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In the Bag

When it comes to recycling, reusing and doing her best to turn someone else’s trash into treasure, Jes Vaillancourt of Swanville is no slouch.

“Frugal is the word people like to use, but I’m cheap,” she said. “I like to be able to go and get something old and making something special out of it.”

So when Vaillancourt, 31, was working as a part-time farm hand at a Waldo County farm and saw all the animal feed bags the farm went through, she took note. The bags, made of polypropylene, were stronger and more durable than regular plastic grocery bags, and they were pretty, too.

“The farmers aren’t gentle with bags of feed. They live to be used another day,” she said. “And in a lot of cases, they have the most gorgeous images on them. It seemed like such a shame to throw them out. I thought there’s got to be something better.”

Vaillancourt thought the feed bags would make great tote bags. Turning to the social media site Pinterest, she searched for ideas to help her do that. After testing out ideas, she streamlined the process so she could make several tote bags at once. To make the totes, she takes donated feed bags and cleans them by spraying them with white vinegar and rubbing alcohol. She rinses them off by dunking them in the bathtub (or washing them with a hose during the warmer months). Then she cuts off the bottoms and makes a seam so the bags can stand up alone, using the heavy duty industrial sewing machine that she found on eBay after she began to sell them. She uses heavy-duty needles and polyester thread, because cotton thread would not be strong enough and Vaillancourt wants them to last a long time. Her sewing room usually is a confusion of brightly-colored feed bags and the finished tote bags, which feature cheerful chickens, noble-looking dogs, cartoons of pigs and more.

Vaillancourt sells the bags and zipper pouches she also makes from the recycled feed bags through her new small business, EcoTotes. With more and more communities in Maine banning single use plastic bags, including Bath, Brunswick, Freeport and nearby Belfast, her timing was perfect. So far, most of her bags have been sold to people from the Belfast area, where the ban went into effect at the beginning of January.

“The bag ban has been great for me,” she said. “It’s also something I totally agree with. It’s good for me as a human being, and that’s my motto here — to leave the planet better than we found it.”

That’s what Vaillancourt strives to do in the rest of her life, too. She and her husband, who were high school sweethearts in Milton, New Hampshire, moved to Maine about four years ago when he — a veteran — took a position as a helicopter mechanic with the Maine National Guard. They wanted to live somewhere quiet, with room to spread out, and found that in Swanville. On their homestead, along with their two children they have dogs, turkeys, chickens, ducks, meat rabbits and a big garden.

Her new home business is a good addition to the mix, she said. She is selling the tote bags for $8 and the pouches for $5 with an eye towards affordability. They should last for at least a few years, much longer than most of the alternative shopping bags that are on the market, she said. Vaillancourt sells them at the Monroe Village Store, at a stall at the United Farmers Market of Maine on Saturday mornings in Belfast and plans to go to more craft fairs once she has a good inventory built up. So far she has sold more than 200 to people from around Maine and beyond.

“It’s nice to have something I can do on my own time,” she said. “And it’s been very gratifying to me to do something that can make a difference.”

For more information about EcoTotes, call Jes Vaillancourt at (603) 769-1824 or email EcoTotesME@gmail.com.

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