Local workers, recycled materials align with Durango’s recycling program

By Stefanie Kilts

The reusable bags designed and made for the City of Durango are stacked at the GarCo Sewing Works’ facility in Rifle.

The reusable bags designed and made for the City of Durango are stacked at the GarCo Sewing Works’ facility in Rifle.

When talk of a fee on plastic bags first began circulating in Durango, city employees wanted to be proactive about finding a better option.

“We want to give every Durango resident an option other than a disposable bag. But it’s hard to find fair trade or U.S.-made bags at a reasonable price,” said Mary Beth Miles, sustainability coordinator at the City of Durango, who first started researching other plastic bag bans in Colorado.

Her research led her to the towns of Aspen and Carbondale, which a year ago had instituted plastic bag bans in grocery stores. Cloth bags made by GarCo Sewing Works were already in circulation in stores there, thanks to an order of 5,000 bags funded by the Aspen- and Carbondale-based Community Office of Resource Efficiency.

GarCo Sewing Works, a design training center and entrepreneurial learning lab in Rifle operated by Colorado Mountain College in partnership with Garfield County, uses recycled materials and local workers to sew heavy-duty, reusable bags, a desirable option for replacing plastic grocery bags. Its mission is to provide “Made in America,” sustainable products – like the bags sewn from locally donated cloth – while providing training and jobs to those seeking a hand up.

Once Miles found out GarCo Sewing Works’ mission aligned with her department’s “reduce, reuse, recycle” and “buy local” messages, she said the City of Durango placed an order for 4,500 bags, which will be completed and delivered by mid-July.

“The benefits of the sustainable process from GarCo Sewing Works met our goals,” Miles said. “The material is diverted from the landfills and we’re employing a local group.”

The program can keep the cost of the bags low because of donated materials and local funding, said Jill Ziemann, director of the college’s Go2Work and Gateway programs, which help unemployed and under-employed students obtain job skills.

Trainees find work, repurpose materials

GarCo Sewing Works acquired a large amount of “blue wrap” material from the hospitals in Glenwood Springs, Rifle and Aspen. The sturdy blue fabric is used to wrap boxes of surgical instruments but it never touches the instruments and is sterilized during the process, Ziemann said. And since the material is only used once and then discarded, she said it was a perfect fit for the City of Durango bags.

Along with the blue fabric, the city’s sustainability department wanted custom pockets that included the recycling program’s website, GarCo Sewing Works had the pockets screen-printed at a local business in Rifle and sewed the front pocket on each bag.

“To sew a bag, you have to learn the entire production process,” Ziemann said. “You learn to cut, mark, bundle, overlock stitch, sew on pockets and handles, and then bar tack the handles.”

GarCo Sewing Works uses sewing skills as a platform to teach all aspects of entrepreneurship, including hiring, employee development, accounting, payroll, product development, branding, marketing, on-line sales, social media and shipping. The trainees, many of whom are single mothers, are referred through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, Colorado Workforce Centers, human services and the probation system.

With a $48,000 grant from Garfield County, the program has been able to purchase seven industrial sewing machines and all ancillary equipment to train professional sewers, as well as lease a space in downtown Rifle.

Reviving an old industry to meet modern-day needs

At the design and training center Ziemann works with Beth Shaw, dean of business and industry at CMC, and Doreen Herriott, a clothing designer with experience in the Los Angeles garment manufacturing industry. The three have all shared oversight of the operation since it opened in April 2012.

With Durango’s order, Ziemann estimates that the program has produced more than 10,000 bags and she hopes that in the future, they can employ more workers and operate on a larger scale.

“We’re reviving an old industry,” she said. “Our goal is that local investors will fund a small factory where our trainees can be employed locally.”

Durango residents will be given the bags free of charge, along with promotional materials outlining the city’s new recycling program, Miles said, which also includes a new commingle curbside recycling initiative.

The Durango City Council is still considering a 10-cent fee on disposable plastic and paper bags at the supermarket checkout but for now, city residents will have the option of filling their reusable blue bag with groceries and leaving the plastic bags at the counter.

“We’re very happy to be partners with GarCo Sewing Works,” Miles said.

Melissa Sparkman, left, and Ruby Yeates, right, two trainees at GarCo Sewing Works in Rifle, sew reusable bags made from recycled materials.

Melissa Sparkman, left, and Ruby Yeates, right, two trainees at GarCo Sewing Works in Rifle, sew reusable bags made from recycled materials.