They had seen enough.
Farzan Dehmoubed and Jennifer Duvall, a married couple who live in Carlsbad, California, had grown tired of accumulating years of plastic shopping bags.
Conditions did not improve much when, in 2016, California became the first state to ban single-use bags and retailers started selling reusable plastic bags for 10 cents at the checkout counters, but still stocked plastic bags in produce sections.
“We were both happy when the plastic bag ban came into effect, but what we found was that with a lot of families, it didn’t reduce waste,” Duvall recalled. “We were just accumulating thicker, more cumbersome plastic bags or cheap reusable bags that quickly grow mold and bacteria, all piling up endlessly in drawers and closets. My whole pantry had become a reusable bag wasteland.”
Their frustration with the whole plastic and reusable bag issue led to a search for solutions.
“This frustration led to my first ‘Ah-ha’ moment,” she explained. “There had to be a better way. So, we jumped on the opportunity to design a new way to pack groceries, while solving the plastic and reusable bag dilemma.”
Duvall, a former high school math teacher, and Dehmoubed, who had run a marketing company, began to research the whole concept of the scourge of plastic bags.
Their research revealed that the average American family uses 1,500 plastic bags per year for about 12 minutes each.
They also found that, by the year 2050, researchers estimate there will be more plastic by weight in the ocean than fish.
The result of their research was a new business model.
“I knew plastic pollution was bad, but I really had no idea the extent, magnitude and damage until I entered into this business,” Duvall said.
“We studied every bag on the market to try to come up with one solution that had everything we wanted in a bag.”
The couple, both 40 now, saw opportunity in fabric reusable bags, but with several clever twists.
Working as a team, they created the Lotus Trolley Bag system of four color-coded bags that fold out like an accordion on the shopping cart, which allows consumers to easily sort and pack groceries in half the time.
Each Lotus Trolley bag is made from 120gsm non-woven fabric, with reinforced handles and mesh bottoms.
The set of four bags, including the insulated bag, typically retails for $34.99, discounted to $29.99 in stores.
Each bag also has a specific purpose – one is a cooler bag for frozen items and meats, another has wine and egg pockets to go along with canned goods, and the other two are for fruits and vegetables.
The Lotus Trolley Bag system weighs only two pounds and can be carried in an over-the-shoulder bag reminiscent of a yoga mat bag, a concept thought up by Duvall, who is a yoga enthusiast.
“Neither of us has a design background, but we worked as a team to design both the bags and system,” said Dehmoubed, who was born in Iran, grew up in Canada and moved to California 10 years ago. “Jen definitely has an eye for style and fashion, which is an important component because we also want our customers to feel and look good with our bags. She created the color schemes and logo, which are critical to our branding.”
Duvall also came up with the “Lotus” part of the company name, because the bags unfold like a lotus blossom.
At the beginning of July in Flagstaff, Lotus Trolley Bag products became available at the Safeway store on North Highway 89, just in time for national Plastic Free July, a growing movement as consumers become more aware of the negative impact that plastic has on land and sea.
Since a merger in January 2015, Albertsons Companies LLC has owned Safeway.
“Our launch into Albertsons and Safeway will offer customers an easier and more organized solution to wasteful plastics,” Dehmoubed said. “Produce bags are usually ignored, but more retailers are seeing the value to the environment and their bottom line by investing in reusable, washable and eco-friendly produce bags.”
Since launching in April 2017, Lotus Trolley Bag has eliminated 116 million single-use plastic bags from distribution.
The success of their startup has come as a pleasant surprise for the couple.
“We weren’t expecting the Lotus Trolley Bag endeavor to become a full-time job,” Duvall said. “We started the company as a small, part-time project. We expected our first shipment in 2017 to sell out in three months; we ran out of 5,000 sets injust two weeks!”
This led to her second “Ah-ha” moment.
“That was the turning point in our mind that there was a demand for this product,” she said. “At that point, we knew it was time to go in full force. We spent every hour of every day on this, and we left our jobs completely behind. For me, it meant giving up full benefits and a salary and saying goodbye to my students for good at the end of the school year, which was hard. But, we had to have faith and just make the leap. And I’m so happy we did.”
Products are manufactured at a family-operated factory in China.
“In our Carlsbad office, we have a staff of 12 employees and are growing rapidly,” Dehmoubed said. “We look to bring on investors soon to help us scale and expand rapidly to make the biggest impact.”
They have also added another item to production, the Lotus Produce Bags, to replace the reliance on plastic in the produce section.
Lotus Trolley products are being sold on racks next to the checkout line. The attractive display shows how the bags spread out in the cart and how they help pack and organize a shopper’s groceries.
Response to Plastic Free July has been excellent, Dehmoubed said in mid-July. “It’s a great time to bring awareness to this very important issue that affects every person on the planet.We’ve had several local TV stations (Denver and Boise) feature us as part of Plastic Free July story packages. It’s been very exciting, and we love being part of a movement for change.”
In a bit of happy synchronicity, both Dehmoubed and Duvall moved to California in search of sun and surf.
“Coincidentally, we both moved to San Diego separately within just months of each other,” he said. “We met and fell in love playing beach volleyball. We’ve been married for four years and are so grateful for being so close to our beautiful ocean.”
Dehmoubed, who is a surfer, said they are “both passionate about helping our oceans and eliminating plastic waste.”
They decided to donate to the non-profit 1% For the Planet, which they selected because of the organization’s global reach and partnerships with other causes that are in line with the couple’s mission and values. Through the non-profit’s umbrella, 1% of all Lotus Trolley Bag sales are currently distributed to Plastic Pollution Coalition and the Surfrider Foundation.
To come up with the Lotus Trolley Bag concept, the couple studied their own habits and those of other shoppers going through checkout lines.
Currently, Lotus Trolley and Produce Bags are in more than 2,500 different stores across the county.
“We are in all 50 states,” Dehmoubed said. “We are being distributed nationally by Albertsons, and Kroger will be distributing nationally in the coming months, along with several dozen smaller retail grocers. We are also expanding our reusable Lotus Produce Bags rapidly, and it’s been exciting to see the amazing response from our customers in store and online.”
Both products have become bestsellers on Amazon and are an Amazon Choice product. The company is also expanding beyond the U.S., and has already launched in Canada, Mexico and Australia.
Although there have been similar trolley bag systems in other countries for years, the couple believes their design is so unique they have applied for a number of patents – three in the U.S., two in the European Union, two in Canada, two in Australia, and two pending in Mexico, with more to come.
“We want to scale and grow to reach billions of people around the world,” Dehmoubed concluded. “It’s our goal and mission to show consumers throughout the world that there are smarter and better alternatives to plastic bags.” FBN