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Business Startups

From Trash to Fash with Tropibags

April 8, 2020

How one South Lyon teenager started Tropibags, a company that turns litter into chic handbags

By Steph Opitz

Last year, Morghan Roselle got a text from her mom showing a picture of some purses that a friend had made. “She’s like, ‘These are really cute, do you want some?’” recalls Morghan, 16, a junior at South Lyon High School. Indeed, the bags were cute — and they were made out of trash.

Bali, where Morghan’s mom, Farh Annis, lives, is the Indonesian island that attracts the most visitors every year. It’s also the site of a mounting garbage crisis: A 2019 study from the Bali Partnership, an organization dedicated to solving the country’s plastic problem, found that Bali’s tourists, residents and businesses generate 1.6 million tons of waste per year, nearly 20 percent of which is plastic. More than half of Bali’s waste is disposed of improperly — meaning a lot of it makes its way to the water. (Indonesia itself is the world’s second-largest contributor to pollutants in the ocean.)

Bali littering

A beach in Bali, Indonesia, where 1.6 million tons of waste are generated every year. “It’s bizarre how much trash there is,” says Morghan Roselle, who started Tropibags with her family in 2019. “And how little people are helping.”

So when her mom sent that picture of the bags, which were made from recycled plastic, it sparked an idea for Morghan, her half-sister, Amy Roselle Menzer, and Amy’s husband, Doug Menzer: What if they could be part of the solution to Indonesia’s litter problem?

Last fall, with Annis’ help, the trio launched Tropibags, which are made from plastic that otherwise would have ended up in the waters off Indonesia. “There’s so much pollution everywhere,” says Morghan, who grew up in Bali and moved to Michigan last summer to finish high school (she lives with Amy and Doug). “In rivers or [on] beaches, you just see lots of plastic bags. It’s bizarre how much trash there is and how little people are helping.”

Tropibags

Artisans based in Indonesia make the bags, which are crafted from plastic collected on the country’s beaches.

The timing is ripe for a company like Tropibags. The fashion industry — which accounts for 10% of the world’s carbon emissions, according to the United Nations Environment Programme — is finally having a major reckoning with its wasteful ways. As a result, secondhand items are having a moment (the market is set to hit $51 billion by 2023, according to resale platform ThredUp). Typically this has referred to clothing, but luckily for shoppers who want to take it a step further, Tropibags are actually recycled. As Morghan says, when tackling the litter issue, “every little bit helps.”

The bags are made by local artisans based in Bali. How it works: Plastic is collected from beaches, then cleaned and put through machines. It comes out in a pellet-like shape that is ironed out into strips of varying thickness, texture and colors. Then, the strips are hand-woven into different patterns and structured into the bags. “It’s not something you look at and say, ‘Oh, that looks like it’s made from recycled plastic,’” says Amy, noting that different color combinations, as well as patterns like plaids and stripes, are available. The bags range from chic clutches to large everyday totes. “Once [people] have the bag in their hands, [they’re] amazed with where it came from.”

Morghan Roselle founder of Tropibags

Morghan in Bali, where she grew up.

Tropibags is a completely grassroots business. Doug set up the company’s website and does the marketing; Amy takes pictures for the site; and Morghan and Annis, the only one who speaks fluent Indonesian, communicate with the artisans in Bali and organize the shipments to Detroit. As of last month, sales were around $5,000, a number that Doug expects to double next quarter. “We really didn’t have any idea of how quickly we could sell, but we’ve turned over our first inventory and reordered three times,” he says.

Prior to launching, the family did some unofficial market research: Morghan polled her friends at school and Amy and Doug (who happens to work in marketing) presented the concept to family members. Everyone was impressed by the look of the bags, not to mention that the product removes waste from the environment rather than contributing to it. Morghan says she suspected the idea would be a hit. “I know because I’m a teenager. I’m on social media. I’ve seen people who like products made from stuff that is helping the Earth,” she says. “That’s why when we knew that these bags were made from plastic, we’re like, ‘That’s good. People will like that.’”

Tropibags

Tropibags

South Lyon teenager started Tropibags, a company that turns litter into chic handbags.

She was right: Tropibags recently won a startup business competition through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and is displaying its products at downtown store Detroit Is the New Black (bags are also available to ship across the U.S.). The business is currently in talks to partner with a European-based swimsuit company on making beach bags, and Doug says they’re planning on expanding into other handmade products from Indonesia, including home goods.

As Tropibags grows, Amy and Morghan say they’d like to collaborate with — and donate to — other organizations trying to solve Indonesia’s trash issue. (Morghan pointed to Bye Bye Plastic Bags, an international organization that runs beach cleanups.) The company is hoping to soon get to a place “where 5 to 10% of each bag sales will go towards companies to continue the cleanup effort,” says Amy. Giving back, she adds, is “a big part of it.”

For now, the family hopes that proceeds from Tropibags will help Morghan save for college and build a fund for Annis, who eventually plans to move to the U.S. “I’m learning as I’m doing this,” says Morghan. “This is a great experience.”

tropibags.com

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