You Don’t Need to Spend Money on Trash Bags

Earth globe in a blue plastic bag
Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

I haven’t bought trash bags in more than four years.

How on Earth is that possible? I can’t wait to tell you!

Paying for trash

Garbage bag, Image by cocoparisienne on Pixabay.
Image by cocoparisienne on Pixabay

We are intentionally paying for something we are going to throw away.

We all pay for garbage removal in some form, whether through municipal or property taxes or through a waste management service. On top of that, the traditionally accepted way of containing this trash is single-use plastic trash bags. We pay for new plastic bags, made from fossil fuels, to deposit and remove waste from our homes.

Every time consumers purchase plastic, we are supporting the plastics industry and fueling the effort to harvest more fossil fuels. Then we take those bags we paid for and put them in the ground. We are paying to throw stuff away.

“The first plastic garbage bag was produced in 1950. Globally, these bags collect 7.4 million tons of waste each day.”1

I’ve saved quite a bit of money by not buying trash bags. Trash bags range from $4 per box up to $12 per box depending on size, strength, flexibility, and even scent. Advertisers want you to believe that the most expensive trash bags will keep your home clean and sanitary. This is not a new trend, but one that has been accelerated by companies such as Glad Products (owned by Clorox) who conducted surveys and discovered that many Americans believe any bad smell means their home is dirty (or rather, fear that other people will think they’re house is dirty). Worse, scented trash bags likely contain phthalates (commonly referred to as “fragrances”) which are usually endocrine and hormone disruptors that can cause serious health problems over time. These scents may mask the odor of your garbage, but at what cost to your health?

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Another marketing trend to be aware of is “biodegradable” or bioplastic trash bags. Don’t be fooled. Nothing, including these bags, breaks down in a landfill. They require an industrial composting facility to biodegrade. “There’s also no telling if harmful additives or chemicals were added during the manufacturing process, and not all bags labeled biodegradable or compostable will actually break down in a compost facility.”2 Recycled plastic trash bags are better than new or ‘virgin’ plastic bags, but I still do not buy these for my home. 

“Landfills are not meant to encourage decomposition. They are dry and anaerobic spaces that essentially ‘mummify’ anything contained in them, including plastic.”3 

But now you can stop buying them too.

Necessity

Three years ago, it occurred to me that I was wasting money buying bags just to put in a landfill. Then I read a blog article on myplasticfreelife.com and decided that there really is no need for store-bought plastic garbage bags. “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,” the author wrote.[efn_note]Article, “Collecting Garbage Without Plastic Trash Bags?” myplasticfreelife.com, February 15, 2010.[/efn_note] I found that once I eliminated wet garbage, I no longer needed plastic garbage bags.

What is wet garbage?

This mostly refers to food scraps and food waste. If you are able to compost through a municipal service like the ones they have in California, please do so. However, many cities and states do not offer this service as part of their waste management plan, including where we live. My family decided to start our own compost bin, which you can read about here. If you start composting, you will not have wet trash and thus will not need a plastic liner. Best of all, except for the initial cost of implementing a compost bin, composting is free! If you are paying for waste removal directly, you can reduce the amount of trash and frequency of pick-ups (thus cost savings) simply by composting.

About 34% of our waste is food scraps, yard trimmings, and other biological waste.

Waste reduction

We’ve noticed that many neighbors fill their 96-gallon city-issued garbage bin almost every week. We’ve only filled ours once, and that was when we had a major bathroom remodel in our home. But every city household is allotted a 96-gallon garbage bin that is picked up weekly. I haven’t done the exact math, but I believe that that is between 8 and 12 million gallons of garbage per week that our just our city is potentially landfilling.

This must stop. Our globe cannot sustain this level of trash.

Full 96-gallon city issued garbage bin
City-issued 96-gallon garbage bin, full with a week’s worth of trash from a single household. Photo by me

My family reduced our waste by buying food and other items with as little packaging as possible. We eliminated single-use disposable items and recycled what we could. Striving to be plastic-free and live a minimalist lifestyle reduced our overall trash. With these efforts, combined with composting, our garbage volume went down to about one bag of trash per month!

