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In The News

Bijan’s Protective Equipment is Dipping into New Market

A Santa Rosa manufacturer is testing a new business market thanks in large part to Sonoma County’s ban on single-use plastic bags as well as a push by some residents to keep jobs in the United States.

Bijan’s Protective Equipment is making 10,000 reusable shopping bags for the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency, which approved the plastic-bag ban earlier this year. The bags will be available through an outreach program that kicks off today at the Sonoma County Fair in the Grace Pavilion.

Under the ordinance, which takes effect Sept. 1, grocery and retail stores will not stock single-use plastic bags and must charge a minimum of 10 cents for each paper bag.

As part of the outreach, the waste management agency wanted to alert residents to the change by giving out reusable bags at public events. “We needed to do something that would catch people’s attention,” said Patrick Carter, a department analyst for the agency.

But some residents who followed the reusable-bag campaign were concerned that the bags would be made in foreign markets because of cheap labor costs, that an opportunity for local jobs would be lost to outsourcing in a time of financially-strapped government spending.

“I’m tired of seeing other countries’ names on labels. It’s an easy thing that can be made locally,” said June Michaels, a Santa Rosa resident who followed the agency’s actions. “With the ban, there is going to be more uses for the bags — it can help create jobs.”

Michaels worked to find if any local manufacturers could produce the bags. Through the help of Sonoma County BEST, a public-private partnership operating under the auspices of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, she learned of Bijan’s.

The family-owned company started in 1991, making knee pads and elbow pads for skateboarders. It later branched out as a military contractor as global conflicts ramped up defense spending, producing items such as face masks and duffel bags, said Steffen Kuehr, chief operating officer. It has grown to 20 employees and $2.5 million in annual sales.

As military spending is likely to decrease, Bijan’s is looking for new markets. For instance, it has recently gotten into the pet business, making dog raincoats that sell for $40. “The pet industry is a $56 billion market in the United States. If I can just get even a little share,” Kuehr said of his outreach into the market.

The reusable-bag market presented another opportunity, though Bijan’s could not compete based on costs with foreign manufacturers.

Michaels alerted the agency to the local option and she helped recruit sponsors such as Whole Foods and Alvarado Bakery to help defray some of the cost of using a local business. “It turned out to be a great success story,” Carter said.

The board decided to split the difference, with one contract going to an Alhambra company for 10,000 bags made in China from recycled woven polypropylene. Another 10,000 were ordered from Bijan’s, made with locally-sourced overstock materials such as old sleeping bags and a tag that reads: “Made Local — Sonoma County.” The board also requested that suggested donations be requested, $1 for Bijan’s bags and 50 cents for the Chinese-made ones.

A bag from Bijan’s cost the agency $3.50, while the Chinese-made bag cost $1.20, Carter said.

Kuehr noted that the contract will also keep money in the county because his bags will be silk-screened by a local vendor. He already has plans for more outreach in the reusable-bag market, targeting local stores such as Oliver’s Market, which supported the ban.

“We’re trying to get more exposure and let people know we are here,” Kuehr said. “We’ve been reaching out more to the local markets and retailers, and we think there is more work to do for counties and cities.”

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