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:

Composting Made Easy

Mixed compost in my own bin.

Composting should be part of everyday life for most of us. It’s one of the best things you can do for the environment. You don’t have to be a gardener or live rurally to compost your own food and yard waste. It can seem difficult, but I want to tell you how easy it actually is!

In some parts of the world, including parts of the U.S., composting is part of regular municipal waste management. For example, San Francisco implemented a citywide residential and commercial curbside collection program that includes the separate collection of recyclables, compostable materials, and trash. This means every resident and business has three separate collection bins.

But many of us don’t live in a city or even a state that prioritizes waste management, much less composting. I’m going to explain how you can easily compost on your own, regardless of where you live. Let me begin by explaining why we should all be composting in the first place.

Landfill Reduction

Composting reduces how much we are putting in landfills. Between twenty and forty percent of our landfill contents are organic waste, depending on which study you read. So even the lower 20% number represents one-fifth of our waste which could be eliminated by composting!

Consider the amount of food waste and yard waste (including leaves) we dispose of in the United States. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), whom I consider to have a more conservative appraisal, the U.S. disposed of an estimated 35.4 million tons of yard waste, leaves, and brush in 2018, which is 12.1% of total municipal solid waste. They also estimated that the U.S. generated 63.1 million tons of food waste in 2018, or 21.6% of total municipal solid waste. If we calculate these numbers together, 34.2% of 98.5 million tons, that’s more than 3.3 million tons of waste we could avoid putting in landfills…without too much effort.

Greenhouse Gas Reduction

“Landfills are not meant to encourage decomposition.”4

We know that food and yard waste doesn’t break down in landfills. See infographic:

Infographic
Infographic by Marie Cullis

“By reducing the amount of food scraps sent to a landfill, you are helping to reduce methane gas emissions. Food waste in landfills is packed in with nonorganic waste and lacks the proper space, temperature, and moisture to degrade. The waste will never break down.”

Worse, oxygen-deprived organic matter releases methane into the atmosphere, which is a harmful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming and climate change. This process is called anaerobic decomposition.  Methane is 28 to 36 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere over the course of a century. “Although most modern landfills have methane capture systems, these do not capture all of the gas.”

“Landfills are the third-largest source of human-generated methane emissions in the United States.”

How to Compost

Collect waste!

This includes food scraps and food waste, yard trimmings, leaves, and tea and coffee grounds. It can include paper and cardboard if it is not plastic coated or full of toxic inks. You can include sawdust, hair from hairbrushes, dryer lint if your clothes are made from natural fabrics, used silk dental floss, wooden toothpicks, and cut flowers that have wilted. Remove produce stickers (they are made of plastic) and do not include bioplastics because most of those are only made for industrial composting, not home composting (and if they are home compostable, the package will say exactly that).

Generally, you’ll want to exclude animal products such as scraps and bones, but you should compost eggshells. We are largely vegetarian, so the limited animal waste we have either goes in the dog’s dinner (appropriate parts such as fish or chicken skin, fat, or bacon renderings) or to my mother’s pigs (bones after boiling off for broth and such) who can eat anything. There are exhaustive lists of types of waste you can and should not compost, as well as comprehensive articles on advanced composting. I’ve listed a few of these under Additional Resources below.

I keep an old plastic container (one I stopped using several years ago after learning about the hazards of storing food in plastic) on my kitchen counter next to the sink. You can use a metal pail or buy a prettier compost container if you so desire (sometimes called compost pails or crocks). Or you may want a covered one if you are not able to make regular trips to the outdoor compost bin. But even a large jar or bowl will work. You do not need “compostable” scrap bags, they are a waste of money and are made of plastic. Just wash out your container regularly.

Stainless steel compost countertop bin or crock
Stainless steel compost countertop bin or crock. Photo from amazon.com

Deposit Waste into an Outdoor Compost Bin

If you have an outdoor area, you can build or buy a simple compost bin. There are many DIY instructions on videos on how to do this, and there are also many options for purchasing. I suggest reading up on the various types of bins and their reviews to find the right one for you. Our compost bin is a plastic Rubbermaid compost bin that my mother-in-law handed down to us. Though not the type we’d buy today, it’s very functional and does the job. We had to add some “security” around it to keep out critters. At the beginning of every spring, we use the side hatch to remove the bottom layer of rich compost to incorporate into the garden boxes.

My Rubbermaid compost bin with fencing around it.
Our Rubbermaid compost bin with small fencing around it.

My Rubbermaid compost bin from an angle.

Composting Indoors/Apartment Options

Ask permission (if you live on a managed property): Request to place a small compost tumbler on your patio or outdoor area.

Electric composters: These machines “grind and heat your organic refuse into a dark, dry fertilizer.”

Worm composting: This practice uses earthworms that eat food scraps and digest the waste, breaking it down into a nutrient-rich compost called vermicompost. There are lots of resources online for worm composting and I’ve included a couple below under Additional Resources.

