sell your products?

My products are mainly sold at Farmers Markets and special events. I do the Duncan Farmers Market Spring/Summer season from April until October, then the Fall Market until Christmas, as well as the Cedar Farmers Market from Mother’s Day until end of October. I also sell online and do may special orders through my website and email.

Has your community been supportive of your business, Island Java Bags?

I believe they have, no one has done what I do in my area. The first year, it took time for people to warm up to the idea of up cycled bags. Now, my community does support me by buying my products and I have been asked to give talks about up cycling to different groups as well.

The community of businesses that sell product made from repurposed materials has been very welcoming. We all know each other and talk about what works and what does not.

How do you market your bags outside of your community?

Mainly through social media, My facebook and instagram page. I also use my website to advertise which markets we are at, and we update it through the year. I love Instagram because I can showcase my product and often I sell it right from the picture.

How long have you been operating Island Java Bags?

I started in 2011, while still trying to work a regular style job. I did every other Saturday at the Duncan Farmer’s Market. I went fulltime in 2014.

Why did you decide to start Island Java Bags?

When I was thinking about starting my own business, I wanted to do something I would love. I wanted to do something different and environmentally friendly. I am a coffee addict. I had seen what the burlap bags looked like and thought they deserved another life with the amazing art on them. I had no idea what to name my business, my son with autism was very matter of fact, We live on an Island, Java is coffee and they are bags.

What did you do before Island Java Bags?

I returned to the Island from the USA in the later part of 2009. In the USA I worked for Safeway. Here I did entry cashier style jobs. Not a real career at all, and nothing I really enjoyed either.

When you were setting up your business did you have any assistance from government programs or business mentors?

No, I did not at all. I wish I knew it was there. I did research and read as much as I could find online. I had never sewn before either! I still have those first bags to remind myself how far I have come. My first Farmers Market, I met Clare from Urchin Bags, and she gave me some invaluable advice. She is amazing.

Is it a home-based business?

Yes, it is. Douglas Magazine called me a kitchen table start up, and they were accurate. My first years, I set up a cutting table in my kitchen and my kitchen table had my sewing machine. Now, I sew in a workshop not in the house. It is nice to have room to spread out and see what I am doing.

What skills have you learned from operating your small business?

I have learned skills for social media and marketing. I have learned selling skills because I do face to face selling at the Farmers Markets. I have learned spreadsheets and how to do pricing. I have learned to set up a website and Etsy store. I think it is hard to tell all the small skills you learn when you are a one woman show.

How did you decide to use burlap coffee bags as a material and how were you able to find a supply?

I had seen empty coffee bag hanging in coffee shops as wallpaper. The artistic designs are so well made, they deserve another life. Looking at the burlap as a material, some is not suitable because it is too loose of a weave or too thick and will just splinter and break when it is folded. I did research and found we do not compost the bags on the Island that they are just sent to the landfill. That was the final straw in the choice as burlap for a raw materials to make the bags. At first, my boyfriend (now husband), was travelling between the Island and Portland very month as we were getting him ready to retire, he would bring me bags from Portland. Eventually, I began to find coffee roasters up here. I started with Oughtred, then Peaks, Fernwood Coffee Roasters and DrumRoaster. Now, I have roasters contact me about taking bags.

You have a special working relationship with Oughtred Coffee that benefits you both, can you tell us how that has developed?

The story of how Oughtred and I connected is very interesting. I decided to start making the burlap bags and knew I needed a reliable source on the Island for them. I went on Crag’s List to see if I could find any. Lo and behold, there was an advertisement for burlap bags, as many as a person could take. I contacted the writer and it was Jill Doucette of Synergy Enterprises who had Oughtred Coffee&Tea as a client. She was trying to work on their landfill stream and was working on redirecting the burlap. She and I met in 2011 and never looked back. I started getting 30-50 bags at a time and now I take an entire pallet (approx. 250 bags). I met Johnny Oughtred at the kick off party for Synergy and he has been nothing but supportive.

Synergy Enterprises has a non-profit branch called Synergy Sustainability Institute and they facilitated an up cycling work group. In that group we were a kind of think tank to help each other with issues, like sourcing or even product names. I was challenged in that work group to find a way to start using reclaimed coffee foil bags (2and 5lb) that Oughtred had. I created a market bag that uses 9 bag each. The Spring/start of Summer of 2014, Oughtred was taking applications for a Green Grant. They wanted to have green businesses with their bottlenecks for production (in my case). I wrote a proposal for an industrial sewing machine and how one would change my business, making me more productive, so ultimately using more burlap/foil. I did win one of the grants and still use that machine to this day.

It is hard to touch on all the parts of my relationship with Oughtred, they are a large part of my story and I am a small part of theirs.

Have you developed any other similar arrangements with other companies?

I use many different raw materials that would normally be headed for the landfilll to make my bags. I use the reclaimed coffee foil to make market bags (I am working on a local initiative with coffee hops to pick up their coffee foil instead of it going to the landfill), they had roasted coffee in them so they smell so good! I get all the zipline harnesses that are retired from Wildplay Elements Park, I take them apart and use the hardware on my bags, the strapping on my growler carriers for handles, strapping on my backpacks and I am hoping to start making them into purses (if I can afford another industrial machine). I use second hand buttons, second hand material for pockets. I have made bags out of retired street banners. For breweries, I take their malt bags and make single and double growler carriers. I use second hand jeans, and leather for bag bottoms. I am also hoping to start mixing in bike inner tubes with the other materials, if I get another industrial machine.

What other materials are you using in your bags?

I work with other roasters to keep their burlap from the landfill, but not on the scale I have with Oughtred. Peaks coffee, is roasted locally and I get a call to take their bags several times a year. I have recently started working with Drumroaster coffee, they also call me when they have a pile of bags they want to send my way. When I visit Victoria, I pass by Fernwood Coffee Roasters and see if they have any out. I am always open to relationships with coffee roasters.

What do you do with the scraps for cutting bags?

My burlap scraps are all saved. I have a scrap hierarchy. I begin with the burlap sack, I make a bag, then hopefully a growler carrier or wine bag, then comes a French press cozier, and finally a forever coffee sleeve. Any scrap is then collected and put in a burlap bag I cannot use for some reason (too loose of a weave or cut wrong etc.). Once a bag is full, I have a list of farms that will use the scrap for mulch or in the compost or for smoking bees (food grade so it does not hurt the bees). My fabric ha the same type of use, bag to carrier to cozier to sleeve. I save pieces for pockets or stuffing for burlap sensory pillows. The actual waste is less than one plastic grocery bag a month.

Many people have unique employment challenges and certainly caregivers can have difficulties with rigid hours, do you think that people of all abilities can create opportunities from using discards as resources?

I encourage anyone to think outside of the box and look at waste materials as a resource. There really is no limitation of then finding a steady source of material. I cannot go begging from coffee shop to coffee shop every week for bags. Do research, know trends and take that scary plunge (it may even just be a toe in the water), I encourage anyone to do this.

How have you been able to overcome any challenges that have occurred for Island Java Bags?

Challenges happen for any business. I am lucky that my husband is supportive (at first he thought I was insane) and I can bounce ideas off of him. I have also found my community or tribe amongst fellow market vendors, sustainability people and friends, who help me with issues. I also love to do research, so I will spend hours reading about other companies or upcoming trends.

What is the positive impact your business has on the environment?

This year my business has kept over 2000 kg of burlap out of the landfill (my website has the entire list). As well, I give talks to different networking groups about using waste as a resource. I have also spoken at the Coast Waste Management conference about what I do. I believe in educating the public about reporting and up cycling.