Garbage In -> Garbage Out
July 7, 2010 2:01 PM   Subscribe

If you use canvas bags when you grocery shop, what do you do with your household garbage? Do you buy purpose-specific trash bags?

This has been bugging me for a long, long time. Everyone's always trying to sell me on reusable canvas bags for groceries. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the number of bags I take in from grocery and other shopping almost exactly matches the volume of trash generated in my household. I therefore reuse the shopping bags I receive as trash bags and have never bought "capital T" Trash bags. If you never take plastic bags at your points of sale, what are you using for trash bags?
posted by 2bucksplus to Home & Garden (40 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Sorry, the obvious follow-up is: How is this better for the environment?
posted by 2bucksplus at 2:02 PM on July 7, 2010

You can fit way more garbage in a Hefty bag than you can fit in a shopping bag. I don't know if it's better for the environment, but it's easier for me to carry one or two big bags of trash than a million small ones (plus, real trash bags are less likely to split open and spew trash all over you/the floor). I do use paper shopping bags to sort recycling, so sometimes I get those instead of using reusable bags.
posted by oinopaponton at 2:08 PM on July 7, 2010

Best answer: I bought trash bags from the dented can store where they were cheap. The plastic bags from the supermarket leak and I can't use them for real trash bags. So it's not so much "oh I'm saving the environment" as just a practical "these bags aren't useful for me." So I don't have a pet and don't need poop bags. I sometimes wrap cheese or other stuff in them in the fridge but I try to avoid the plastic bags as much as I can.

As far as the environment.... I have one 13 gallon trash can. I recycle almost everything. I take out about six gallons of trash [one half can] per month. Sometimes it's every six weeks. For my whole house. In my town, we get charged based on how much trash we toss out, so I try to toss out as little as possible.
posted by jessamyn at 2:10 PM on July 7, 2010

Here in Ireland a plastic bag costs at least €0.22, and my apartment management insists on proper garbage bags anyway.
posted by Logophiliac at 2:11 PM on July 7, 2010

I use the cheapest generic trash bags. While I haven't scientifically proven it, they seem to contain more stuff per unit of plastic.

(Actually, you kind of can prove it. Volume of a sphere is 4/3 pi r cubed, surface area is 4 pi r squared. So as the size of the bag increases, you get roughly 1/3 r more stuff in there. I think.

Another way to look at it is that it takes a certain amount of plastic to tie the knot. The more stuff per knot, the less plastic wasted.)
posted by gjc at 2:11 PM on July 7, 2010

Best answer: In our community, we're required to purchase special colored and labeled trash bags in order to get our trash picked up by the city, so we don't have the option to use anything else. So, I have to buy trash bags (at the exorbitant fee of $1.00 each) if I'm going to send anything to the landfill.
posted by anastasiav at 2:11 PM on July 7, 2010

I am stuck on how you are disposing of poop and whether you disperse heat energy if the volume of groceries you bring home and the volume you trash you discard almost exactly match.

But I have a kitchen-size 13-gallon trash can in my kitchen with store-boughten trash bags. And I throw out significantly less trash then I bring into the house from groceries -- much of the packaging is recyclable, much else mulches, and only a little goes in the actual trash. How are you generating that much trash, seriously?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:12 PM on July 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I have been unable to use plastic grocery bag for trash for years because they all have holes in them by the time I get home rendering them useless for garbage. So I had to buy plastic trash bags anyway.
posted by GuyZero at 2:12 PM on July 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the number of bags I take in from grocery and other shopping almost exactly matches the volume of trash generated in my household.

That's an individual thing though. In contrast, I got far more bags than I could ever use, which was illustrated by the space under my sink being completely full of disposable bags, and having to throw out several bags full of other bags. Double-bagging, placing fragile things in their own bags, bagging bath stuff separately, it all adds up to a lot of waste.
posted by smackfu at 2:12 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I, perhaps, am surprised that garbage in should equal out, what with most cities taking several types of recycling (and the potential of composting). In any case, using plastic Trash bags isn't the only option. You could use paper bags, for both shopping and trash. Or biodegradable Trash bags.
posted by artifarce at 2:13 PM on July 7, 2010

I buy trash bags. They're bigger than the grocery bags so I use them fairly slowly. We could do a comparison of (trash volume):(plastic area) for larger and smaller bags and while I am pretty sure that the plastic grocery bags are thinner, I think I'd come out okay.

I have also found that the reusable bags are more comfortable to carry, hold a larger volume and I'm never worried that they'll rip and send my gallon of milk to the sidewalk.

Until I switched the reusable bags, I had a surplus of plastic grocery bags. Now, I have many fewer but still have some (when I buy more than my reusable ones can carry, when I'm without the backpack that has them in it, when my boyfriend does the shopping, when the store insists, when buying raw chicken).