One bag of trash per month is far from our zero-waste goal, but it’s much less compared to most households. And Chattanooga is not zero-waste friendly.

Black garbage bag with the phrase, "Where does the garbage go?"
“Where Does the Garbage Go?” by Colin Dunn on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

Is Trash-Bag Free Possible?

It depends on how much trash you create, where you live, and how trash is transported. Some municipalities require garbage to be bagged. I wanted to stop using trash bags completely. But what I discovered with our city waste haulers is that unbagged garbage tends to either not make it into the trucks and falls on the ground in the neighborhood, or it blows out of the truck while they are driving down the road. In fact, I saw it happening so often that I tried to report the incidents to the city. But I could not obtain enough information about specific trucks while driving to provide good reporting, so nothing came of that. Pay attention to the waste hauling trucks in your area, or call your local municipality and find out if they have measures in place to help prevent these problems.

Back of garbage truck
This garbage truck lost several pieces of trash as I went down the same road, mainly lightweight plastic pieces. The Tennessee River flows through Chattanooga and any waste that gets into the river ends up in the ocean. Photo by me (at a stoplight).

Trash Bag Alternatives

I let our house run out of garbage bags three years ago and haven’t bought any since. However, since we have to use some kind of trash bag, just to keep our trash contained after it is picked up by the city, we use anything that resembles a garbage bag and staple them closed when it is full to prevent spillage. You can use anything! The most common of these includes:

      • Brown paper bags from the grocery store
      • Empty dog food bags
      • Large shopping bags that show up (even though we always use our own cloth bags at the store, these still manage to make their way into my home from shipping, other people, etc.)
      • Mulch and gravel bags (this is hard to buy in bulk where we live unless you own a truck)
      • Foil insulation bags (these are from Amazon/Whole Foods – during COVID-19 we had to get grocery store delivery for a while, and this was how they delivered our cold items. We have a couple of dozen of these now and they are not recyclable.)
      • Make your own DIY trash bags out of shipping envelopes

I also loved finding a use for these items. It felt wrong to buy a trash bag to throw away more bags or paying to bag the bags.

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Looking Forward

I would like to further reduce my waste through less and better packaging, improved zero waste capabilities, striving for plastic-free living, and minimalism. Ideally, someday, I won’t have so many shipping envelopes around. It would be better if I could purchase items in person and locally, which will take not only getting past the pandemic but businesses increasing package-free/plastic-free/zero-waste options in our area as well.

So free yourself from this practice of buying new plastic to almost directly put in the ground. You can stop paying for trash bags today, and use whatever bags come into your home. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe!

 

Footnotes:

Eco-Friendly Ways to Manage Fall Leaves

Last updated on February 27, 2021.

Red and orange leave on ground
Photo by me

“Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fall is my favorite season! I love the drop in temperature, the changing hues, the sight of leaves floating down, and the sound of leaves crunching under my feet. We have a big backyard with a wooded area, hence lots of trees. We rarely rake our leaves because I like the sight of them and my son and I can hunt pretty ones.

But by the end of the season, many people feel the need to remove leaves. Here are some eco-friendly tips about how to manage the fall leaves in your yard.

“Autumn leaves are falling, filling up the streets; golden colors on the lawn, nature’s trick or treat!”–Rusty Fischer

Three colorful leaves lined up together
Photo by me

To remove, or not to remove

I am a proponent of letting nature go through its natural process. We leave our leaves in the fall and by spring we either mow them and let the bits settle into the ground, or we rake them and put them in our compost bin. Leave your leaves if you can! Let your kids or dogs play in them. This is the most natural and Earth-friendly option.

But leaves can sometimes cause problems and in those situations must be removed. Leaves left on some types of grass will smother grass growth come spring. Leaves left in your yard can also allow a certain type of outdoor mold to grow on your lawn. Leaf dander can really affect people with allergies (I’m one of them, so no argument there). Also, leaves cannot be left on roofs and in gutters for obvious reasons.

