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“Garbage bags are an amazing material”: Meet the designer turning used plastics into high-fashion garments

Recycling die-hard Padina Bondar on dumpster diving, spinning trash into textiles and why environmentally friendly clothing is the way of the future

By Isabel Slone
“Garbage bags are an amazing material”: Meet the designer turning used plastics into high-fashion garments
Photos courtesy of Padina Bondar

In 2013, Padina Bondar was shocked by the amount of trash she saw produced on a daily basis in her Financial District apartment building. Her solution? Develop a new technology that transforms garbage bags into fabric. Since 2019, the New York–based, Richmond Hill–bred designer has been making recycled fashion out of old plastics, used wrapping paper and caution tape. Now, several of her freaky-yet-fantastic designs are on display at the Textile Museum of Canada until June 18 as part of a solo exhibition called Padina Bondar: Refuse. We spoke to Bondar about dumpster diving, the horrors of fast fashion and her burning desire to dress Lady Gaga.


How does one start making clothing out of other people’s trash? I was studying fashion design at Toronto Metropolitan University in 2013, when Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza collapsed. I was heartbroken—over a thousand people were killed, most of them workers in the building’s garment factories, making cheap clothes that often end up in landfills. Fast fashion—the practice of mass producing low-quality clothing—is built on human rights violations. A year later, when I was running a custom bridal gown business in North York, I started looking for ethically produced fabrics and realized how few sustainable textile options there were. So I started playing around with blue, green and clear plastic bottles, using my knowledge of couture techniques to create flower and leaf embellishments for my label, Padina Bondar Designs. I used any leftovers to create tiny sequins.

When did garbage bags come into the picture? Eventually, I decided to pursue a MFA in textiles at Parsons School of Design, in New York. I focused on developing technology that would allow me to spin plastic bags into yarn. It creates less waste than the process of melting and repurposing the plastic in a factory.

So you just put them on a spindle and go? The details of the process are a trade secret—at least for now. But I use every bit of plastic, and yes, the spinning is done directly on the material. It’s similar to traditional wool spinning. It’s a hands-on approach, and it’s pretty labour intensive.

After watching how quickly the garbage piled up in her Financial district apartment, designer and textile maker Padina Bondar came up with a solution to both plastics waste and fast fashion: making clothes out of garbage bags. Now, several of her freaky-yet-fantastic designs are on display at the Textile Museum of Canada until June 18, as part of a solo exhibition called Padina Bondar: Refuse.

Is there any trick to finding plastics that are fit for the task? When I started, I would go through the recycling bins in the garbage room of my Toronto apartment building. I’d take all the bottles and plastic bags that were visually interesting. But, as I spent more time in New York, I noticed the piles and piles of black garbage bags on the streets. You see them more often than trees—I call them “the new nature.” And since many people get rid of the bags before they’re full, there’s often a few inches of plastic sticking out above the knot. So, I started cutting the tops off and taking the excess. I keep a pair of scissors in my purse at all times.

Do people ever notice that you’re cutting up their garbage bags? No one has ever objected. But I often get people watching me who ask a ton of questions and even take pictures and videos.

Does going through people’s trash ever gross you out? I don’t get much of an ick factor. My feeling is that, since we made the mess, we should clean it up. A lot of people want to throw old things away, but I try to be a bit more responsible. For example, my friends know to save certain items for me—a unique shopping bag, a colourful sheet of wrapping paper—because I’ll use it in my work. I have a huge stash of used hookah pipes that I’m going to find something to do with. I’ll collect literally anything that has potential.

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What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever found while dumpster diving? A gorgeous clear Kartell lamp. It was nearly new except for a small break, which I was able to repair pretty easily. All the frames used in my current exhibit are ones I found in the trash, still in their wrappers. It’s a bit easier to find good stuff in New York as opposed to Toronto, because more people there put their garbage right on the curb.

Do you ever wear your own creations out to run errands or for a stroll? Absolutely. I wear the garments as a form of stress testing, to see how durable they are. I’ve had a few friends wear them out as well—they’re just not for sale yet because they’re all handmade. They’re very comfortable and easy to clean, though. You just wipe them down and go!

After watching how quickly the garbage piled up in her Financial district apartment, designer and textile maker Padina Bondar came up with a solution to both plastics waste and fast fashion: making clothes out of garbage bags. Now, several of her freaky-yet-fantastic designs are on display at the Textile Museum of Canada until June 18, as part of a solo exhibition called Padina Bondar: Refuse.

Some people may be reluctant to don garments made of, well, garbage. Any words for the skeptics? Plastic garbage bags are water-resistant, durable, malleable, flexible. The very things that prevent them from degrading make them an amazing fabric. They also work well for adaptable clothing—I have customers who use wheelchairs, and they love this material. They’re not worried about it getting dirty or ripped if it gets caught in their wheels.

The fashion industry can be notoriously elitist. Have you received any flak? So far, everyone has been extremely supportive. I won a big scholarship through the Council of Fashion Designers of America to help fund my studies. The textile hasn’t been produced commercially yet, since this particular material works best with a handmade, small-batch approach. But I do hope that it can inspire more sustainable commercial processes down the line.

Should we expect to have wardrobes full of recycled plastics in a few years? I truly hope so. The more we demand sustainable practices, the more businesses will shift toward them. Consumers drive the market. I’m optimistic that we are going in the right direction, and I can’t wait to see these products become more mainstream, accessible and affordable.

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Do you think this kind of design has a future on the red carpet? Any celebs you’re hoping might pick it up? Lady Gaga is an icon when it comes to pushing boundaries and using alternative materials. Dressing her is one of my biggest goals.

You mentioned that your work is labour intensive. What motivates you to keep at it? I love using clothing as a way to change people’s perspectives, whether it’s talking about how fast fashion is harming the environment or how few plastics actually end up getting recycled. I want to show people that we don’t have to constantly buy new things—there is so much potential in the items that are right in front of us. Plus, when people compliment one of my designs, I get to say, “Thanks—it’s a garbage bag.”


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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