Sharon Chick of Durban could quite easily have been one of life’s victims. Left to raise two children on her own many years ago, she started a small business from home by collecting waste fabric from clothing factories and making up a patchwork material that is fashioned into clothing and, more importantly, shopping bags.
For her, the recent ban on plastic supermarket bags has been a godsend.
“I employ one full-time lady and have about eight women who do work for me part-time,” she says. “Shortly after the ban on plastic bags was announced, we had a huge demand for our cotton shopping bags. This has now died down a bit, but we expect it to remain steady.
“We are supplying bags to our local Spar and some of the smaller shops in our local shopping centre are also buying bags from me.”
Chick also sells her fabric bags through local schools.
“Because I am a single mother with two children, I encourage the women to work from home so that they can be with their children. One lady is working on a borrowed sewing machine. She makes up about 100 bags a week. This creates quite a good income for her.”
Until recently, many fabric shopping bags were imported from China. But since the plastic shopping bag — or chekka as it is known in township lingo — was banned on May 9, shopping bags have become a hot item. Many self-help groups have quietly been cashing in with their replacements. These are made from anything from thick PVC to cheap cloth, scrounged scraps of fabric or any material they can lay their hands on.
The informal sector is creating a healthy little industry. Every craft project in KwaZulu-Natal that was consulted claims to have benefited from an increase in the demand for shopping bags made from plastic alternatives. And the Spar group of supermarkets has undertaken to create small businesses to make its Eco-bags under licence, using local fabric.
“We’ve been making these bags for about three years,” says Spar chairperson Peter Hughes. “At the moment we have a small factory in a township outside East London that employs 10 women making our bags. We are about to start investigating creating another similar company in KZN to employ another 10 women to meet demand. And once this is operating we will start similar operations around the country.”
Spar’s Eco-bags have been so successful that their sale has created a small, unexpected, profit. In a low-key ceremony in Durban on Monday morning, Spar handed a cheque of R50 000 to the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa), possibly the first time that the proceeds from an endangered species have been donated to the conservation agency that helped to bring about its demise.
Wessa in the Western Cape, which fiercely supported the legislation limiting plastic bags, has been doing much research into the effects of the ban.
“Most of the big supermarkets prepared well for the change and have gone to enormous lengths to brief their customers. Shoppers have responded positively and with great alacrity, showing that all they were waiting for was the formal incentive to shed a bad habit,” says Wessa’s Western Cape chairperson Andy Gubb.
“Consumers are interested in alternatives, either making their own or supporting reusable bag enterprises. We have only scratched the surface in providing local goods of this sort. Each initiative will hopefully create more jobs.
“There already appear to be fewer bags on fences, in trees, in waterways and on the coast. This is not only ecologically and aesthetically important for civil society and our tourism industry, which in itself generates many jobs, but also sets a positive example that will strengthen other environmental initiatives. And the reduction in plastic bags should help increase the life span of landfills, which are typically under huge pressure.”
Gubb says supermarkets were concerned that the ban might lead to more shoplifting and reduce sales as people abandoned unnecessary purchases. But Spar’s Hughes has laid these concerns to rest: “We have not noticed any kind of decrease in turnover. There has been a very slight increase in shrinkage, but this is just something we need to manage.
“We were pleasantly surprised by the reaction of the public. I think most people believe in the principle of less plastic in the environment. We have found that a few people are stealing the carry-out baskets, but this is also just a small problem.”
Like Gubb, Hughes believes that the benefits of making durable bags will offset the job losses in the plastics industry. “There is also a big opportunity in recycling. I understand that a Section 21 recycling company was going to be set up that would be funded by a levy on the new, thicker, plastic bags.”
But South Africa’s entrepreneurs have not waited for companies to be created. Rural women’s groups that make shopping bags are already poised to meet the increase in demand.
“We have always made ethnic bags,” says Erina Dennis from Usizo Crafts, which has an outlet in the Hillcrest Heritage Market outside Durban. “But we have noticed that lately the demand for these bags has been steadily rising.”
All the materials Chick uses are fabrics that would have ended up as rubbish. Just like the people she has lifted out of poverty and hopelessness, her enterprise is making something out of nothing.