Ways NOT to Dispose of Leaves

Whether you rake, blow, shovel, or mow your leaves, there are several natural and healthy ways to dispose of them. But whatever you do, please don’t bag them in plastic! Placing 100% biodegradable contents into a sealed plastic bag that goes to a landfill where they will never biodegrade is the worst practice for the environment.

Leaves bagged in large plastic garbage bags
Leaves bagged in large plastic garbage bags. Photo by me
Leaves bagged in large plastic garbage bags
Leaves bagged in large plastic garbage bags. Photo by me

When I took this photo in my neighborhood, I was trying to figure out why people bag their leaves in plastic (there are multiple neighbors with bagged leaves right now). But then I discovered that the city’s website indicates to residents that they may bag up leaves and yard waste and request separate pick up from the regular garbage pick up. The website says you can also put them loose on your curb for Loose Leaf collection (where they use the giant vacuum truck). But what the website does not say is what happens to those leaves after they are picked up. I’m sure many don’t give it a second thought – out of sight, out of mind – so the homeowner probably believes they were doing the right thing.

I emailed the City of Chattanooga to find out what happens to the bagged leaves, but it took 4 email exchanges to obtain a thorough answer. It turns out that paper or plastic bagged leaves are picked up by the city’s waste contractor (WestRock) and taken to the landfill. Only the unbagged loose leaves that are left on the curb are picked up by the city and taken to the city’s wood composting facility. I don’t think many residents know this because if they did, I think people would change their practice or request the city change its protocol. There is a lack of clarity on the website and through their email service, and maybe people don’t think or have time to ask for additional information.

Unfortunately, I doubt we are the only city that handles leaves this way. So please, always check with your municipality before bagging your leaves!

Another neighbor takes his yard debris, including leaves, and puts them unbagged into his city garbage can. He may believe that they will decompose and not know that nothing decomposes in a standard landfill. So it is very important to refrain from this practice as well.

Yellow leaf on the ground
Photo by me

Ways to Dispose of Leaves

If you must have your leaves removed, you’ll need to check with your local municipality about leaf collection and how they dispose of the leaves. Do they send them to a compost facility? Are they sent to the incinerator? Or are they landfilled? Try to find the option that allows the leaves to decompose, such as the option to put them on the curb and have them vacuumed up by city services. Keep asking questions if you don’t get a thorough response the first time.

The best option is to put leaves in your compost. Compost thrives from having a variety of materials, especially dead leaf matter mixed with food waste. So rake them and put them in your compost. And if you don’t have a compost bin, maybe this is a good time to start one!

If you have woods around your yard, you can easily find a place to dump your leaves. This home below, as you can see, has a wooded area adjacent to their land where they could’ve dumped these leaves and let nature take its course. You will want to avoid dumping them in ditches or waterways to prevent flooding.

Yard with leaves
Photo by me

A third option is to save them to use as a mulch cover. If your mower has a bagged mulch option, you could mow and mulch them and use them in the spring for your garden.

Last, some like to burn leaves. Besides the obvious safety and fire hazards, it turns out that the practice can have health hazards too. According to Purdue University, the smoke from burning leaves contains tiny particles and gases that can accumulate in the lungs over time. Additionally, the smoke from moist leaves gives off hydrocarbons, an irritant to the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs but also which sometimes are carcinogenic.1

Raked leaves in yard with bench
Image by utroja0 from Pixabay

Enjoy Fall!

Regardless of how you deal with your leaves, enjoy fall! It’s a beautiful season that’s the beginning of a renewal. It features a few of the most fun holidays, the weather is cooler for outdoor activities, and it’s gorgeous. Maybe forget raking the leaves and just enjoy the season? Thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

“Aprils have never meant much to me, autumns seem that season of beginning, spring.”– Truman Capote

Footnote:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 6

Another plastic product graphic
Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

If you’ve been following my series on the Packaging Industry, hopefully you’ve found it informative! In my last post, I wrote about Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). Today, I’ll tell you about one type of EPR, called Take-back programs.

