Dipping into new market

  • Steffen Kuehr of Bijan's Protective Equipment shows off one of the 10,000 reusable bags made by the company for the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency. Photo taken in Santa Rosa, on Wednesday, July 23, 2014. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

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.

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