It’s a new week, and I’m ready to talk trash. One of the most common questions I get about plastic-free living is what I do for garbage bags. And the second most common question is what to line our waste cans with if plastic grocery bags are banned.
Here’s my short answer: We don’t line our trash can with any plastic bags at all.
The longer answer is that since we make almost zero trash, and the trash we do make is dry, we don’t have any need for bags to collect it.
Composting Wet Garbage
Composting takes care of anything wet and icky. We collect all of our food scraps in a metal bucket that we keep near the sink. We used to line it with BioBags (more info on those below), but these days we opt for sheets of old newspaper that can be composted along with the food scraps. Originally, we didn’t bother with any liner at all, but eventually I found the aluminum bucket too hard to clean without it.
Here in the SF Bay Area, many of us have several options for composting. With very little effort, those of us in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and other areas with city-wide composting can simply empty our food scraps (including animal products) and food-soiled paper directly into our green bins, from which it will be picked up by the same company that hauls our garbage and processed at a commercial compost facility. In fact, according to a new San Francisco recycling law, putting food waste in a compost bin is not an option; it’s mandatory.
So what about those of us without city-wide composting?
Many of us can still compost on our own. In fact, for several years, Michael and I used our own Compost Tumbler to make beautiful compost for our front yard. We chose a tumbler because we didn’t have the yard space for a traditional composter, and a tumbler could be set up right on our back deck.
There are plenty of other options for home composting besides the one we chose. Tumblers, traditional bins, worm bins, bokashi are all methods of converting bio waste into soil. Back in 2007, I explained why we chose our composting method. Here in Oakland, the city offers residents discounted composters and worm bins. Other cities may offer subsidized compost bins too. A quick search shows programs in New York City, Massachusetts, Thurston County WA, and many others.
Recycling paper, glass, & metal
Composting takes care of the wet stuff. Most of what we have left is recyclable. We recycle clean paper, glass jars, metal cans. Michael recycles any plastic containers he ends up with. My plastic, as you know, ends up in my plastic collection for display on this blog. As it turns out, the major portion of our recycling is newspaper. We rarely eat canned foods because of the BPA lining inside metal cans. And we save glass jars for food storage.
Our recycling container, of course, is not lined with plastic. In fact, you should never put plastic bags into your recycle bin because they can jam up the sorting machines. I wrote extensively about recycling back in 2007 after researching the materials that could go into Oakland’s recycling system, and made visits to our local Davis Street Recycling Center and California Waste Solutions. Check out these posts for a deeper understanding of the recycling process.
The Rest of our Bagless Trash
The rest of our trash consists of dryer lint (of which there is very little because we hang most of our laundry to dry), floor sweepings, dental floss, Michael’s few unrecyclable plastic wrappers (he brings most of them to work to contribute to the Terracycle Wrapper Brigade), and bits of unrecognizable stuff here and there. We don’t compost our lint because some of our laundry contains synthetic fibers. Nevertheless, our small trash can fills up very, very slowly. We empty it about once a month.
Plastic-Free Pet Waste
We don’t need to use plastic bags for our cats’ waste either because we use SwheatScoop, [2016 update: Swheatscoop has switched to a plastic bag. We now use Integrity cat litter instead.] which is biodegradable, flushable litter. You might hear warnings about flushing cat waste because of a parasite many cats carry that is hazardous to marine animals. Our cats, however, have tested negative for toxoplasma gondii, and since they are indoor only cats, there is no chance they will pick it up. So for us, flushing is the best answer.
If we had dogs, we’d have to find another alternative. One possibility would be to pick up poop using compostable dog waste bags and dispose of it in a dog waste composter. However, using compostable dog waste bags is not recommended if the waste is simply going to the landfill. You’ll see why further down this post.
What If We Couldn’t Compost?
So, as I’ve said, the main reason we don’t need to use plastic trash bags is because there is nothing wet or icky in our trash. But what if for some reason composting were not an answer and we really did need to use some kind of liner? Here is a comparison of various options, starting with the least environmentally-friendly:
Conventional plastic trash bags. They’re strong, waterproof, and come in various sizes. Some of them have convenient little tie strings. But the majority of their content is virgin plastic made from fossil fuels (oil or natural gas), which are non-renewable resources. Their production contributes to the worldwide problem of pre-production plastic pollution (aka “nurdles“). They will never biodegrade. Oh, and they cost money!
Recycled plastic trash bags. They contain 55% – 80% recycled plastic, although only 10% – 24% is post-consumer waste. While they require less virgin plastic in their production than conventional bags, they still contain some new plastic which is destined to go straight from the box to the landfill, where it will never biodegrade. Oh, and they too cost money.
Certified compostable trash bags made from bio-based plastics. Bags like BioBag are made from a combination of plant starches and fossil-based plastics that are certified to biodegrade in a well-run industrial compost facility. However, since they are synthetic, they are prohibited from certified organic compost, so not all facilities will accept them. And in the anaerobic conditions of a landfill, they will give off methane gas like any other bio-based materials. Methane is actually a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Plus, BioBags cost money!
Other Biodegradable Bags. Some of these are tricky. There are oxodegradable bags which are made from virgin plastic and contain a heavy metal to help them break down. And there are also bags which are a mixture of virgin plastic and various starches. The jury is out as to whether these bags actually decompose all the way or whether they simply break down into tiny pieces of plastic that last in the environment. One of the issues with these types of bags is that for proprietary reasons, manufacturers will not reveal the ingredients that are in them. If we don’t know what a plastic is made from, how do we know it’s safe?
Paper bags. From a practical standpoint, paper won’t solve the problem of wet garbage. Ecologically speaking, they have their own environmental impacts. Paper bags require materials (trees) and energy to produce. And once again, they will not compost properly in landfill conditions.
Re-used plastic bags such as grocery, bread, and chips bags. Since these bags’ original purpose was to hold something other than garbage, as trashbags they can be considered to contain 100% post-consumer content. And in most places, they’re free. Here’s a funny video listing all the different kinds of packaging you can use for trash if plastic shopping bags are banned. It’s tongue in cheek, so please take it with the humor that’s intended:
Still, reused plastic packaging and bags are made from a non-renewable resource and bring with them all the problems of the first two types of plastic bags. And since the whole point of this blog is reducing plastic consumption, I’m not recommending bringing home new plastic grocery bags or packaging simply to line trash cans.
While we ourselves might not have a supply on hand from our own groceries, Freecycle and Craigslist could be good sources. Rather than accepting new plastic grocery bags to send to the landfill with our trash, why not use someone else’s — someone else who has not yet kicked their plastic habit. It’s not a perfect solution, but better than buying or acquiring new plastic to throw away. And a further suggestion would be to use the plastic bags only for wet garbage. Put the dry stuff in a separate can without any liner. That way, you’ll at least reduce the amount of plastic you need to use.
The fact is, there is no magically perfect way to dispose of garbage since the whole concept of garbage itself is not eco-friendly. The best option is to try and reduce the amount of waste we generate in the first place.
Note: This post was updated on 12/02/2012.