The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

February 15, 2010

Collecting Garbage Without Plastic Trash Bags?

Glad Trash Bags - We Don't Use ThemIt’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.

metal compost bucket

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.

Oakland CA green compost bin

So what about those of us without city-wide composting?

Compost TumblerMany 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

Back porch recycling containerComposting 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.

kitchen trash can

kitchen trash can

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:

Video Link:

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.

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95 Comments on "Collecting Garbage Without Plastic Trash Bags?"

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Can leftovers from cooked foods be composted?

Excellent article! Great info & tips ! I was using plastic bags for my waste but I’ll start practicing some of the the tips given by you. I usually maintain two dustbins for wet trash & dry trash.

Thought provoking, but not helpful for people who live in apartments and can’t compost.

what about public trash cans in towns and side walks. they are often made of something similar to concrete so that they are hard to move. without a bag how can the garbage even be removed from the containers. my intention is not to challenge i am sincerely looking for an answer because i want to get a plastic bag ban on my campus. The problem really does seem to be with public garbage bins being emptied only by hand and the problems faced withou the use of the plastic garbage bags

How do you depose of dust & hair when you clean the floors ? Am thinking of getting the reusable swifter cloth. So just shake it out in a paper bag
And the in the recycle cans ?

I live in a housing complex where we have a Trash Disposal Room on each floor. Non-recyclable garbage goes down a garbage chute. I have to bag that to put down the chute. Beside a plastic recycle bag for washed plastics and metals, we have an area to stack newspapers and other clean paper items. I still have to collect plastics and metals in a bag to deposit in the appropriate bag and, while I can tie newspapers and magazines together with brown string, I still have to collect the small pieces of paper in a trash bin to leave… Read more »

I saw your 2016 update about Sweat Scoop changing their paper bag to a plastic bag. I wanted to note that they did this to avoid pet store contamination of food moths from bird seed, etc. We’ve been buying Sweat Scoop for years and brought home a ton of food moths one day when they used to use the paper bags.

I don’t know if this is already said, BUT how about drying our Wet Stuff food before putting it in the garbage. I live in an Apt complex, I DO HAVE A Trash can inside with no Liner for recyclables & then dump in the big bins outside but HOW ABOUT FOR THE WET FOOD ETC. WE COULD PUT THEM IN on a flat surface metal sheet to dry up, LEAVE OUT THE NIGHTS USING OF WET food etc. and then it can be dumped into the unlined compost can to dump in the unrecyclable outside trash Bins? IDK, JUST… Read more »
I have too reduced my trash by composting, recycling the glass jars and plastic containers I do have and do not reuse, shopping mostly at the farmer market, and bulk food bins, that I have very little trash, actually most of it is junk mail, and container wrappers for a few foods which I will research to find products with better packaging. I was about to buy biobags again and read this article. I now think I am going to use paper bags from the grocery store for my dry trash, it won’t be many and they use only recycled… Read more »

so we need a trash dehydrator then

Hi Ric,
I would like to send you an article I have written re food dehydrator and you are right this is the correct direction.

I shred a lot of paper and want to put the paper into recycle, but if it is loose, it is blown about when it is being dumped. Any ideas???

Recology asks us to put shred in a paper bag taped shut and labeled SHREDDED PAPER.

Shredded paper can NOT be recycled it get stuck in gears and things. If you put it in the recycle bin it will be brought to the dump.

Here i am stumped again. What about the packaging from food products such as cracker boxes, cereal boxes, milk containers?

Use the cloth diaper pail liners!! They cost around $7-20 and you can just empty them easily then toss them into the washer!

In our house we generate *no* garbage at all. Not a scrap of anything is allowed to leave the house as thrash. So we have no problem at all.

Dear Beth, this is an excellent article. You’ve last updated the article in 2012, wanted to check if any better substitutes have been available in the market since then. If yes, can you post details of the options available now.


