By Terri Harber
A Baker City nonprofit company is prepared to bag a large share of a growing market: Dog waste pickup.
Step Forward Activities Inc. already supplies its customers with plastic bags in a multitude of sizes and styles. Their bags are seen stuffed with garbage along highways and were used to carry away debris that landed on Oregon's beaches after last year's earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
Many parks department managers specifically provide the dog poop bags so dog owners will more likely remove any droppings left by their pets.
Oregon's state parks and rest stops offer the bags. So does Baker City.
"The goal is to keep those areas clean," said Michelle Owen, the city's public works director.
Not all people use the bags - or even clean up after their dogs - but the bag stations make a difference. Their mere existence reminds people it's their duty to pick up after their animals.
The amount of time staff spends on that chore before events has decreased, Owen said.
Jodie Radabaugh, production supervisor and operations director at Step Forward, talked about how it took effort to create a dog waste bag that's easy to produce and also works well.
The specially designed bags are placed over one's hand to pick up dog droppings. They tried creating the bags using plastic of varying thicknesses and decided to use a 1 mil-thick plastic.
The bags also had to be easy to rip from the dispenser. They wouldn't prove useful if dog owners couldn't get to them easily.
Forming a proper bag handle so people could easily yank a bag out of the dispenser also took time. The final choice of handle was clear plastic that's a little thicker than the bag itself, Radabaugh explained.
The bags as well as signs, receptacles, even the customized bag dispensers, can be seen in an array of public areas frequented by dogs and their owners.
Look for the name Woof Waste Disposal across the dispensers to indicate the product was created by the local company. A picture of a white dog makes the green dispenser stand out among trees and a variety of open spaces.
The Woof Waste bags themselves require big machinery and detailed handiwork to come out of the dispenser properly.
Step Forward's primary responsibility is to serve people with disabilities in the community by providing them with vocational opportunities.
Many of these employees - but not all - also live in Step Forward housing.
Profit helps pay for the business itself to operate and expand as well as fulfilling the needs of the employees with disabilities.
The ability to work enhances these employees' skills and self-esteem, said Gene Button, Step Forward's executive director.
It also reduces the workers' dependence on government support by 35 percent, he said.
"Our job is to create jobs for these guys. To be planners and mentors," Radabaugh said of the employees who aren't disabled.
The production methods are mixed for the Woof Waste bags. Here are some examples:
A state-of-the-art machine cuts, shapes, seals and perforates the bags. Employees, however, carefully sear two large holes through small bunches of the bags, then staple the bunches with lightweight pasteboard. The holes fit handles inside the dispensers and the pasteboard secures the slippery bunches of bags.
Every product contract is analyzed and the managers devise ways to provide tasks for all of the workers.
These employees can handle an array of duties. A couple of them have learned nearly a dozen production skills - and even pilot machinery to move around big containers filled with the bags.
Step Forward purchased the large cut-and-seal machine less than a year ago for $242,000 - that includes shipping cost.
It sits in a new 5,600-square-foot building that provides the company with additional work and warehouse space for this bag operation.
Grants made construction possible, Button said.
This increases the size of the Baker City operation to a total of nearly 10,000 square feet.
There aren't a great number of plastic bag manufacturers in the United States. And, Button said, "our prices are much lower than the competition's."
Being competitive isn't enough, however. Step Forward is always seeking out new offerings so its workers can have more opportunities to learn and grow, Button said.
"We're always looking for the next widget."
At least 75 percent of the workers must be disabled or the state contract for bags is nullified.
There are about 30 workers in Baker City and 10 in John Day. Step Forward is one of the top 10 manufacturers in the area, according to Baker County.
It also provides its clients with other vocational activities besides creating plastic bags, such as recycling printer cartridges, cartridge manufacturing and maintaining vending machines.
The vending part of the business especially allows those involved an opportunity "to get out of the building and interact with the public," Button said.