I think that to an extent you're correct about the use of bought trash bags, but I find the reusable bags so much easier to use that I'm going to stick with them.
posted by sciencegeek at 2:13 PM on July 7, 2010

what are you using for trash bags?

..I use black and tall white kitchen plastic bags for my trash. Designed to hold and contain trash and garbage. The fact that you get along in life without them is amazing and very weird, in my opinion.

How is this better for the environment?

How is using canvas bags when you use plastic trash bags better for the environment(A) or how is using plastic shopping bags in place of garbage bags better(B)?

A. You're throwing away less plastic. The idea isn't to stop using plastic all together, but to limit it where you can.

B. I guess it would depend on your volume of trash. Maybe it would be, maybe it wouldn't be.
posted by royalsong at 2:14 PM on July 7, 2010

Yeah, a garbage-specific bag holds a lot more and is a lot stronger than your typical grocery store plastic bag. As well, you can decrease the amount of garbage you generate quite a bit via recycling, composting, etc. On the odd occasion that we wind up at the grocery store without our canvas bags, we do bring home the tiny/flimsy ones provided by the store, and it's amazing how quickly we accumulate a large number of them.

Fortunately our grocery store also has a bin near the entrance specifically for recycling plastic grocery store bags.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:15 PM on July 7, 2010

We recycle far more than we throw out, so a box of household-size garbage bags lasts us forever.
posted by blue_beetle at 2:17 PM on July 7, 2010

Also! (bit off topic) but if you're looking for a use for those plastic bags from the grocery store:

They make fantastic packing material for packages!
posted by royalsong at 2:19 PM on July 7, 2010

We inevitably forget out reusable bags when we go out every so often to buy stuff, so we end up with 2 or 3 bags a month trickling in, which is enough for our trash generation as we reduced our trash production drastically when we started composting and buying mainly from the bulk foods section of the supermarket (i.e. the bins of oatmeal and such). I also grab the bags people are about to throw away at work---again maybe 2 or 3 a month.

You must be really good at remembering your reusable bags if you aren't getting plastic ones any in the door!
posted by chiefthe at 2:19 PM on July 7, 2010

We bought a haul of purpose trash bags from Target on clearance recently, so we're stocked for a while. When these are done, we're considering sourcing large paper bags for our trash (we don't have much trash thanks to composting) or using something like these.
posted by saturnine at 2:21 PM on July 7, 2010

Response by poster: I live in a high rise in NYC with a trash chute, I guess this accounts for most of the difference.
posted by 2bucksplus at 2:22 PM on July 7, 2010

I use reusable bags for shopping most of the time. I buy garbage bags (but not very frequently -- I'm still working my way through a box of bags that I bought last summer) and I buy biodegradable dog poop bags for my all my dog poop needs.

I do occasionally get plastic shopping bags and I use them when I travel. They're great for dirty clothes, shoes, double-bagging my toiletries kit and the occasional bout of motion sickness.
posted by kate blank at 2:29 PM on July 7, 2010

Response by poster: We recycle: our recycling goes in (you guessed it) plastic grocery bags before being taken to the trash room.

Obvious I am not composting anything.

I typically ask the bagger to use a few bags as possible so it is easier to carry home as I walk to and from the store. These bags are at about 125% capacity, when I throw out trash they are at about 75% capacity so they will tie.

Lastly, like jamaro I have a pet so any "fragrant" trash goes right out before bedtime, whether or not the bag is 100% full.
posted by 2bucksplus at 2:30 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

our recycling goes in (you guessed it) plastic grocery bags before being taken to the trash room

We are forbidden from putting our recycling in plastic bags, so trying to end that practice is a good first step (just use a few reusable bags instead).

I have a pet so any "fragrant" trash goes right out before bedtime, whether or not the bag is 100% full.

We keep our trash in a closet - our friends think it is very awkward but at least we can wait till the trash is full to discard the bag.

Like others have said - it's not about completely eliminating plastic use - it is about finding ways to reduce.
posted by muddgirl at 2:38 PM on July 7, 2010

Best answer: For what it's worth, I too live in an apt building with a chute on the way to the elevator and use the plastic grocery bags as trash bags. I rarely find myself with too many or too few.