Great suggestions on limiting plastic use. Just not sure why we are trying to limit it in the first place? You mistakenly label oil and gas as “fossil fuels” and “non renewable”. Neither oil nor gas comes from fossils as theorized in the 1800’s. It comes from phytoplankton shells and renewal is aided by the CO2 emitted when it burns. It is a renewable resource with an efficiency that surpasses any “green” alternatives and you’ll find that many reserves that were expected to be depleted are now producing more than they did 30 years ago. Let’s look at some alternatives… Read more »

just saw video from cnn. They cut open a Dead Sea bird on the beach and it had so much plastic in its stomach it literally made me sick! The statistics are staggering on how many sea birds and fish injest plastics. We must come together and change the way we do things. We human beings are killing the very things we depend on to sustain our lives.

All you have to understand is that it is harmful to the life on planet earth.ALL LIFE!! You say you do all those great things good for you.Now why are you hating on someone who is trying to educate people to be better.?

There are so many incorrect statements in this post.

I’m very inspired by this info and it will help guide me better into a plastic free life as well. One thing that I can’t stand is the SaveNow coupons newspaper ads that we get almost every two weeks or so. I’ve written to them several times asking them to stop mailing to us but they won’t take us off their lists. What can you do?

Beth Terry
The only problem I have with composting with newspaper is that it is full of printer ink. Do we really want to eat from a veggie garden fed by newspaper ink??

People don’t like the idea of a sloppy messy trash can they have to wash after emptying out the trash. It’s hard to make a change back to an old fashioned way when you’ve tasted convenience. Plus we’ve become lazy.

@Claretta Freeman Yes, one step at a time. Each step is a help to our Earth, and to yourself. If you try to do it all at once, indeed it will be overwhelming.

Why do we line our undersink trash cans at all? What did people do before plastic bags? What if we just didn’t? I’ve been struggling with this idea, and find it hard to implement. Any thoughts on this?

I have a good method for handling the garbage we don’t recycle or compost. I use a small stainless steel garbage can lined with half a sheet of newspaper. When that’s full, I dump into an aluminum garbage can with lid for pickup. Works great!

As a side note for glass, plastic, aluminum for the recycling center that we collect when out for daily walks we use king size pillow cases which are then washed and line dried when we get home from the recyling center. As for the wet items in the inside compost bucket that we take outside when half full to dump in the composter, we find using shredded cardboard in the bucket absorbs the liquids for fruits, vegetables so we don’t end up with any slime in the bucket.

Another option for a lot of wet garbage is a food disposal system. My city uses organic materials in the sewage system to create biogas to run our buses. Not everything can go down the drain, but most of it can. Some cities also harvest the methane and other gases from landfills to be repurposed into something productive. Like running the BMW plant in NC. You can always look into suggesting these improvements for the next upgrade to the waste systems if your city doesn’t already energy harvest from the waste.

Compost bucket tip: No need to even use (and buy) the bio bags you mentioned that you use in your kitchen compost bucket. Just use 2 layers of (recycled) newspaper (no shiny colored paper) pushed down in the bucket and let it go up the sides. Then when full w/ compostable food scraps just dump the whole thing into your compost bin or pile. The newspaper breaks down w/ the food and also helps prevent odors in the bucket. It also absorbs moisture from the food!! Try it – it will change your life! Pat

We switched to newspaper a year or so ago and haven’t bought BioBags since. Thanks. I’ve updated the post.

I’ve read in the past that it’s not a good idea to flush cat litter, not because of the plumbing, but because it puts more stress on an already overloaded public septic system. Do you have any feedback or suggestions on that front?

I think everyone needs to make choices and there are impacts from cat litter no matter what choice you make. In a landfill, organic material (like wheat litter) will create methane gas (a strong greenhouse gas) as it breaks down. I figure that if we had kids, there would be a lot more material going down the toilet on a daily basis. Our cats are our kids. I’m not saying it’s the right decision for everyone, but it works for us.

I feel sad and overwhelmed as I read this article. When the average person feels like they want to make changes and tries to look for ways to do this, It seems almost impossible. The only things that seem possible for me to do are things I already do like reuse bags and recycle plastic. The average person does not have the time or money to do the things you suggest. I love your suggestions but they would require a book just to know how to live differently so that I could try to do SOME of the things. I… Read more »

@Claretta Freeman I totally empathize with this comment! It can be quite overwhelming. I am a very busy, working, single mom of three year old twins. My take home message is just going to be doing a few things at a time to decrease my plastic waste. For instance, I have been really lazy about getting plastic bags at the farmers market. I am going to start taking bags with me from now on!

