Amy Fraser and her group of volunteers are using donated fabric to create reusable shopping bags. Read on to find out more about her and this creative initiative. Hint: it’s not just about the bags.
KT: Before we get into the nitty-gritty of Boomerang Bags, can you tell us a bit about your own background?
Amy Fraser: I’m a practicing anesthesiologist at the Civic Hospital (we’re the doctors who take care of you during your surgery). I’m also a medical simulation/medical education specialist. You could call medicine my “day job” but actually I do a lot of it on nights and weekends too! Sewing is my hobby. For me, it’s a relaxing way to think about how three-dimensional shapes work, how to solve problems, and how not to freak out if things aren’t absolutely perfect. My mum taught me and my three sisters how to sew when we were all pretty young. Now I make a lot of clothes, gifts, and of course Boomerang Bags. Through the bags, my daughter has also developed an interest in learning to sew, which is very rewarding. It’s a great time to be a maker, since “old-fashioned” skills like home canning, woodworking, and sewing are having a renaissance right now. A lot of people are interested in dragging that old sewing machine out of the basement and getting it going.
KT: So what are Boomerang Bags?
AF: Boomerang Bags (boomerangbags.org) was started in Australia in 2013 as a way for one small community to try to reduce plastic waste and promote sustainability. Plastic pollution is a growing problem all over the world, and a lot of it comes from items that we use once, then throw away – like plastic grocery bags. Boomerang Bags volunteers collect fabric that would otherwise have been destined for the landfill and transform it into fun, one-of-a-kind reusable shopping bags printed with our logo. We get together monthly to sew, socialize, plan, and have fun. The finished bags are distributed for free or for a small donation, to help us cover our costs. We plan to give out bags in all kinds of ways: at retail stores, at community hubs like libraries, and at special events. If we’re standing in line behind you at the store and you don’t have a bag, we’ll give you one. From one person in 2013, Boomerang Bags has now grown to over 700 chapters worldwide, which have distributed over 250,000 reusable bags! Since Boomerang Bags Ottawa is operating more or less out of my house, my husband sometimes feels like there are 250,000 reusable bags in our basement alone.
KT: Who are the members of your group?
AF: It started with me, my sister Sarah, and every friend we could strong-arm into joining. A couple of months later, we have 40 volunteers, who cover a wide spectrum of ages, genders, backgrounds, and professions. We’ve got parents who are at home with small kids, Team Canada athletes, civil servants, doctors, and kids as young as 9. It helps that you don’t have to be a sewing ninja; we have a sewing instructor (my mum of course) to help learners, and there are lots of non-sewing jobs. We take advantage of our members’ professional skills, too. A member with art and design experience did our website (boomerangbagsottawa.wordpress.com), and a journalist helps us to organize our public relations efforts. I’m hoping to attract a lawyer. Sewing lawyers – we need you! Actually, we need lots of volunteers of all kinds. You can contact us through our website to volunteer, donate, or get involved.
KT: Many people are already using reusable bags, but you’re taking it to the next level. What motivates you and your group?
AF: I would say that our goal is to save the world. It sounds a bit jokey when you say it like that, but plastic pollution is one of the most serious environmental problems on earth. In Canada, only about 11% of all plastic gets recycled. In our area, the Herb and Spice on Wellington Street goes through 2500 non-recyclable plastic bags per week – per week! – and that’s a small neighbourhood store. So, Ottawans probably aren’t doing as well with reusable bags as we think we are. Boomerang Bags offers reusable, low-cost, low-carbon-footprint bags as an alternative to bags we consume and discard. It also inspires people to come out and be part of a community of makers, to contribute to local solutions, and to broaden the conversation about things we can all do to make a positive impact. Your Boomerang Bag comes with a message: we’re your neighbours, and we care about making things better and more sustainable for everyone.
KT: Where do the materials for the bags come from?
AF: The bags are made of local recycled fabric, which has a very low carbon footprint compared to a reusable bag made with new materials, or even one made from recycled plastic. This process also diverts material from landfills – double bonus! Most of our fabric has been donated by our members and their friends and families; a lot of it is old sheets and curtains. Some members are quilters who have leftover fabric pieces that they’d like to use up. A couple of local small businesses, like upholsterers or interior designers, have made donations. I went to the Hintonburg Fabric Flea Market this year and people donated literally as much as I could carry. The Ottawa Tool Library has also offered us some materials that they’ve received from donors. We haven’t yet needed to solicit donations from bigger businesses or secondhand stores, but they’re on our list. It’s amazing to see how much fabric people throw out.
KT: What’s next for Boomerang Bags?
AF: Right now, our big priority is getting ready for our official launch, which will be on Saturday, September 8, at the Old Ottawa South Porch Sale. We’ll be on Ossington Avenue near Brewer Park – look for the big red tent! We’ll have lots of bags in various sizes, lots of make-your-own kits, and friendly members who can answer your questions. In the immediate future, we want to attract more members, maybe win some community funding, and scale up our operation. I’d like to send bags to local elected representatives and ask them to use the bags publicly. Other members are working on ideas of their own: special events with groups like the Girl Guides, learn-to-sew workshops where we provide the materials for a bag, outreach to communities in need such as refugees or low-income neighbourhoods, bag exchange programs with local indie stores… I could go on. We’re an organization that has a lot of room to support our members’ passion projects.