Help me stop using plastic bags
January 24, 2008 4:14 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to stop using plastic grocery bags, but I use them as liners in all of my garbage cans (including the kitchen, where stuff thrown in tends to be moist food detritus). Any ideas on what to use as garbage liners in lieu of the plastic bags?
posted by backseatpilot to Home & Garden (21 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
It's really ok to use those plastic bags, I mean as ok as anything is. Nothing degrades in a landfill, food waste or otherwise, because they are air and water tight.

I'd suggest obtaining recycling bins and a compost heap. With a little bit of effort, you will find that a family of 3 generates little more than 1 garbage back per two weeks of non-recyclable, non-degradable waste. With more effort, you can make that even less.
posted by TomMelee at 4:18 PM on January 24, 2008

Composting is a great idea, as is recycling.
Another thing you might be interested in -- although you have to purchase something, which might defeat the point in some respects -- are biodegradable plastic bags. If you live somewhere very hot and humid, this isn't the solution for you, but it's worth thinking about.
posted by k8lin at 4:28 PM on January 24, 2008

Prior to the explosion of plastic shopping bags, my dad the thrifty Yankee kept empty milk cartons under the sink to collect very wet trash and lined his trash cans with a few layers of newspaper, a few inches of the paper's edge folded over the top lip and held in place with the can's lid. Once a week, he hosed out the trash cans.
posted by jamaro at 4:50 PM on January 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

You can use paper bags to collect trash that isn't wet. We use them for all our recycling. If you don't have recycling, you could separate your trash just for fun.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 5:02 PM on January 24, 2008

Well, if you are reusing shopping bags as garbage bags, in a sense, you already are recycling them.
posted by IndigoRain at 5:04 PM on January 24, 2008

Are you a bachelor? I keep all my used coffee grounds, empty yogurt cups, banana peels &c in the freezer between dumpster days. Nobody has ever complained that my freezer is not tidy. I almost never buy frozen food so maybe that is another consideration. This isn't for plastic conservation more than it is in my case for roach prevention as I live on the Gulf Coast where cockroaches are a fierce predator of gooey garbage.
posted by bukvich at 5:07 PM on January 24, 2008

I've considered the biodegradable bags (and pet waste baggies) but they are so expensive. If only it were cheap to be green...

(yes, I know there are many ways to be a green cheapie. This is one way I wish were less costly...)
posted by red_lotus at 5:10 PM on January 24, 2008

My girlfriend and I have found that even though we're pretty good about coming prepared to the grocery store, our lives are awash in plastic grocery bags. We use them for packing up our lunches and cleaning the litterboxes, but we still collect them from random trips to stores and takeout restaurants so we're in no danger of running out any time soon. Maybe you won't be either, but you could buy a box of trash bags made from recycled plastic just in case. Whole Foods and Trader Joe's carry them.

Or, if your grocery stores has a recycling bin for used plastic bags at the entrance, just help yourself.
posted by hydrophonic at 5:23 PM on January 24, 2008

Another thing you can do is use the small baggies in the garbage bin, and then empty them out into the dumpster or whatever and then reuse them.
posted by Deathalicious at 5:23 PM on January 24, 2008

it's not entirely true that nothing breaks down in a landfill. i have read that when victoria BC began capturing methane from our landfill, it reduced greenhouse gas emissions for the region by 30%. that's a lot of decomposition.

if you can (if your municipality has a composting program, or you have a place for a heap), separate the vegetable goop and compost it. that leaves nothing but dry garbage, most of which can be recycled.

if you have a dedicated compost container, you only need to cover it and hose it out when you empty it. don't bother with a bag. same goes for the recyclables.

if you don't have compost, you can still simply carry your can out to the dumpster and hurl the contents into it, then clean the can.
posted by klanawa at 5:24 PM on January 24, 2008

I use standard (kitchen) plastic bags as a can liner. Then I insert a standard brown paper bag (from the grocery store where they are an option) inside the liner. Really wet garbage isn't put in there unless it's "safe" - meaning somehow won't weaken the paper bag. I have several tactics that I use to do this. One of them is to use a plastic (grocery) bag, but mostly I just freeze it and wait for trash day.

