Nfld. & Labrador

A ban is coming on single-use shopping bags. This plastic producer is not worried

The cod moratorium changed plastic production in N.L. forever. Now, a single-use bag ban threatens to do the same.

President of the company that makes Billy Boot bags says they haven't made grocery bags for a decade

Chris Hutton is the president of East Coast Converters. (Ted Blades/CBC)

Chris Hutton has seen the world change.

His plastic company, East Coast Converters, makes Billy Boot garbage bags and other plastic products. But as environmental awareness increases, so does the demand to end the use of plastic bags.

The provincial government announced last week that a ban on single-use plastic bags would be implemented by the middle of 2020. Despite having a stake in the game, Hutton doesn't oppose the decision.

"If this had been in the late '80s, early '90s, I would've been very concerned because back then we made it all — close to 50 million shopping bags a year," he said.

"[But] over the course of time, competition from China … we haven't actually made a grocery-style shopping bag in eight to 10 years."

Billy Boot has kept the wolves away from the door.- Chris Hutton

Although he said he doesn't oppose the ban outright, he does caution decision-makers like the St. John's deputy mayor when consulted for his opinion. 

"I actually went to see Sheilagh O'Leary about it and she asked me to come and meet with the municipal councillors and people who were trying to lead the ban."

He says he told the meeting that replacing plastic bags with paper ones isn't a viable option.

"Paper takes twice the amount of energy to manufacture. You've got all this sulphur dioxide going out of paper mills, the amount of trees you cut down," he said. "When it comes to replacing these bags you want to make sure that you use something that is reusable and recyclable."

The times have changed

East Coast Converters makes Billy Boot bags. (Ted Blades/CBC)

Hutton's company was founded in 1956 by his father, producing material for the local fishery.

"The fishery, of course, was going gangbusters," said Hutton.

In 1976, while he was in university, Hutton's father asked him if he'd like to run the plastics plant. He accepted, and still runs it to this day.

Decades ago, the fishery was thriving — and so was his plastic plant. 

"Every time that you bought a fish product, whether it was Blue Menu or Our Compliments or President's Choice, M&M seafood shops, all the McDonald's restaurants in North America — all that was made in the Newfoundland fish plants," he said.

"We would make the little bag, if you went and bought a fish product and it was a little one- or five-pound box of fish, we made the little bag that went in that by the millions."

As the fisheries changed, so did Hutton's business. In the '70s, he said, he had close to 100 fish-plant customers.

An employee at East Coast Converters bags Billy Boot products using a machine. (Ted Blades/CBC)

"And now we're down to a dozen. There's not a lot of actually functioning fish plants. They are few and far between, compared to the old days."

He said local businesses in the province are also being bought out or replaced by larger chains, reducing his clientele further. 

"The way the world works today, once a local store or manufacturer is bought by an international conglomerate then you just can't, No. 1, compete," he said.

"But No. 2, you just can't get your foot in the door because it's all built into the system already."

According to Hutton, those large chains often don't buy their plastic from local manufacturers.

Because of that, his company has had to scale back.

"In the heyday, we were well over 40 employees.… Now we're probably pushing 35, if we're lucky 40 percent capacity. And we're down to roughly 15 employees."

Today, his business manufactures just Billy Boot garbage bags and materials for factory freezer trawlers. 

A future for plastics

This is some of the plastic-making machinery at Hutton's plant. (Ted Blades/CBC)

Hutton said he's hopeful when it comes to his company's survival.

"We've been adapting since 1992, and it's becoming difficult, I'm not going to lie to you. But, I mean, Billy Boot has kept the wolves away from the door," he said.

"It's gonna be a tough slog.… You just put your head down every morning and go, and that's why it's called work."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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