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:

Halloween Candy Wrappers: A Plastic Nightmare

Last updated on March 28, 2021.

Trick-or-treating on Halloween is a tradition. Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash
Trick-or-treating on Halloween is a tradition. Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Did you know that American spending on Halloween should top $9 billion this year? Or that $2.6 billion will be spent on candy that is individually wrapped and thrown away? And most of it’s not recyclable and just ends up in landfills or bodies of water?

Don’t have guilt. Get inspired!

I don’t want to be one of those people that makes you feel bad about it. That’s not why I’m here. But I do want to inspire you to be forward-thinking. I want to get you thinking about next year, and what we can do to eliminate some of the wastefulness.

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, and I absolutely participate! Especially because I have a young son and I want to share all of the Halloween traditions with him. Surely, I can reduce waste from this holiday and still have a silly great time!

So what can we do going forward?

Start thinking about the big picture and asking questions: How many candy wrappers do we throw away, just in the United States? How many costumes are tossed in a landfill instead of reused or donated? What is the total amount of decorations made of cheap plastic that get used for only one Halloween before they end up in a landfill? Do many pumpkins go into a landfill instead of being used as food or composted? How many resources are wasted on this one holiday?

I’m actually not sure. I couldn’t find exact data for any of those things. The closest I came to actual data was related to pumpkin waste, which I hadn’t even considered before today. I’ll cover that in another post. I’m just focusing on candy today.

Bowl of Halloween candy from a trunk-or-treat event. Photo by me.
Bowl of Halloween candy from a trunk-or-treat event. Photo by me.

Candy & Their Wrappers

Recycle Nation calls Halloween candy “Halloween’s Environmental Nightmare.” Putting plastic wrappers into regular recycling is not possible. They aren’t made of materials that are collected by recycling facilities. Hershey’s kisses, gold chocolate coins, and other types of candies are wrapped in aluminum foil, which is great if you live in a town or city that accepts aluminum foil through the recycling system. Unfortunately, where I live in the Southeast, it is not accepted. Even so, foil-wrapped candies would be better than plastic!

Sometimes candy wrappers can be upcycled. TerraCycle and lots of artists on Etsy.com make upcycled candy wrapper bags and purses, and many other items.

Terracycle candy and snack wrapper zero waste boxes

TerraCycle sells zero waste boxes for candy and snack wrappers, and they take the collected materials and make them into new products. They are expensive, and therefore not everyone can or will do that. Realistically, upcycling the candy wrappers is not the solution.

So what is the solution? There are a few ways to drastically reduce plastic waste.

Plastic Halloween candy wrappers from a Halloween event. Photo by me.
Plastic Halloween candy wrappers from a Halloween event. Photo by me.

Trick-or-treaters at your house

Bea Johnson of Zero Waste Home wrote that if you are purchasing candy to give out to trick-or-treaters, ensure it comes in fully recyclable packaging such as cardboard or paper. Think Nerds, Junior Mints, Pixie Sticks, Dots, or Milk Duds. Find lollipops that are paper-wrapped and not plastic-wrapped. Maybe small boxes of raisins? There’s also a company called Alter-Eco that sells truffles individually wrapped. They’re pricey, but sometimes that’s what it takes to protect the environment and ourselves. I’ve bought my candy for this year, but next year I will be buying candy that is not wrapped in plastic.

Another idea I’ve found online is giving out coins for trick-or-treating. I remember finding quarters in my Halloween bag when I was a kid. Have kids close their eyes, reach into a bowl and grab a handful. Child obesity is very high these days, so this may even be a better option!

Coin jar, Photo by Michael Longmire on Unsplash
Photo by Michael Longmire on Unsplash

Think outside the box! Maybe seeds packets or small wooden toys? Pencils or crayons? Drinks in aluminum cans, which might be quite refreshing after running from house to house. Anything to stop this huge plastic waste stream. Others suggest different types of fruit, such as oranges and tangerines, but the supposedly urban myth of poisoned foods will likely result in the fruit being thrown away.

If you are having a Halloween party, Bea Johnson also suggested purchasing candy in bulk using your own jars (or cloth bags) to avoid the candy wrapper dilemma altogether. I know Whole Foods and a few other stores sell bulk candy. Where individually wrapped candy is required, such as at a school or church, wrap them in small paper bags, you can even decorate them!

Taking your children trick-or-treating

How about reducing the amount of trick-or-treating you participate in? Sure it’s fun to go house to house, and kids love the reward of candy. But you, as a parent, know how much candy is enough for your household – so stop there. Encourage the fun by just walking the neighborhood, and shifting the focus from obtaining an excessive amount of candy. Maybe just stop at every other house on your route. Your whole family will still have a great time!

Individually wrapped candies create a litter and plastic problem. Photo by Tucker Good on Unsplash
Individually wrapped candies create a litter and plastic problem. Photo by Tucker Good on Unsplash

Trash Art?

Last, if you aren’t using Terracycle’s zero waste boxes for candy wrappers, how about using the wrappers for art? There are hundreds of art project ideas out there – just type in “upcycle candy wrappers” on Pinterest and you’ll find them. Anything from vases to handbags, hair bows to dresses. This is one of my favorites that I’d like to try someday:

Upcycled candy wrapper vase, found on Pinterest
Upcycled candy wrapper vase, found on Pinterest

Trash & Litter

The last thing I want to say about candy wrappers is the amount of litter they create on Halloween. Kids don’t necessarily mean to drop things, they just do – even the environmentally-conscious ones. I’m part of the Litterati, and my plan is to photograph and pick up every piece of litter that I see tonight while taking my son trick-or-treating. It will be mostly candy wrappers, but we live in a city that has the Tennessee River flowing right through the center of it. So I feel compelled to pick up those wrappers!

Can you do the same thing, pick up the candy wrappers and trash? Can you join the Litterati? Will you be the change?

As always, thanks for reading. I’d love to know if you have any out-of-the-box ideas about reducing waste from Halloween. Please leave me a comment below!

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Footnotes: