Trolley Bags step up to replace plastic bags in supermarkets
by Fiona Smith
When supermarket plastic bags are banned throughout Australia, what will be your backup plan? A collection of recyclable bags scattered through your car boot is one option. A wicker basket is very European, but won't cater to a family of more than one.
Store-provided paper bags are good, provided you don't need to carry more than two at a time, they don't get wet and they're not filled with a heavy load.
With the Federal Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, predicting an end to the single-use plastic bag, the question of how we are going to carry our shopping is more than academic.
According to Clean Up Australia, more than 4 billion plastic bags are used in this country every year and about 50 million end up as landfill.
These bags have already been banned in Canberra, South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory.
Peter Byrne, an entrepreneur, came across Trolley Bags through his brother in Ireland in 2014, after they featured on an episode of the TV entrepreneur show Dragon's Den.
"We are always looking for products that work overseas to bring them to Australia," says Byrne.
The Trolley Bags are sold in a set of four and are designed to fit into shopping trolleys, so they can be packed with goods from the conveyor belt at checkout.
in one easy movement. They are also colour coded to make it easy for those well-organised people who put their baked goods, vegetables and cold goods in separate bags.
Despite the fact that the plastic bags' days are numbered, not all retailers have embraced alternatives. The Trolley Bags look like a neat solution, but retailers and wholesalers were not convinced when Byrne imported his first 200 bag sets into the country.
"There didn't seem to be overwhelming interest in the product," he says.
When he didn't get a "nibble", Byrne, managing director of the Sydney-based Combined Group of Companies, decided to offer the bags on social media through a sponsored Facebook post in January.
"It really just exploded. We sold 650 in one day because it went viral," he says. He estimates they will sell more than $1 million worth of the bags this financial year in Australia and New Zealand.
Byrne had to remove the post because he was running out of stock.
Retailers such as Howard's Storage World, Woolworths, Coles and Aldi had knocked back the bags to start with because they thought customers would baulk at the $34.95 retail price or there would not be enough interest. But once Byrne had tested the market on Facebook, it was clear that the mostly-female sharers of the post thought the convenience outweighed the cost.
Limitations of the product include the need for customers to load all their shopping onto the conveyor belt before they can fit the bags and repack. It also means that shoppers will have to do their own packing, rather than wait for the checkout operator to do it for them.
"I do have a theory, I think the buyers in a lot of these [retail] groups are overworked, they are taking on more and more categories and more and more products. So they are getting less time to really be in a position to fully assess the viability of a product," says Byrne.
"Unless they have a very strong feeling or proof of success in another country, or some factor that gives it that 95 per cent likely success rate, they don't tend to take chances on them."
The bags are now being sold online and through Howard's Storage World and Harris Scarfe in Melbourne. "We are now doing a lot of work with IGA and also the newsagents network. I am also talking to one of the big three retailers," Byrne says.
Byrne joined the Combined Group of Companies five years ago and became a shareholder. The founder and majority owner, Joby Cronkshaw, has moved to the United Kingdom and is setting up Trolley Bags UK.
Among CGC's companies is Evo Building, which sells non-lead flashing for roofs, and Evo Lifestyle (which sells the Tub Trugs storage buckets). CGC employs 14 people and has an annual turnover of between $5 million and $10 million.
The company bought the Trolley Bags concept from its inventor, Paul Doyle, who now receives a royalty. In the UK, where a national plastic bag levy was introduced in October, sales have increased by 1000 per cent in a matter of weeks.
"We have a global rollout plan that we are working on," Byrne says, adding that he distributes to Australia and New Zealand and is responsible for the US market.
A trial run in the US in June sold out in four days with no promotion, he says. "And we now have phenomenal interest over there." He hopes to launch the product in the US in January.
Byrne says entering the US market brings some challenges and the three investors (Cronkshaw, Byrne and a silent third partner) are talking to a bank about finance. So far £250,000 ($A536,000) has been invested in the Trolley Bag venture.
1. Australians use more than 4 billion plastic checkout-style bags per year.
2. We throw out more than 7000 plastic bags per minute.
3. Lightweight plastic bags are used for 12 minutes on average.
4. They take up to 1000 years to break down.
5. In only four shopping trips, the average Australian family accumulates 60 plastic bags.
6. Each year in Australia, an estimated 50 million plastic bags do not make it to landfill, instead entering the environment … and they never leave.
7. Plastic bag litter kills tens of thousands of birds, whales, seals and turtles every year.
8. These bags are made from fossil fuels – which are precious and non-renewable.
Source: Plastic Bag Free NSW