I have found that I only need to change the liners about once a month, if that. Some, i.e. in the bathroom/bedrooms/etc, have never been changed. And it's a good reuse of the shopping bags.
posted by disclaimer at 5:45 PM on January 24, 2008

Biodegradable "plastic" bags. You can get them for dog poop too.

Be sure to buy the ones that are certified in CA, as apparently the other ones are only sort-of biodegradable.

Nothing degrades in a landfill, food waste or otherwise, because they are air and water tight.

That is inaccurate, most landfills in developed countries are managed to captureto produce methane which comes off in huge amounts and leach water is so named because it y'know leaches. Old landfills, pre-1990s, pretty much all leak.
posted by fshgrl at 6:12 PM on January 24, 2008

Biodegradable bags don't actually degrade into their constituent materials, they just turn into smaller and smaller little bits of plastic.

I just try very hard not to take them.

(and then I buy different bags specifically for garbage with fancy red built in ties, but that's a whole different story. cough.)
posted by gjc at 7:26 PM on January 24, 2008

Plastic bags are only problematic when they blow around in the landscape and/or get into waterways. The plastic bags around your garbage in a landfill are going to cause no environmental problems whatsoever.

The moist food detritus inside them, though, is a problem. Unless your landfill is quite modern and has a good methane scavenger, the methane emitted by the anaerobic breakdown of your buried food scraps is going to end up helping warm us all. Far better to compost your food scraps locally, under conditions that allow them to break down aerobically, where the main gas released is carbon dioxide and the breakdown process doesn't stink.

Worm farms are a great way to turn food scraps into garden fertilizer, and they work particularly well if you have limited space.
posted by flabdablet at 8:30 PM on January 24, 2008

Personally, I pile up all my food scraps on a cafeteria tray with about ten thicknesses of newspaper on top, which I keep on a countertop (not in a cupboard) during the day. That's enough newspaper to keep the tray dry enough not to need regular cleaning.

At the end of the day I slide newspaper, scraps and all onto another three sheets of broadsheet newspaper and wrap them up in a parcel, which I then drop into my worm farm whole. The dry, fibrous, carbon-rich newspaper balances the wet, sloppy, nitrogen-rich food scraps to make the breakdown process go well, the worms breed up nicely between the dampened paper layers, and the large air spaces between the parcels keep the composting action nicely aerobic.

This is the easiest, least smelly and most effective procedure out of many I've tried.
posted by flabdablet at 8:43 PM on January 24, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'm trying to cut down on plastic bags too- I got a little fold-up canvas bag that I use all the time when I shop. I find I still need to use *some* plastic bags- but I managed to drastically reduce that number.

I used to need 4 or 5 plastic bags a month just to deal with cat litter when the litterbox was too far from the toilet to make flushing a viable option, so I moved the (covered) catbox to the washroom (and I taped some cute fabric over the catbox door to make a little curtain so I wouldn't have to see the litter critters all the time). Now it's convenient to scoop and flush solid stuff every day or two. Maybe once a month it gets stinky, so I dump the whole thing into a plastic bag for composting, then wash the box and start over.

I keep compost in a plastic bucket in the freezer. The freezer is the key- no bugs, no smell. For me, the trick is NOT to have a cover on the scraps bucket in the freezer- it's too much hassle to keep uncovering and re-covering it. All day long, I accumulate scraps in a little $1 glazed flowerpot from Ikea, which lives by my sink. It holds about 3 cups of crud, it looks cute, and it's easy to clean. Non-stinky stuff like teabags and coffee grinds can just sit there for a day or two. As soon as I put stinky stuff in it (meat, etc), I dump out the counter compost into the freezer bucket. Every week, when the freezer bucket is full, I dump it out into a plastic bag and put that out with the municipal compost. So that's one more plastic bag every week (may not seem like enough- but I live alone and don't cook every single day).

And of course I recycle containers and paper, so with this system in place, I really only need one more plastic bag every couple weeks for non compost, non-recyclable trash.