(I tried composting on the terrace but found I generate way too many veggie peelings to make that doable.)
posted by CunningLinguist at 2:42 PM on July 7, 2010

We end up using about one large garbage bag for household waste every four to six months, and here's how we do it:

- We avoid generating garbage in the first place. We buy much of our food in large bulk twice a year, like 25 kg bags of rice, 10 kg tubs of peanut butter, etc which cuts down a lot. The weekly grocery trips are just for dairy, fresh veggies, and junk food.
- We don't use things like paper towels, instead we just have lots of washable rags.
- Organic waste goes to the chickens, who turn it into eggs. That covers most of the gross/stinky stuff.
- Recyclables go in the recycling bin to be taken to the recycling depot about once a month.
- Non-recyclable burnables (usually just paper meat wrappers and such) go into the wood stove for starting fires. In the warm season we just stuff it in there until it starts getting full and then set it on fire, which happens about a once a month at most.
- Anything else, which is usually just things like Styrofoam and other non-recyclable polymers, goes into a small bin under the sink which fills up in about a month. Since none of this stuff is gross, the bin doesn't need any liner. When the bin is full we empty it into a big garbage bag in the shed. We end up with one of those full every four to six months, and we just take it to the local landfill whenever convenient.
posted by Emanuel at 2:47 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

In some countries trash can be placed directly into the bins that are collected - there is no obligation to bag up trash before it goes into the bin.
posted by Jabberwocky at 3:12 PM on July 7, 2010

They make recycled trash bags and biodegradable ones, too. Bam, guilt-free trash bags.
posted by ishotjr at 3:49 PM on July 7, 2010

Best answer: - Organic waste goes to the chickens, who turn it into eggs. That covers most of the gross/stinky stuff.
- Non-recyclable burnables (usually just paper meat wrappers and such) go into the wood stove for starting fires. In the warm season we just stuff it in there until it starts getting full and then set it on fire, which happens about a once a month at most.

I have pretty much the same problem as the OP. We city-folk can't have chickens, and we sure don't have wood stoves (or even working fireplaces, or even a need for one).

So, as much as I prefer using re-usable shopping bags, I find that it has caused a trash bag shortage. I find myself making trips to stores just to get more trash bags. (I don't usually get more than a couple of bags per trip because I don't need to buy that much stuff.) Our local politicians want to ban plastic bags altogether, which will only cause me to have to go out and actually purchase plastic garbage bags instead of recycling the ones I have (recycling in the sense that I am re-using the bags for another purpose). Bummer, I guess, and I don't see how this helps the environment in my situation as much as it stimulates the bag-making economy.

I think the answer is that, for you, it doesn't really help the environment. You actually recycle and reuse your trash bags. But, for everybody else that uses, abuses, and leaves plastic bags all over the city, it would make a difference. Maybe if we could convince people to use plastic bags responsibly, then the push for reusable shopping bags wouldn't seem so necessary.
posted by jabberjaw at 6:22 PM on July 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

There are three factors against grocery bags you might be overlooking:

1. Purchasing "store boughten" trash bags puts the burden of the cost on the consumer directly. As opposed to plastic grocery store bags, the cost of which is distributed silently across everything in the store.

Put another way, grocery bags aren't free. But we treat them as if they are, because they "look" free to the average consumer. This has complicated philosophical implications for the environment, our own usage patterns, life in a single-serving world, etc.

2. Plastic grocery store bags, commonly known as "t-shirt bags" happen to be perfectly aerodynamic. Much more so than a regular trash bag. Because of their shape and their light weight, they are very inclined to take flight.

Most of the plastic bags you see in trees, fences, and the ocean were not simply littered by thoughtless people. They escaped confinement, so to speak. The bag you responsibly use for trash may not end up in the dump - it could fly free and choke an albatross chick.

3. For the same reason, those t-shirt bags are the bane of dumps everywhere. They fly up and snag the machinery, get stuck in the gears, and cause all sorts of mischief. This wastes time and energy, and causes municipalities a lot of money.
posted by ErikaB at 6:25 PM on July 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

I use Biobags for trash and dog poop bags and have one 13-gallon trash can for the whole house. I recycle everything I can. Biobags are pretty great, especially if you make a conscious effort to reduce what you throw out.
posted by bolognius maximus at 6:46 PM on July 7, 2010

The way I look at it is this: One large 10 galleon bag equals 20 or 30 small, flimsy grocery bags depending on how much you can fill it. Those separate small bags are a big problem in that they scatter everywhere. They float out to sea and choke the sea animals and birds, they end up in trees in the cities, they litter the streets and abandoned lots. My one, full 10 gallon bag is a lot less likely to do these things because it will stay intact and go to the landfill where it will be buried. True, it won't biodegrade, but then landfills are not in the business of biodegrading.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:54 PM on July 7, 2010

Like the original poster, I live in an apartment and can't compost or raise chickens. What I don't understand is how people who like to use a larger garbage bag, and don't have compost, deal with the odor? I have to take out trash every other day or so, or the whole place stinks.

We also pretty much have equal bag input and output.
posted by SandiBeech at 8:10 PM on July 7, 2010

"What I don't understand is how people who like to use a larger garbage bag, and don't have compost, deal with the odor?"

