Donna Sanders

All from plastic bags

Most people bring back souvenirs from their travels. Donna Sanders brought home a business plan.

Her vision to run her own company appeared to her when Sanders was studying at Johnson County Community College’s sister school, Northwestern Polytechnic University in Xian, China.

As one of 10 students who received full-ride scholarships to attend one semester at the university, Sanders originally had planned to do what most exchange students do: learn the language, soak up the culture and make new friends.

Sanders soon found a new aspiration: start a business that produces and sells bags, mats and wall hangings made from recycled plastic bags.

“So much plastic in the world is not recycled,” Sanders said. In fact, the Earth Institute at Columbia University estimates that Americans use 33.6 trillion tons of plastic each year, but only 6. 5 percent of it is recycled.

Sanders, who already earned her associate’s degree in energy performance and resource management from JCCC, always wanted to run an earth-friendly business. She passed the certified energy auditor exam offered by the Association of Energy Engineers, and she started her own energy auditing business in Kansas City. The idea of creating items from recycled products seemed a logical extension.

“I’ve always been interested in the environment, and I always am looking for ways to improve the planet, which is why I got my certificate in the first place,” she said.

Sanders was a member of the Student Sustainability Committee and the Student Environmental Alliance, and her honors project was an audit of areas where energy-saving measures had been installed at JCCC. She compared the projected savings to the actual savings and made suggestions to the Center for Sustainability for possible improvements.

Sanders expects to enroll in the London School of Business in January 2015.

Until then, she is working with people she met in China to understand the resources available to her there, and she’s researching the plastics industry.

Sanders said she attended a plastics conference in Shanghai and met with a Honeywell executive in Xi’an. The other JCCC students went back to the United States, but Sanders stayed on a month longer. She studied for (and passed) the Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) exam and interviewed for teaching positions.

China is the ideal site for weaving plastic into usable goods for three reasons, she said.

  • The labor market is cheaper than the United States, which is why many American companies locate in China.
  • China could be a lucrative market for sales of the items her company creates.
  • Sanders already has connections in and knowledge of the Chinese culture, giving her an advantage over fly-in entrepreneurs.

“It’s a learning process,” Sanders said. “I’ll be continuing to learn the process as I go along.”

So far in the process, she’s submitted business registration papers in Hong Kong under the name Eco-Way Limited. She’s formed an international team of 11 individuals from the United, States, China, Pakistan, Ethiopia and Liberia to help with the business, she’s reserved the web site domain, and she’s found the Chinese village where she’d like to set up the first enterprise, making prototypes of merchandise.

“I think the products could be beautiful, so beautiful people will ask, ‘That’s made from plastic bags?’” she said.  “Our goal is to help clean the earth.”