Take-back programs are designed to ‘take-back’ discarded items that are not accepted in regular recycling streams like curbside pickup. These programs typically operate outside of municipal programs and are often hosted by manufacturers or companies, for a variety of purposes.

Purposes of Take-Back Programs

Take-back programs exist for several reasons:

        • To reduce contamination of municipal recycling efforts
        • For recycling, at least parts of the items
        • To prevent toxic materials from being landfilled
        • Simply to draw in customers

It is often a combination of one or two of those reasons. “Some collections, like the ones for e-waste and plastic bags, are often not so much a recycling effort as an attempt to reduce contamination of municipal solid waste streams and ensure proper disposal,” wrote Chris Daly in The Future of Packaging.

Earth friendly graphic
Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images

‘Eco-friendly’ and ‘sustainability’ are good for business

Many people want to buy from companies that ‘take-back’ or recycle items. “We know that consumers are more likely to patronize companies committed to making positive social and environmental impacts,” wrote Tom Szaky, founder of TerraCycle. He noted that many companies have had an influx of marketing campaigns in recent years for consumers to bring back their containers for recycling, but that not all companies are actually socially responsible and transparent in the process.

Sometimes this is greenwashing! If a company cannot actually fulfill its promise of recycling or taking back items, then that is false advertising.

“In the face of increasing demand for more corporate social responsibility and environmental-friendliness, however, the authenticity of some of these recycling programs is questionable.” – Chris Daly

Types of Take-Back Programs

There are many types of take-back programs, so I am presenting the most common ones here.

Computer waste
Computer and other e-waste. Image by dokumol from Pixabay

Plastic Bags, Styrofoam, and Electronics Take-Back Programs

Many stores accept things that typically cannot be recycled, such as plastic grocery bags, styrofoam, and electronics. These programs are good for businesses because they generate foot traffic and brand affinity. This also prevents those items from going to a landfill. It also prevents them from going into your curbside bin, where they will contaminate recycling. Grocery stores, such as Publix, accept plastic bags, #4 plastic bags and Amazon Prime type shipping envelopes, toilet paper wrap, produce and bread bags, dry cleaning bags, styrofoam egg cartons, and styrofoam meat trays. Staples and Best Buy take back many electronic items for recycling. Many electronics companies, such as Samsung, have take-back programs of their own, through the mail or drop sites.

While it’s not clear what happens to any of those items, at least there’s a chance that some of those are actually recycled. Also, toxic materials will not leach into groundwater from landfills. In the meantime, these companies appear to be eco-friendly. They can also physically draw you into the stores. Might as well pick up some milk and eggs or printer paper, or maybe check out the new iPhones since you’re already there?

Plastic bag from Food City
Plastic bag from Food City. Photo by me
Publix

Publix states that “by inspiring customers to recycle these items, we ensure they are disposed of properly and keep them out of the environment and landfills.” It is unclear if these items are actually recycled as they do not specify what they do with the items. The corporation indicates that they are collected at their return centers and “then processed and sold to be made into other items.” That’s vague, but I still respected Publix for the effort.

Until I read that Publix actually claims that plastic bags are more sustainable than paper bags! In fact, the entire post is dedicated to promoting plastic over paper. I am appalled and extremely disappointed in Publix for making false claims such as “plastic bags use 71% less energy to produce than paper bags.” Among the many others, “using paper bags generates almost five times more solid waste than using plastic bags,” is similarly outrageous.

Recycling bins at Publix. Photo by me
Amazon Prime envelopes
Amazon Prime plastic envelopes, accepted at some grocery stores for “recycling.” Note that Amazon does not take these back directly. Photo by me
A Microwave

A few years ago, I had a Hamilton Beach brand microwave that stopped working. I begrudgingly replaced it with a new microwave and immediately searched for a proper way to dispose of it but to no avail. I found out that Hamilton Beach will recycle and “properly dispose” of their products if you mail them to them at your cost. So I measured and weighed the microwave and looked up the shipping cost on USPS – and it would have been $41! So instead I put it in my shed and forgot about it for a while.