@Claretta Freeman Find one thing to start with. That’s what I did years ago. For example, I live in an apt so recycling is more difficult. I started with using my grocery bags for throwing away my garbage. That way, I didn’t buy new plastic bags. Depending upon where I live I now have more options for recycling and have increased my efforts along the way. Each small effort we do multiplies in time. One person can make a difference. You can make a difference.

Step by step. That is what I encourage in my book. Do the easy things first. Tackle the harder things after you have mastered the low hanging fruit. In fact, I have a whole chapter in my book in how to deal with feeling overwhelmed. Cheers!

@Claretta Freeman Adopt little tiny habits over time. Don’t try to do everything, or feel bad that you can’t be a hero. :) Feel *great* that you have the genuine heart to try! (^_^)

Wow, who knew it had to be so complicated? I don’t have city composting, so I don’t know what rules apply. But I have a large backyard, so I compost all sorts of crazy things. I read the Humanure Handbook a couple years back, and while I don’t follow his recommendations, I realized how silly it was to be afraid of composting pet waste. So the dog poop and cat litter (I use a corn product, because I’m allergic to wheat) go right in the bin, along with floor sweepings (mostly crumbs, cat hair, and outdoor dirt anyway) and dryer… Read more »
Hello Beth, Your blog has become my resource for exploring ways to minimize trash/plastic consumption. Thank you once again for becoming an inspiration, I hope to become a tiny part of that for my friends :) My husband was against composting because he thinks compost waste would stink up our garage/kitchen in one week. We live in a townhome so cannot self-compost. But we do have city taking care of compost in our yard waste bin and I plan to leverage that. Now I have finally kinda/sorta convinced him to give this a try. My question however is 2 fold… Read more »
Thanks for bringing to mind another aspect of my pet plastic issue (I have a post coming out tomorrow on my “alternative” pets and their plastic). I have a snake and 2 birds. The snake cage needs cleaned about twice a year unless it gets really bad provided I clean up the tiny bit of poo each month but the birds use old newspaper and/or paper towels and are poop brigades. I suppose I could scoop out the snake poo and just wash the container that I use for that purpose only. And when the cage does need cleaned she… Read more »
what if you separated your synthetic clothes from your natural ones when washing? which might work out well because most synthetic fibers are supposed to be hang dried and cotton dries very stiff on the line. there’s the problem of cotton/polyester blends, but I was reading about composting lint and some people said that you could compost even synthetic lint because it’s in small pieces and would break down, I’m not really sure about that though. someone mentioned dog waste, I’ve been having this same dilemma. as far as plastic-free solutions, there is composting, burying (may contaminate water supply), flushing… Read more »
I want to reiterate what has been said about not flushing cat litter. I don’t use SwheatScoop, but I do use a supposedly-flushable product called the World’s Best Cat Litter, made from corn cobs. This is an ecologically sound and relatively dust-free product, and I flushed it for a couple of years without any problem–until the day that the pipe outside my house leading to the sewer backed up. I had a couple of inches of raw sewerage in my bathroom, which required a team of professionals to clean. The washer and drier needed to be moved. The drywall had… Read more »

Just a question: why do you throw your dryer lint in the garbage?

Beth –

Where do you find the bulk tofu, and is it local organic or GMO/rainforest tofu?

My wife threw out my used floss I was saving to knit into mittens. ;-(


We do the same with our rubbish. No garbage bags needed :-) Packaging gets recycled. Tied with string and to the kerb once a week. I’ll admit to some plastic here, and some non-recyclables going in our wheelie bin for landfill, but hey, I’m no Fake Plastic Fish! Food waste gets composted. We’re vegetarian, so we don’t have meat products to worry about, which shouldn’t go in the compost. We even compost citrus, as we don’t use enough of it to be a problem. Our kitchen is for packaging bits that can’t get recycled. That’s UHT milk containers, plastic bags… Read more »

Oooops! Didn’t want to give the impression that I don’t take my own bags to stores (I do) but I still get plastic bags snuck on me! Not so much anymore, as folks look at me as a violent, ill tempered, eco nut!

