How the plain brown paper bag saved lockdown

'The Rise of the Brown Paper Cowboy'
Ever wondered what happened to those takeaway paper bags, containing thousands of meals for people in quarantine hotels around Australia? Those strong brown paper bags, delivered three times a day to every room? That’s a lot of bags…
Well, a whole bunch of those brown paper bags are about to go on show in Canberra’s National Museum of Australia. And the story behind them is just one of the quirky tales to arise from the Covid pandemic.
On returning from the UK, Sydney resident David Marriott quarantined in a Brisbane hotel. By the time he left, 14-days later, his face had appeared on every morning TV show across Australia.
But not just David’s face. Australia woke up to the toothy smile of his trusty brown paper companion, Russ.
Russ is a horse.
A steed.
A life-size paper pony. And he’s made from the recycled paper bags delivered to David’s door, three times a day.

Photo supplied by David Marriottt
Photo supplied by David Marriott
While the thought of heading into isolation for two weeks sounds daunting for most, David (aka Rip Torn) wasted no time getting creative and transforming his food delivery bags. First came the cowboy hat, then the vest with tassles, then something much bigger.
Take one ironing board, a table lamp, some sticky tape and scissors. Add a whole heap of brown paper takeaway bags.
And before you can say Giddy-up …
One life-size bucking bronco!
Russ and David caused a pandemic sensation, with news outlets across the World picking up the story. From Sydney’s Sunrise program to the BBC, the IrishTimes, even the Washington Post, Russ and David became the recycled paper bag ambassadors.
“The crinkley little fella sure did resonate with folks around the globe,’ says David. ‘And now he has gone to live in perpetuity at the Museum. I miss him already.’
When not in isolation, David spends his days making props for TV commercials and films and can now add Uber Eats to his long list of campaigns. The paper bag man has a big future and Smartbag is cheering him on.
Everyone needs a paper bag in a crisis
With retailers making up the bulk of Smartbag’s customer base, the recent State-wide lockdown sent shivers through the bag’s warehouse in South Western Sydney.

When the then-New South Wales Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, announced a second COVID lockdown for the entire State the outlook for retailers and their suppliers looked bleak. Victoria plummeted into their own lockdown a few weeks’ later.

As shopping malls and non-essential stores pulled down the shutters, the demand for paper bag packaging slowed. Post satchels replaced the humble brown paper bag as businesses concentrated on their online sales.

But a lifeline for Smartbag came from a couple of unexpected sources. It seems everyone needs a paper bag in a crisis.

NSW Health and a local disability services organisation filled the void for Smartbag with unprecedented orders of paper bags for thousands in isolation, as well as vulnerable communities struggling financially due to the lockdowns.

“We saw a small increase in the use of food takeaway bags by restaurants,” says Andy Dier, Sales Manager at Smartbag. “But we were not prepared for the 100% increase in the demand for takeaway bags by some major hospitals and brown paper bags for one of our regular clients.”
Food deliveries for Covid Patients
A request came through from a division of NSW Health for unprinted paper bags. At first, there was a trickle of orders, then during the lockdown things started to get busier with an increase in orders up to approximately 10,000 bags every week.

These takeaway paper bags were used to deliver food to Covid patients and their close contacts isolating in Special Health Accommodation locations across the Sydney metropolitan area. If people tested positive but were not sick enough to go to hospital, they were moved into these medi-hotels, managed by NSW Health medical professionals, for care and support during their isolation.

These Special Health Accommodation hotels were set up early in the pandemic in 2020 and during their first 12 months’ had cared for 10,000 people in over seven sites across the city.

The significant surge in Covid-19 cases during June and July resulted in an urgent need for more quarantine accommodation. And this, in turn, meant feeding more people with an increase in the number of meals delivered to their doors in food delivery bags.
“These larger orders were completely unforeseen,” says Andy. “The emergence of the Delta strain caught us all off-guard and we had to rely on all our resources to keep up. Special Health Accommodation contacted me and added extra orders across four different suburbs as they opened more locations.”
Deliveries to those in need
When face masks became mandatory in both outdoor and indoor settings, many individuals and families struggling to make ends meet found it difficult to afford them and Australia’s homeless population were some of the most at-risk during this time.
Charities such as OzHarvest, Foodbank and Rapid Response, who had been preparing hampers for those in need, started to add face masks to their deliveries. By the end of July, OzHarvest in NSW alone was distributing around 1,500 hampers per week as more and more families sought food relief for the first time.
Caringbah-based Civic Industries, a division of Civic Disability Services was engaged to help out. Civic Industries, a long-time client of Smartbag, makes regular orders of brown paper bags. They offer a range of business-to-business services, specialising in product packing – packaging and labelling bulk stock into retail and wholesale packs. The organisation employs around 100 adults with intellectual disabilities and/or mental illness.
Their monthly order increased as Civic Industries staff prepared the face mask packs. Workers from the Centre packed ten face masks into paper bags and two of these packs were included in each care hamper.

At the height of the lockdown, the team at Civic prepared 148,000 face masks packs each week to add to the 18,500 food hampers sent out by the three organisations to keep everyone in the community safe.
Back to blog