Last year, I called Staples to see if they accepted microwaves. They told me on the phone that yes, they do accept microwaves. So I loaded it in the car and took it to my local Staples. When I got to the service desk, I again asked if they’d recycle the microwave. They said yes. However, when I was researching for this post this week, I discovered that their site says they do not accept kitchen appliances. Now I wonder if that microwave was recycled, or if it was tossed in the trash after all. I guess I’ll never know, but I sure tried.

Brother brand printer ink cartridges.
Image by tookapic from Pixabay

Ink Cartridges, Light Bulbs, and Rechargeable Batteries Take-Back Programs

These programs are designed to keep contaminants out of landfills, as all three types of these items contain toxic materials. A few companies offer “rewards” in exchange for recycling. For example, Staples offers $2 back in rewards per recycled ink cartridge. This creates brand loyalty, as you are more likely to buy your ink there regularly if you are trying to use this rewards program. In fact, you have to – their rules state that you can earn the $2 per cartridge “if the member has spent at least $30 in ink and/or toner purchases at Staples over the previous 180 days.” This is only a good deal if you buy enough ink to keep up with that. At least these cartridges will likely be recycled. Other companies, such as HP, have many ways for consumers and businesses to recycle their ink cartridges and electronics.

Many hardware stores and home improvement centers, such as Lowe’s and The Home Depot, take back used compact fluorescent light bulbs and rechargeable batteries. Batteries Plus Bulbs will accept certain types of light bulbs and batteries, although not alkaline. For alkaline battery recycling, see my post from earlier this year.

Compact fluorescent light bulb
Compact fluorescent light bulb, image courtesy of Pixabay

Textile Recycling

The textile industry is notoriously wasteful, especially now that major retailers promote new fashion trends weekly rather than seasonally. But there are a few companies that have take-back programs. Patagonia may be the best example of this as they’ve had the program for a long time, don’t push new trends weekly, and stand by the quality of their products. They accept all Patagonia products for recycling if the items have reached the end of their life, meaning they can’t be repaired or donated.

Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe product claims to take their old shoes grind them down to use in performance products and sports surfaces. The NorthFace and Levi’s are among others that take back some of their clothing for reuse or recycling. However, please know that clothing is so disposable in western society that second-hand clothing is overwhelming other parts of the world and is actually creating waste problems in those areas. The solution for textiles is to buy less clothing, wear your clothing for a long time, and buy second hand when possible.

Solutions

Take-back programs offer a solution for some items that are hard to dispose of, such as computers, batteries, and light bulbs. It isn’t clear if these programs result in real recycling, and sometimes the companies are not transparent about their take-back program details. The real solution is for companies to invest in a system that can make these items reusable, in a circular economy or closed-loop system. We also need to consume less in general.

In my next post, I’ll examine two types of take-back programs that have high success rates. Thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

Note: There are no affiliate links in this post; all links are for informational purposes only.

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 2

Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

In my last post, I introduced the topic of packaging and the environmental crisis it has created. I left off with an explanation of greenwashing (read here about how to avoid greenwashed products), and in this post, I’m going to describe two terms that are often misused in advertising.

Remember: the answer to packaging is to reduce our reliance on it; to stop using it.

Styrofoam cup floating in water with plantlife
Photo by Jesse Gardner on Unsplash

“Biodegradable” and “Compostable”

If only these words were the solutions to our global packaging problem! Unfortunately, they are two of the most abused terms in greenwashed advertising. Biodegradable refers to any material that decomposes in the environment. Compostable means that the material is organic matter that will break down and turn into soil. These words do not always mean what we think when it comes to sustainable packaging. In fact, if biodegradable and compostable items go into the trash and then a landfill, they do not biodegrade. Nothing in a landfill breaks down. Worse, the contents of landfills release methane gas, a major contributor to global warming.