I reuse bags until they fall apart. Or as folks at work say here come’s Rob with another holy bag!

well, the tesco guy delivered with a bunch of bags even though I asked for them not to. so I guess that solves my dilemma for the time being. Maybe it is a better option anyway because they do “degrade” but they won’t let off methane… I hope. Some people are complaining about cleaning out the bucket for compost. I just line mine with paper — office paper or newspaper — and dump it. The paper goes into the compost and I reline it or it stays in and I reuse the liner. It works pretty well for me. I… Read more »
I have to agree with Caitlin with respect to ordinary trash which is picked up here by garbage men with an ordinary garbage truck from individual garbage cans that we haul to our front yard curbside. We try to reduce trash and compost (without plastic bags of any kind) and recycle (curbside pickup without bags), but we still have trash and the best way to make sure it gets to the landfill and not back into my yard or the street or somewhere else is to contain it in a bag that is approximately the right size for the amount… Read more »
I’ll start by saying that I really admire all that you do and have made some great and easy changes in my own life based on your ideas. But I’ve got to question this one. Maybe you garbage is collected differently, but our is collected into a traditional old garbage truck. Anything that’s not in a bag, and therefore weighed down by the rest of the stuff in that bag, simply blows out of the truck. We try to reduce our trash production, make responsible choices for bags, and only toss full bags, but in the end the impact of… Read more »

There are some new ideas that I have been reading about lately that make Recycling more fun and appealing. While we shouldn’t need any more incentive then what we already have, these ideas can be effective. Here is a really cool article about one of those ideas; the Recycling Lottery.

Excellent article! Lots of great info, thanks! I was using seventh gen bags, thinking they were great…I like the idea of using no bag at all. I recycle alot too.

I am currios about composting and using the bio bags. I have a back yard composter and had been using a bucket in the house to collect things. I was finding I wouldn’t take it out often enough b/c it was a hastle to clean it so I purchased a set of biobags (for convenience-gulty). Now I still don’t empty the bucket often and by time I do the bag is no longer a bag on the bottom (juice from tomatoes and oranges?) but has already decomposed so I’m back to having to clean it. I know a quick solution… Read more »
I wouldn’t flush Swheat stuff either – your poor plumber/landlord! We composted it for quite a while, but now we throw it out – our trash is burned, and wheat & poop don’t combust into any bad chemicals, so I’m okay with that. Our recycling pickup won’t take stuff that’s not in paper bags. We actually go get paper grocery bags about once a month just for this. I’ve found that I never run out of plastic bags, though, even though I don’t buy or accept them myself – other people provide plenty, I pick them out of bushes &… Read more »

Just re-read my comment and realized that I didn’t make it clear that I put the liner right back into the garbage can. The liner is really a plastic bucket.

Still facing the dog poop quandary!

Excellent article. We use an ordinary compost bin. However, we can’t throw some leftover cooked food into that. So we may consider getting tiger worms to do the composting.
Great reading – keep up the good work.

This is quite a good idea; I would feel bad for the garbage men, though!

Slim Girl Diary

Beth – just so you know, I flushed the Swheat Scoop litter for about two years before my plumbing lines clogged. The plumber that roto-routered us out said, without being told or prompted, that we were flushing some form of granules (he then guessed cat litter of some kind, having seen the cats), that had completely clogged the sewage line. Granted, my house was built in 1925, and probably hasn’t had its plumbing or sewage upgrades since, but fair warning! So I started burying it in my hardpan clay in the backyard, a sort of non-food crops composting process that… Read more »
interesting post. I initiated a plastic bag ban in our flat and bought some bio bags to use for trash bags. They collect trash differently here, by hand instead of a big truck that picks up the whole bin and empties it, so a lot of times they refuse to pick up trash that is not in bags. now i don’t know if its better to continue doing that or to take plastic grocery bags from work instead of them being sent to recycling. it would be more cost effective, but only by about 10p a week since that is… Read more »

Another litter box trick: I keep a very, very thin layer of litter in the box and clean the box once a day for my two cats. I tilt the litterbox so everything falls to one end and scrape any wet litter that’s stuck to the bottom of the box with an old credit card, thwack it into the paper cone, and wipe off what sticks to the card with a piece of toilet paper. I pick up solids with a litter scoop. The litter scoop stays clean since the credit card scrapes up the sticky stuff e-z.