This article is part of a series that examines Responsible fashionand innovative efforts to solve problems facing the fashion industry.
“Plastic is not going anywhere anytime soon,” said Alex Dabagh, who started the company Anybag, its name a play on the ubiquity of plastic bags and an ode to his hometown, New York City, two years ago.
In kitchens around the world, there is often a cupboard or pantry door that hides a plastic bag filled with other plastic bags. And behind the doors of Mr. Dabagh’s office in the Chelsea neighborhood is a factory that makes plastic bags – boxes of various sizes – woven from plastic bags like these.
The dizzying sight of all the single-use plastic bags coming through the doors of his primary business, Park Avenue International, a 6,000-square-foot leather goods factory that specializes in producing handbags for brands including Gabriela Hearst, Altuzarra, Proenza Schouler and Eileen Fisher, was too much.
“I was like, we’ve got to do something about it, there’s got to be a better way,” Mr. Dabagh, 40, said. “If we can weave leather, there has to be a way to weave plastic.”
He broke down the bags, heat-sealed them into long threads – just like a typical textile – put them up on one of his massive looms, and after a few months of trial and error, he came up with the Anybag prototype that was shown at ReFashion Week NYC in February 2020, which was within weeks of New York State’s plastic bag ban.
Sir. Dabagh, like many New Yorkers, knows that despite the ban, there are still plenty of plastic bags in circulation and that the recycling system is murky when it comes to them. “The recyclers don’t want them because all they do is clog up their machines, cause millions of dollars worth of damage every year — downtime, broken machines, clogging up the incinerators.”
At the beginning of Anybag, he collected from friends and family and asked them to bring their plastic bags. His mother made an agreement with a local supermarket in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn to pick up her bags. He began calling local Home Depots and CVS branches — businesses where the plastic bag ban was enforced — to get their dead storage bags, and he formed partnerships with local schools to collect bags left in trash cans.
Sir. Dabagh estimated that Anybag collected 12,000 pounds of plastic last year, which equates to about 588,000 single-use plastic bags. The company strips everything down, cleans it and disinfects it.
“It’s crazy how much virgin plastic we get in here from shipping companies, packaging companies or a demo company,” said Mr. Dabagh said. “They go into a building to clean it and say, ‘We just found these boxes and piles of plastic that haven’t been separated. Do you want them?’ I say, ‘I’ll take it, it’s gold.’
A sustainable mindset was instilled in Mr. Dabagh by his father from a young age. Pierre Dabagh opened Park Avenue International in 1982 as a young immigrant who had fled Lebanon in the late 1970s during the country’s civil war. He arrived in New York with $300 and began working in a factory owned by a Korean family on 30th Street, Mr. Dabagh said where he learned the leather trade before opening his own shop.
Well aware that the leather industry has a less than pristine reputation when it comes to sustainability, Mr. Dabagh said his company works with Italian tanneries that adhere to strict regulations and use leather that is entirely by-product. All leather scraps at Park Avenue International are collected and recycled for reinforcement, backing and gluing in the company’s goods.
“Every shelf has scraps of leather that we just collect,” Mr. Dabagh said. “We don’t throw anything away. This is something I learned from my father. He said: ‘This is worth every penny. There is value behind everything.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, when Park Avenue International’s core leather business slowed, Mr. Dabagh decided to double down on Anybag. He trained his 40 employees to use the looms to weave plastic bags out of garbage instead of leather goods. “I thought, ‘We have to try this. They all thought I was crazy.”
Two years later, Anybag is about 10 percent of Park Avenue International’s business. Sir. Dabagh said revenue from the bags tripled in the last year. He acquired a new loom dedicated only to weaving plastic for Anybag and is developing automated looms that will allow him to quadruple production and reduce costs.
His staff can weave five to seven yards of plastic a day, making about 20 totes. Each bag is sturdy with a crinkled texture that can hold up to 100 pounds. They are trimmed in colorful canvas with straps in pink, fluorescent yellow, royal blue and black. The bags come with a lifetime warranty – the plastic will outlive us after all – and free repairs.
The bags are sold via the company’s website. There are three styles, Classic, Mini and Weekender, ranging in price from $98 to $248. Classic and Mini are shaped like typical shopping totes; The weekender is related to Ikea’s well-known Frakta shopper. Sir. Dabagh has teamed up with Adidas, Ralph Lauren, Beyond Meat and Miranda Kerr’s cosmetics line, Kora Organics, customizing bags for media events and for the brands’ own internal use. But for the most part, a typical Anybag is made from what’s around—plastic from packages of Bounty, Cottonelle, or bags used to wrap DHL shipments or copies of The New York Times.
“We are slowly realizing that we are a recycling business,” Mr. Dabagh said. With more investment, he sees an opportunity to scale up and develop hubs around New York City and eventually the country. But for now, Anybag is a proud local business.
As Mr. Dabagh said, “It’s all handmade, handmade by New Yorkers, in New York, using New York City’s finest trash.”