While volunteering at the a few years ago, Amy Ferguson noticed a picture of a sea turtle that had grown up with a plastic six-pack holder around its midsection, swelling parts of the turtle's body to unhealthy proportions.
The unsettling image always stuck in her mind, and it got her thinking about what she could do to help endangered wildlife.
Years later while buying produce, Ferguson looked at the plastic bag in her hand and knew she'd had enough of contributing to the demise of the world's wildlife population. So she decided to do something about it.
"I always hated those plastic produce bags, and when people started using those reusable cloth grocery bags, I thought, 'Why don't we have those for produce?'," Ferguson said from her home office near West Bay Drive.
Grocery stores nationwide are encouraging shoppers to bring bags from home or recycle their plastic bags. Many sell reusable cloth bags at the register, and according to the American Chemistry Council, which represents plastics manufacturers, more than 12,000 grocery and retail stores nationwide now offer recycling bins for plastic bags.
But the majority of shoppers aren't taking advantage of recycling programs. According to the EPA, only 9 percent of plastic bags and wraps were recycled in 2009.
A local grocery store employee told Ferguson that the store goes through about 2,500 plastic produce bags alone each weekend. "Multiply that by all the grocery stores in the country, and you get an idea of how many of these things can make it back into the environment and harm our wildlife," Ferguson said.
"My goal is to see plastic bags eliminated completely. I'll never get rich off of it, but as long as I can continue to reorder my supply, it's worth it."
Two years and plenty of research and hard work later, Ferguson's Bunch Bags are in 30 stores in 10 states.
"When I got that first order, I went to the store and personally delivered them" to the manager, she recalls. "I wanted to hug him."
Ferguson, who works full time at and competes in triathlons, got the idea for her bags from a special bag she saw in an area dive shop.
She began contacting companies about producing her bags and was turned away by hundreds of manufacturers and corporations before finding one that agreed to make her concept come true.
"I found the tag inside the original dive bag, and the owners of put me in touch with the manufacturer. When he heard about my idea, he asked me what I wanted, and that's how the dream finally became a reality," she said.
"She was resilient," says Ferguson's husband, Scott. "When she gets an idea in her head, she doesn't let go of it until she's ready."
The bags are made from a sturdy, biodegradable polyester and are stain and mildew resistant as well as machine washable.
The concept is simple: Shoppers gather produce in a Bunch Bag at the store, rinse the items — in the bag — in the sink at home, and then store the produce in the bag in the refrigerator.
Since securing her first order from in St. Petersburg, Ferguson has placed her products in other area locations including in Clearwater and the , as well as in California, Oregon, Illinois, Maryland and other states. The bags are sold in sets of three for a suggested retail price of $5.99.
According to Bill Knabe, produce manager at Rollin' Oats, so far the bags have been a big success.
"People who have already bought them love them," Knabe said by phone. "They bring them with them to the store every time. I already had to order more for both stores because we ran out of our first supply."
"I think it's a great product and a great idea Amy had," he added.
Ferguson, 49, knows she isn't going to get rich from Bunch Bags, and that isn't her intention. In fact, she says, part of her profits will go to environmental charities.
"My goal is to see plastic bags eliminated completely," she says hopefully. "I'll never get rich off of it, but as long as I can continue to reorder my supply, it's worth it."
For information on Bunch Bags and how to order them, visit www.bunchbags.org.
One in a continuing series on the state of the American Dream.