“Back then, we were running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 10 months of the year,” says Chris Hutton. “Then, that afternoon in July of 1992, John Crosbie said, ‘I didn’t take the goddamned fish out of the water,’ and that was the end of it. We had to redefine who we were and what we were going to be and that’s where I came up with Billy Boot.”
Hutton is standing inside a late-60’s-style building in Donovan’s Industrial Park, in front of 30-foot column of bright blue plastic that’s shooting out of a huge, chugging machine. You can see the faint line, at the bottom of the tube, where the melted resin hardens into plastic.
“Beneath that line,” he says, “I could put my finger right through the liquid. Above it, well, look.”
He taps the column and the whole thing shudders.
Hutton is the President and CEO of East Coast Converters, the company that makes Billy Boot Garbage Bags. The bright blue plastic behind him will be sliced and folded by a loud, thudding machine with a yellow boot on it. The result will be many, many boxes of Billy Boot Blue recycling bags.
East Coast Converters was started by Hutton and his father in 1976, to provide the province’s fish plants with packaging bags and box liners.
“My dad started out as a commission sales agent, selling bottles and cans to the breweries and cartons to the fishing businesses,” he says. “He did poly bags on the side, and he bumped into some guys at a trade show who were in the plastics business, so he started selling for them. They saw an opportunity here to open this business.’”
They started out importing the plastic, buying it in big rolls, and then turning it into the bags they needed and selling it to the fish plants. They also set up their own in-house printing press so that they could put logos and labels on the bags.
By the 80s, they were making the plastic themselves by melting resin, which comes in huge boxes of tiny pellets.
“Then the plastics plant had to run 24 hours a day,” he says. “An extruder takes four hours to heat up or cool down. So you have to keep it running.”
Before the moratorium was called, that wasn’t a problem; East Coast Converters supplied the packaging for most of the fish plants in the province. So in anticipation of each fishing season’s packaging demands, the factory would be humming away, making bags for shrimp, cod, capelin and crab.
“The day the moratorium was called, we had over a million dollars worth of products, all with people’s names on it,” he says. “Five pound cod bags for Notre Dame Bay Fisheries, Beothuk Fisheries, Quinlan Brothers, you name it. It took us years to use it all up.”
Hutton started making Billy Boot garbage bags just a few months after the fisheries shut down.
“I said, ‘Either we do this or we’re done,’” he says. “We needed to make some pounds, we needed to keep the machines running.”
In Billy Boot’s first few years, Hutton says sales grew by almost 100 per cent a year. As a homegrown company that was once so closely associated with the fishing industry, he says he has a loyal customer base.
“People are pretty adamant about their Billy Boot bags,” he says. “They actually started out as blue bags, because all of our scrap from the fishing business was blue, and we were using that to make them. It was a definitive colour, people knew it was our product. But as the fishing business went down, and the fish plants closed up, we had less and less scrap. So we started buying it from away and it came in green and black and brown, and we changed to a dark green.”
“People started writing, saying they wanted it back blue, that the new colour didn’t match their curtains or their bathroom towels. You wouldn’t believe the letters we got.”
East Coast Converters still supply the remaining fish plants, and they make bags for the small bakeries like Manna. But the fish plants continue to close, so Hutton is looking to bring Billy Boot bags to other provinces, like Nova Scotia.
“Back before the moratorium,” he says, “there were big couches in there, in my office, and I’d have to just sleep here every night.”
“That was not a good day,” he adds, shaking his head. “Without these bags, we never would have survived.”