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Volunteers hope to recycle discarded Calgary street banners

Ever wonder what happens to those special Calgary street banners once they are taken down? A group of local Calgary women are looking to save them from the landfill by recycling them into tote bags or other reusable products.

Wendy Lees is helping lead the project. She said its purpose is twofold: to promote sustainability by reusing the single-use banners, and to promote “social enterprise” by providing employment skills while also tackling a social problem.

Lees was inspired by a non-profit in Vancouver, B.C. called Common Thread, which recycled commemorative signs from events such as the 2010 Winter Olympics. Common Thread’s signature product is its “banner bags” – tote, lunch and messenger bags made from old banners.

Many of these “banner bags” are donated from other cities, according to Common Thread director Melanie Conn.

Lees found out Calgary’s banners go in the landfill.

“When I was out wandering in my neighbourhood of Lakeview, I saw the banners and thought, well, I wonder what we’re doing with them. So that prompted a call to 311,” said Lees.

When she learned they would go in the garbage, she told the City of Calgary’s Parks department she was interested in reusing the valuable material.

“That’s fairly heavy-duty nylon. Those banners have been out in the elements for two years, so they’re quite strong,” said Lees.

Although her project is in its early planning stages, she is happy with the response she has gotten from the City.

“All the banners are stored right now. It’s looking like they will be available for use, but there’s a few more channels that they need to go through to make sure they could just hand them over to us,” said Lees.

“It’s looking really positive that they will be able to – at least at this stage – let us have them and do good things with them.”

Wendy Lees is looking to rescue city street banners like this one and recycle them into bags or other products. (Wendy Lees)

One of Lees’ potential partners is Boomerang Bags YYC, a two-woman operation making tote bags from donated fabrics such as sheets or curtains. Boomerang Bags is an Australia-based organization with 860 chapters across the world. According to their website, they have made over 205,000 bags and removed 62,000 kg of waste from landfills worldwide.

Loretta Gotmy, one of the two women with Boomerang Bags YYC, explained that once a month, women get together with the group to volunteer their time sewing the bags.

“Eventually, the hope is for us to get them into farmers’ markets, or to inspire others to also help creating these bags,” said Gotmy.

“From the bottom up, we’re just trying to help with the plastic problem.”

Gotmy said that adding old banners to their fabrics would be a unique way to preserve Calgary history.

“With the 150 (banner), it has a little bit of history.

“All of our bags right now, they’re all unique, all the different fabrics, it’s all very unique. So just to make them out of the banners, would just be a cool Calgary thing to do.”

Gotmy said that her small group was one of a few others in Calgary looking to promote sustainability and reduce single-use plastics, including Ban the Bag YYC and Plastic-Free YYC.

But under Lees’ definition of social enterprise –  taking business principles and applying them to social problems – there is another potential purpose: helping disadvantaged women gain employment.

“We may want to hook up with a social services organization; Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association sounds interested,” said Lees.

“Maybe lots of them know how to sew, but it might help some learn sewing skills, and they they might be able to market these items, they might learn marketing skills.”

Conn said that Common Thread started with a similar goal, without specifically looking at banners.

Then, the City of Vancouver came to their group before the 2010 Olympics, and they secured a contract to recycle the banners.

“We suddenly realized there are a gazillion banners, not only in Vancouver but everywhere, so that became the focus of what we did,” said Conn.

“We had a lot of luck; some great things happened in the beginning. One was, we got a corner to work in of the Flag Shop headquarters in Vancouver, which is relevant to you because they have a store in Calgary.”

Lees was careful to note she was trying to work constructively with the City of Calgary, and praised their cooperation so far.

“It’s important to have them buy into this and not kind of shame them, you know, for dumping them into the landfill,” said Lees.

“There’s a lot of things you could probably do if we were more people,” said Gotmy.