I have a lidded garbage can that does a pretty good job containing minor odors. In the summer, I always clean my fridge and do other icky trash-generating chores on the morning of trash day so I can fill the can and take it out. If I know I'll be throwing out something particularly fragrant or disgusting, I may take it right to the outdoor big trash can (if it can be disposed of without containment), I might wait until the trash bag is mostly full, or I might bag it separately in (yes) a grocery store plastic bag or even a ziploc bag. (We get some grocery store bags wrapping meat or when we fail to bring enough reusable, but getting 2 a month is plenty.) A friend of mine was just telling me tonight that growing up without A/C, her father made them put chicken bones and similar in the freezer in the summer, until trash day, so they wouldn't stink in the garbage.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:37 PM on July 7, 2010

What I don't understand is how people who like to use a larger garbage bag, and don't have compost, deal with the odor?

I put all meat/dairy/egg trash in a little container in the freezer and toss it in right before I go to the dump.
posted by jessamyn at 8:39 PM on July 7, 2010


I bag produce in the clear(mostly, otherwise -ish) bag - and use those to line a 1/4 gallon bleach bottle that cut down to accommodate those bags for "wet waste."

I use my "man bag" or the store "re-use" bags.
posted by porpoise at 9:07 PM on July 7, 2010

I use regular large-size, bought at store, bags for the big trash. I use plastic grocery bags AND paper grocery bags (when I get them, I do the canvas bag thing for when I'm not getting much stuff, but can't do that for stocking-up-for-the-next-month trips) in smaller trash cans in the bath/bedroom where using a giant bag would be overkill. I also use the paper bags to collect my paper recycling. Plastic grocery bags get used to pick up uh, particularly wet or disgusting things, don't ask.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:14 PM on July 7, 2010

I use my dog food bags as garbage bags, though of course that's only helpful when we happen to have an empty bag. I also am forgetful and sometimes don't remember to take my canvas bags into the store--and sometimes they bag things I didn't want them to[*] (jugs have handles! they don't need a plastic bag! why why why?) so I end up with plenty of disposable bags that I use for garbage or set aside to recycle. I doubt my disposable-grocery-trash bags end up flying around loose, as they're weighed down with garbage and securely tied, but I suppose if they break it's possible they could dump their contents and escape...

[*] at which point, if the item is removed from the bag, they'll ball up the bag and throw it away!
posted by galadriel at 10:19 PM on July 7, 2010

How we do it:

- compost food scraps, some paper scraps
- our recycling bin doesn't need us to bag the items, they just go in as they are
- buying things that don't have much packaging, and fewer disposable things in general, and buying in 'bulk' (larger sizes) so we don't have that much rubbish to get rid of.

It works best in combination with other eco practices rather than all by itself.

One roll of trash bags lasts us about a year, we use about one a week. We used to get about 7 or 8 plastic shopping bags a week, and even if we'd used them for trash handling that would have been too many. Now we're down to maybe one a fortnight. Our supermarket takes them back for recycling.

Would bokashi work for composting in an apartment? I believe it's designed specifically for kitchen waste rather than whole-house-and-garden waste. If not, jessamyn's freezer trick works well. My grandparents did it for years with no trouble.
posted by harriet vane at 2:26 AM on July 8, 2010

What I don't understand is how people who like to use a larger garbage bag, and don't have compost, deal with the odor?

Lidded trash can + using the in-sink disposal for pretty much all organics (we can't compost either; we tried but ended up with a very chubby family of raccoons living under our garage)
posted by anastasiav at 5:53 AM on July 8, 2010

I was surprised that no one here has mentioned paper bags yet. I'm not sure where they fall on the "environmentally friendly" scale, or some point system, but when I forget my reusable bags I ask for paper.

The bags are usually 100% or 90% post-consumer paper. Plastic grocery bags are probably made from some amount of post-consumer materials, but I feel an important difference is in biodegrading. I already hate to think of my veggie waste going to a landfill to never degrade, and having everything even more airtight and bacteria shielded in plastic isn't going to help. Also, as previously mentioned, no animals will choke on paper, and it won't last long in a tree, etc.

So, paper. They stand nice and upright, and we sort our recycling into 3 or 4 bags standing in a corner. They'll do recycling duty until they're dirty, then they'll do trash can duty, and get tossed.
posted by fontophilic at 1:55 PM on July 8, 2010

Paper bags are great in terms of eco-friendliness compared to plastic bags, but aren't good for wet trash or cat doo. If all I had was dry trash, I wouldn't even use a trash bag. In fact, pretty much all of my paper trash, and recyclables, go into a liner-less trash cans.
posted by jabberjaw at 5:08 PM on July 8, 2010

"...sometimes they bag things I didn't want them to[*] (jugs have handles! they don't need a plastic bag! why why why?) "

In my case, it's because walking a mile or two home from the store carrying a milk jug by the handle is much more painful than carrying it in a bag.
posted by SandiBeech at 7:31 PM on July 8, 2010

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