Biodegradable plastics will only break down under the right conditions, such as in an industrial composting facility, not in a backyard composting system.

Industrial Composting Facilities

There are several types of composting systems. A home compost system is mainly food and yard waste that you can set up yourself. Commercial composting refers to a municipal or city composting facility that accepts food and/or yard waste. An industrial composting facility requires precise processing conditions under a controlled biotechnological process. In order to be effective, these conditions include a certain high temperature, moisture level, aeration, pH, and carbon/nitrogen ratio.

Industrial composting facilities are not available in many places. There are about 200 in the US, serving less than 5% of the population. If there is notince

If there is a facility in your area, it still does not guarantee the items will be composted. The reality is that many facilities cannot tell the difference between compostable plastics from regular plastics other than by carefully reading the label on each item. This is not practical with the number of disposables we currently discard, so these items are often landfilled.

Examples

Let’s look at three examples of greenwashed and problematic products.

Wincup polystyrene disposable cups

I saw this single-use disposable coffee cup on the campus where I work. A colleague had purchased coffee at the cafeteria and the images of green leaves and biodegradable claim drew my interest. The company, called WinCup and based out of Stone Mountain, Georgia, claims to be a leading manufacturer of disposable polystyrene products.

First, these cups will not biodegrade unless they are put into biologically active landfills, which are far and few between. On their website, they claim that their “cups biodegrade 92% over 4 years” and “under conditions that simulate a wetter, biologically active landfill.” What is this type of landfill? My understanding is that it is similar to an industrial composting facility in which moisture is added to assist with breakdown.

Most of these cups are tossed in the regular trash and deposited in landfills. This is the case where I work (I have plans to meet with cafeteria management to come up with better solutions for food and drinkware). These cups will not break down in a landfill. Additionally, if these cups end up in the ocean, they will likely not break down and will also leach toxins. Those toxins are ingested by marine life and make their way up through the food chain into us.

BASF ecovio line

BASF, a major chemical corporation, claims to “combine economic success with environmental protection and social responsibility.” I found some greenwashed marketing on their website about compostable plastic:

BASF website screenshot for "compostable" plastic

Ecovio film applications are used for organic waste bags, fruit and vegetable bags, carrier bags, agricultural films, etc. Their claim is that the product is compostable, but the fine print indicates it is compostable “under the conditions of an industrial composting plant.”

Screenshot from BASF's website about their compostable bags

This picture is misleading, as it shows a person putting a bag of compost into a compost bin. This gives the impression that these bags will break down in any compost collection when that is not the case. BASF’s compostable certification is the ASTM D6400, which is specifically for industrial composting facilities. Those are not available in most municipalities or states. If these products go into a landfill, it makes no environmental impact whatsoever. They also cause the same pollution problems as regular plastic.

Molded fiber take-out packaging

molded fiber take out container

These “compostable” and “plastic alternative” molded fiber take-out containers seemed like a magnificent alternative to plastic until they were discovered to contain PFOAs (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances). This chemical protects the fibers from becoming wet and soggy. They are the same compounds used in some nonstick cookware, known to cause cancers, thyroid disease, reproductive problems, and immunotoxicity in children.

These were marketed as compostable. However, these chemicals do not disappear. They get into the soil from the compost, and potentially into whatever is grown in that soil. Worse, these chemicals make into the waterways and eventually into our drinking water. Read an excellent article here for more information on molded fiber food containers.

My family ate out of these types of containers multiple times. Of course, I had no idea the time that these contained PFOAs. Many major eateries have stopped using these.

Solution

In general, we must consume less. We must end the production and use of single-use disposable items. Most importantly, being aware of these problems is key because we can all make a difference.

For more information on how biodegradable and compostable items break down, read this article in Anthropocene and this one from fastcompany.com.

In my next post about packaging, I’ll explain bioplastics, which are often advertised as biodegradable or compostable. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe to get the next post in your inbox!

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky