Richardson company thinks it has substitute for plastic grocery bags

by Maria Halkias | Staff Writer
The Dallas Morning News  
The Dallas Morning News
Shoppers are being forced to change how they tote their groceries home.
Those plastic bags that often get repurposed to carry out clumps of cat litter or transport muddy cleats soon will cost you 5 cents apiece in Dallas. And they were banned last week in California.
Richardson-based Metropak Inc. believes it has a solution to the world’s plastic bag waste problem.
The family-owned company has created and patented a biodegradable alternative called RagBags. Metropak can make the cloth bags at a rate of 80 per minute in Richardson on a proprietary 90-foot machine. The company spent $1 million to build the machine, which also allows Metropak to put “Made in U.S.A.” on every bag.
Shaped like the traditional plastic grocery store bag, the RagBag is washable and reusable. Once tattered, it has a second life as a super absorbent rag, hence the name. Finally, it can be tossed into the compost pile.
Metropak manufactures and prints paper and plastic bags for retailers and other businesses, including Office Depot, Fossil, Sprint, Metro PCS, Omni Hotels, American Airlines and Hard Rock Cafe.
Company CEO Eric Grossman says he was encouraged to find a solution as his ring binder labeled “Ordinances by state” ballooned. “When a customer calls and says we’re opening a store in a new city or state, they expect us to provide them with the right bag for each market,” he said.
“It didn’t used to be so complicated, but necessity is the mother of invention.”
Family and friends
Grossman bought Metropak from his father with childhood friend Edward Hanson in 1997.
Both grew up in Dallas and have been pals since third grade. They expect company sales to be just under $25 million this year and double that in two years from the new RagBags business.
Grossman doesn’t have a suggested retail price for RagBags. He’s leaving that up to the stores but said it’s much less than the sewn polypropylene bags that are sold for a couple of dollars as an alternative in many stores. He estimates that retailers will price each bag between 50 cents and 75 cents.
Green Grocer stores in Dallas and Chicago are the first ones to use RagBag. They started introducing them Sunday.
Cassie Green, co-owner of the grocery company, said she is giving the bags away initially.Green says eventually the RagBag could save her stores money. The single-use grocery bags Green Grocer uses now feel like plastic but are made from vegetable starch and are biodegradable. The problem is that they cost her 10 cents each. That compares with a fraction of a penny for the bags that most grocers use.
“About 40 percent of our customers bring their own bags or don’t take one,” Green said. She believes more customers will go for the RagBags, which she’s been testing. So far, they’re holding up after three and four washes, Green said.
Metropak will add two production lines by next year, and Grossman believes the RagBag business will soon keep 10 machines running. The company is approaching all kinds of retailers that use single-use plastic bags, such as Home Depot and Bed Bath & Beyond.
Grossman said it’s important to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. Other reusable cloth bags are sewn, which forces them to be made in China, he said. That’s why the company built a machine that would attach the fabric without sewing.
Fabric eureka
He found the fabric on a trip to China. A supplier handed him a wad of it as he was leaving an appointment. “It was 110 degrees outside. I wiped my sweat with it and realized how absorbent it was. I used it like a rag, and that’s when the idea came for the RagBag.”
Having a bag that has a second life, ends up in a compost pile and is made here is a winner, he said.
“We never spent this much money on a new product before,” he said, as he pulled out a bottle of Windex to clean a panel of the windows in Metropak’s conference room.
The company’s workforce is back up to 45 employees after falling to about 35 during the recession. He expects to add jobs as the RagBags business grows.
One huge market is California. Last Tuesday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that will make it the first state to ban single-use plastic grocery bags beginning in July.
Dallas ordinance
In January, Dallas grocery stores will start charging customers 5 cents a bag under a new ordinance designed to encourage shoppers to bring their own bags. Target is already encouraging Dallas customers to break the plastic bag habit by offering a 5-cent-a-bag discount to shoppers who remember to bring their own.
Dallas shoppers interviewed over the weekend said they aren’t hoarding plastic shopping bags yet, but some said they may start.
Jane Hulsey of Dallas was leaving the Albertsons at Casa Linda shopping center in East Dallas on Saturday with four plastic grocery bags that will cost her 20 cents in January. “Groceries are so expensive, and if I added 20 cents every time, that adds up,” she said.
“I think it’s terrible. They come in handy. I line the wastebaskets in the bathrooms,” Hulsey said. “But I don’t want them in my yard either. It takes so little effort not to put them on the ground.”
Retailers will keep half a cent of the 5 cents to cover the expenses of administering the Dallas program. The rest of the money will go to the city on a quarterly basis. Stores have to keep records for at least one year on the number of bags supplied to customers and the amount of fees collected.
Last month, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued an opinion saying that collecting fees for plastic bags violates state law.
But the Texas Retailers Association isn’t planning to sue the city of Dallas over its new ordinance, said Kroger spokesman Gary Huddleston, an active member of the group.
“We’re going to comply with the law, but our nine Dallas stores will have different printed bags than the rest of our stores, and these stores will have signs and reporting requirements,” he said.
Kroger will also remove its plastic recycling bins in the Dallas stores because it’s worried that people will start taking bags out of it, which creates food safety issues, Huddleston said.
Maybe there’s a silver lining for grocers, he said. “People will have to buy more plastic bags from us for their small trash cans and dog residue.”
Follow Maria Halkias on Twitter at @MariaHalkias. 
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