In you’re a conscientious consumer, you’re probably trying to curb your use of virgin plastic by bringing your own tote bags to the grocery store and using refillable water bottles. Yet plastic lurks everywhere, and seems nearly impossible to avoid in daily life. Just one example? Your trash bags. By some estimates, the average American household uses 100 trash bags a year. That’s upward of 12 billion trash bags used annually across the country.
Fortunately, reusable trash bags have arrived. The Australian startup TOMbag has created a sturdy bag made from recycled water bottles. Fill it up, then dump out the waste in your curbside trash bin. They cost between $28 and $42 each, depending on size, and ship internationally. That’s a lot pricier than the jumbo boxes of disposable trash bags that we’re used to buying, but TOMbag’s version is designed to last years, which means the cost evens out over time.
The company is responding to a common environmental problem: Most trash bags end up in a landfill and do not biodegrade. Over the past few years, brands like BioBag and Green Paper Products have started creating more sustainable alternatives to traditional single-use plastic bags, but they too are problematic. Recycled plastic bags still do not decompose, and compostable plastic bags do not biodegrade unless they end up in the high-pressure, high-heat environment of an industrial composting facility. In other words, compostable bags are eco-friendly only if you’re using them for compost; if you’re using them for regular trash or recycling, they’re basically just as problematic as plastic.
Sasha and Johnathan Pestano, the husband-and-wife duo who founded TOMbag, started to realize the extent of the problem two years ago. They were spurred to live as sustainably as possible after the birth of their daughter in an effort to keep the planet livable for her. And while they encountered plenty of swaps for everyday plastic items, they realized they didn’t have a good alternative to single-use plastic trash bags. In 2019, when they began working on the company, 3.3 billion trash bags were used and tossed in Australia alone. “Here we are bringing reusable metal straws and tote bags around with us, and yet we’re continuing to use multiple plastic trash bags every week,” Sasha says.
When they looked into municipal policies around trash collection in Australia, they discovered that most counties did not require trash to be contained in plastic bags; the trash simply needed to be properly contained within the curbside bins. The same policies apply to most towns in the U.S. (though the founders recommend looking up the rules in your neighborhood to make sure). “A small number of counties still require plastic trash bags, largely because they’re worried about small particles of trash—like debris from a vacuum cleaner—getting swept away by the wind,” Johnathan explains. “But in many places, including Sydney, counties are actually encouraging people to use reusable trash bags to cut down on the area’s plastic waste.”
So the Pestanos set out to design a reusable trash bag that could replace single-use bags. The key, they believed, was to make it easy and hygienic to transfer waste from an indoor trash can to those large bins outside the house. “Plastic garbage bags were never a great solution,” Johnathan says. “Everyone has had the experience of the thin plastic tearing when you take the bag out, so garbage and dirty water end up everywhere. We think a reusable bag can be an even better experience than the traditional plastic bags we’re all accustomed to.”
The bags they created are made entirely from recycled water bottles, which are turned into a plastic material called rPET. The bags are sturdy, thick, and leakproof, and they come in two sizes, one designed to fit a kitchen trash can and another to fit a smaller bathroom trash can. They have handles at the top and the bottom to make it easy to yank the bag out of the trash can and also to tip it over into the curbside bin. And there’s a drawstring at the top of the bag to keep trash in while you carry it.
Importantly, the bag is also washable. You can either hose it down outside or you can stick it in the washing machine, then air-dry it. The bags are guaranteed to last a year, but the founders believe that with normal use, they should last two or three years. When the bag reaches the end of its life, customers can send it back to TOMbag, where it will be recycled. “We wanted to create a fully circular system, so we’re not adding to the plastic waste problem in any way,” Sasha says.
The Pestanos recognize that this approach to handling household trash takes some getting used to. For one thing, it forces people to get up close and personal with their trash, since they have to pour all of it out into the bin every few days. This can be a stinky business. But Sasha points out that there are many ways to mitigate the smell. For instance, households that compost are already separating their food scraps into a separate bin, which means that most of the rest of their trash tends to be dry. (Australia is mandating that every household use compost bins by 2030.) Sasha says that some of TOMbag’s customers actually appreciate taking stock of how much trash they are producing.
“We’ve had letters from customers saying that they now have a better sense of how much waste they’re producing, which has spurred them to be a lot more thoughtful about how much they’re throwing away,” she says.
While TOMbag might appeal to eco-minded consumers who are willing to accept some inconvenience for the sake of protecting the planet, it’s unclear whether other consumers will be willing to change their behavior. That said, many places around the world—including the European Union and Mexico City—are beginning to impose bans on single-use plastic, including straws and grocery bags. It’s possible that over time, single-use trash bags may be added to the list, and consumers will be forced to look for a reusable alternative. The Pestanos’ goal is to create a product that will make it as seamless as possible for consumers to transition away from their disposable trash bags.
In any case, it’s not just households that use trash bags; offices, restaurants, and hotels do as well. The Accor hospitality group, for instance, is on a mission to eliminate all single-use plastic in its hotels by 2022, and the TOMbag team is currently in talks with Accor to supply hotels with reusable bags that can be placed in guest rooms and easily washed in the hotel’s cleaning facilities. Ultimately, Johnathan believes that larger partnerships like this one will go a long way toward increasing the adoption of reusable trash bags.
“We’re aware we’re in an environmental crisis,” he says. “Our goal is to have as much impact at scale as possible. If we can work with businesses to roll out reusable trash bags across their entire organization, change will come faster.”