I feel like I've pared down my bag requirements about as much as is reasonable- but I still need about 3-4 a month. Since I've cut my bag intake as well, 3-4 is about equal to the number of bags I acquire in a month (from restaurant leftovers and stuff like that).

Flabdablet, your worm farm sounds kickin, I wish I could see your setup- can you share pics? I had a small vermicomposter a few years ago but I had too much compost and I rotted them to death, poor little things. I still feel guilty about it.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:30 PM on January 24, 2008

I interpreted the problem in the question slightly differently, so here is my input.

I have trash cans all over the house (bedroom, office, den, 2 bathrooms) and each one has a plastic bag liner. I like doing it this way because I feel I'm recycling the plastic bag, it keeps the trash cans spiffy clean, and it makes trash-harvest time very simple. But most of my trash for those rooms is dry, so if I were interested in eliminating the use of all those bags, I could actually just forgo them. Rather than making the rounds to collect all the plastic bags at trash time I could instead dump the contents into another, master bag. (Like the kitchen bag.) That would save 5 bags each time I went around emptying.

The only problem is that not 100% of my waste is dry (if I have an apple at my desk then there's some wet waste, but I could make myself take it all the way to the kitchen, no big deal) and then the cans don't stay spiffy clean, meaning I have to wash them occasionally. (Extra time spent for me when I like to live simply, and then of course there's added use of water and soap.)

I like the idea somewhere above that has a plastic bag lining the kitchen can, but a paper bag inside of it. You could store the really wet stuff elsewhere (to compost, or to toss in at the last minute) and the plastic bag would only be used as "backup" in case of leaks, etc.
posted by iguanapolitico at 7:36 AM on January 25, 2008

I have a story about why NOT to use biodegradable bags. The BF thought they were a great idea, bought some, and we proceeded to line our kitchen trashcan with it. The problem was, a week later, when we finally took out the kitchen trash, the bag had already degraded in the trashcan. The explosion of trash and gross liquid was not pretty.

As for the liners for other trash cans, can you designate one trash can, like the kitchen one, for wet and organic material? Then you can throw regular trash into your other trashcans and empty them when they're full without having to worry about hosing them down too often.
posted by nakedsushi at 5:32 PM on January 25, 2008

Maybe nobody's reading this thread anymore, but I want to ask a serious question:
Why is methane production in a dump any more significant than methane production when a plant breaks down on its own, naturally? Does a bag of wet corn scraps produce more methane when it degrades than had it been left on the stalk to die and wilt? If we eat those plants, do we fart any more than the deer who would also like to eat it would fart?

Don't get me wrong, I'm ALL FOR methane capturing...capturing any source of fuel from natural chemical change gets me all hot and bothered.

It's why you can burn the captured methane and be carbon neutral---you're releasing no more carbon from the burning of a first-gen biodegrade than would be released by the actual breakdown of the plant in nature.
posted by TomMelee at 9:28 PM on January 25, 2008

TomMelee, when vegetable matter breaks down in an excess of oxygen, the organisms that do the work of breaking stuff down are aerobic (oxygen consuming), the main breakdown products are carbon dioxide and water, and the smells emitted are earthy and pleasant.

In airless conditions, the breakdown organisms are anaerobic. Their metabolic chemistry is different, the breakdown process is slower, the main breakdown product is methane, and the other breakdown products are assorted very stinky gases.

If you've got a lot of wet plant matter gathered together (like in a peat bog, or in a plastic bag full of wet kitchen scraps) then breakdown will generally be anaerobic and stinky, since the wetness of the mixture blocks air's access to the insides. This is why people think garbage is inherently stinky. It isn't, in and of itself; garbage cans with the lids clapped on full of plastic bags of wet scraps are basically just little factories that turn inoffensive scraps into methane and stench.

Methane, though it doesn't last as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, is about twenty times as potent a greenhouse gas for a given amount of carbon. It also can't be taken up again by plants until it's been oxidized back to carbon dioxide.
posted by flabdablet at 12:51 AM on January 26, 2008

Ah, roger that. Thanks, I forgot about the anaerobic versus aerobic breakdown part. I appreciate that.
posted by TomMelee at 7:33 AM on January 26, 2008

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