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September 30, 2021

Garbage to gold: Family trash-picking invention leads to growing business venture

PHOTOS | Courtesy The Trash Bagger is a device that holds a trash bag open when picking up litter in public and other places.

Nearly 30 years ago, Ashley Lionetti’s father and a friend were driving on a Connecticut highway and saw state workers fumbling with their trash bags on a windy, rainy day.

The workers were having difficulty getting the trash into the bag and were unproductive.

So Lionetti’s father, Jim Fitzpatrick, did some sketching and had a prototype made of a trash-collection device.

The device sat in Lionetti’s basement until 2010, when she and her brother, Chris Fitzpatrick, decided to take it to market.

It was ultimately the television show “Undercover Boss” that helped bring the concept to fruition. In one episode, Larry O'Donnell, the CEO of Waste Management, was hired to pick up trash at a landfill. He was ultimately fired because he wasn't able to keep the trash in the bag with the poker they gave him.

The Trash Bagger is one of several pick-up tools sold by Stratford-based Garbo Grabber.

During the show, O'Donnell asked if there was a way to keep the trash from blowing out of the bag.

The family, all fans of the show, remembered Fitzpatrick’s invention from years ago.

It was a sign to Lionetti and her brother that their father’s idea had merit.

They took the prototype from the basement, made some tweaks, got a mold and were granted patents.

“The Trash Bagger works by holding the trash bag open — that was the whole thought behind my dad creating this,” Lionetti said. “If these guys on the highway had something holding their bags open, they would've been more productive.”

Initially, they called the invention the “Garbo Grabber,” though in 2018, it was named the “Trash Bagger” once Lionetti took over the company. Now the Trash Bagger and related products are sold under the Garbo Grabber company name.

Garbo Grabber is based in Stratford. The Trash Bagger, which has two patents, is manufactured in Brewster, N.Y.

Within months of securing patents, the family was able to bring the Trash Bagger to market.

Lionetti owns the company, while Chris helps with duties such as marketing and sales. Jim, the original inventor of the Trash Bagger, helps as a consultant.

“A lot of people say it’s therapeutic, they didn’t realize they’d enjoy picking up litter as much as they did with those tools that we provide,” Lionetti said.

Lifestyle brand

In addition to the Trash Bagger, Garbo Grabber sells reachers and picks, reusable net bags, compostable bags, vests for volunteers and replacement parts. The company, which employs three people, sells trash-collecting devices to municipalities nationwide, nonprofit agencies, amusement parks, campgrounds, property and facilities management companies, schools, colleges and universities.

Lionetti declined to disclose annual revenues.

In 2018, the family created “The Clean Earth Project,” which is based around eco-friendly brands made of 100% recycled products. It includes a store (online and in Newport, Rhode Island), which sells apparel, hats, jewelry, reusable drinkware, blankets, and of course, cleanup kits, including the Trash Bagger.

“We wanted to create a lifestyle brand and that's the Clean Earth Project,” Lionetti said. “It’s for people who love the outdoors and their environment and care for their community and love the water and clean beaches.”

She said the apparel line has 100% recycled materials, from old cotton to recycled water bottles.

“That helps mitigate water bottles from going into our water waste,” she said. “We are promoting very heavily our eco-friendly way of living, encouraging reusable items when you can, such as 100% silicone cups, which is a great option for the beach, the park, anywhere just to get rid of that plastic water bottle.”

The founders of the Garbo Grabber trash pick-up devices also opened a retail store that sells 100% recycled products.

Sales at the Newport store and online help fund cleanup initiatives.

The Clean Earth Project has ambassadors in every state who host cleanup events each September. For Connecticut cleanup events, all volunteers are supplied with a Trash Bagger and reacher.

When the pandemic struck and gatherings were prohibited, Garbo Grabber created a volunteer kit that would fit in an individual’s backpack.

“A lot of people will go on hikes and pick up litter, so this is perfect for them,” Lionetti said. “We didn't want people to just stop caring about the Earth because we had this huge pandemic on our hands. This kit that we created really was a huge success and people loved it.”

Sales of volunteer kits, which start at $39.95, have grown by 49% since 2020.

The Clean Earth Project, which is run as a separate business, is self-sustaining at this point. Sales from products go back to fund the cleanup events.

“It definitely will be profitable — we're really just trying to push it as much as we can, get out to events and grow our community,” Lionetti said.

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