“Compost does not smell bad. The reason your trash stinks is because organic and non-organic materials are mixed. Just like in the landfill, the organic matter can’t break down, so it lets off really stinky odors.” -Kathryn Kellogg

Compost Services

Last, there are private collection services. If you are able and willing to include this in your budget, you’ll have the easiest and most convenient method of compost while doing a good thing for the Earth. A quick internet search can locate the compost services in your area. Litterless.com also offers a state-by-state listing of where you can compost.

Example of an outdoor open compost bin with many colorful food scraps.
Example of an outdoor open compost bin. Photo by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

Compost care

Compost needs three main components: oxygen, heat, and moisture. These allow for biological activity, meaning worms and insects, which is what breaks everything down. I suggest covering the compost bin (if it didn’t come with a cover) but allowing it to stay moist. Most compost bins have air holes. Between moisture from rain and food scraps, this is usually not an issue. You can add water if needed, but only a little. Stir or turn your compost every few weeks to allow for aeration between the layers.

It’s really that simple unless you want to get super scientific about it and try to achieve a certain compost quality, which is cool! But it can just be an easy way to lovingly dispose of food scraps and other organic waste.

Compost is Great for Gardening

Compost is the ultimate and most natural fertilizer for a home or urban garden. I have several garden boxes like the one pictured below, using a mixture of compost, vermiculite, and peat moss. Growing your own food reduces reliance on large agricultural farms that use heavy pesticides, fertilizers, and genetic modification.

Garden box using compost as soil.
My garden box, using compost as soil.
Lettuce I grew in the garden box with compost.
Resulting lettuce crops from the same garden box. This was the freshest lettuce I’ve ever had and of course, it was plastic-free.

If you have no desire to garden, you can give your compost away to a friend who does.

Rotting or composting fruit and vegetable waste
Image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

Or Do Nothing with It

You can also compost and do absolutely nothing with it! The important part is reducing what is going in the landfill where nothing decomposes, which in turn reduces greenhouse gases. Compost makes the world a better place! Thanks for reading, and please subscribe.

All photos by me unless otherwise noted.

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “A more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, methane emissions will leap as Earth warms,” Princeton University, ScienceDaily, March 27, 2014.

Guide, “Composting,” Earth Easy, accessed March 14, 2021.

Article, “10 Pro Composting Tips from Expert Gardeners,” Earth Easy, August 6, 2019.

Guide, “Composting At Home,” Environmental Protection Agency, accessed March 18, 2021.

Article, “How to Make Compost at Home?” The University of Maryland Extension, accessed March 18, 2021.

Guide, “How to Create and Maintain an Indoor Worm Composting Bin,” Environmental Protection Agency, accessed March 18, 2021.

Article, “Slimy pets to eat your garbage and entertain your kids,” by Colin Beavan,

How to Compost in an Apartment,” Earth Easy, March 8, 2019

Article, “You Should Be Composting in Your Apartment. Here’s How,” Mother Jones, December 31, 2019. Features how-to’s on worm composting.

Footnotes:

How Glass Recycling Can and Should Work: Part 1

Glass is 100% recyclable!

“Ninety-three percent of consumers still expect to be able to recycle glass,” according to a survey by the Glass Recycling Coalition.

In my part 1 and part 2 posts about glass recycling in Chattanooga, I learned and shared with you why glass is no longer accepted in curbside recycling. I shared that glass recycled through curbside for about 4 years was not recycled, it was landfilled instead. Last, I solved the mystery about whether or not the glass at the five recycling centers was actually recycled – and it is, by Strategic Materials in Atlanta.

I learned that glass recycling is really complex and difficult to understand. So I am explaining how the system works in general in two parts. I hope it helps you understand!

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“Recycling glass saves one-quarter to one-third the energy over virgin materials production.” -Daniel Imhoff, Paper or Plastic

Recycling happens when it is profitable

First, you have to realize that waste management and recycling are businesses. BIG businesses. The solid waste industry in the U.S. is a $17 billion per year industry and expected to increase to $25 billion by 2024.

So it comes down to money. Economics. Seems like all things do! I thought for years that it happened because it was the right thing to do for the environment.

Nope. Recycling happens because recycling makes money.

How glass is collected

It starts with you and me, the consumer. We clean and sort the glass, and recycle it through their local Solid Waste Division of the city or municipality where we reside.

In a single-stream recycling system, meaning a system in which all recyclables go into one blue bin, the materials are sent to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) for sorting. A MRF’s primary function is to sort materials, decide what to do with those materials, and then sell and transfer them. Here’s a quick youtube video to give you a visual understanding:

How does this arrangement come to be? A city, local government, or municipality asks for and receives bids for waste management. A MRF is awarded the contract and often a hauling company as well; they are usually funded through property taxes. WestRock is the MRF for Chattanooga as well as many other municipalities in the Southeast U.S.

Almost all municipalities pay a MRF to handle and sort their recycling. Then the  MRF sorts the materials through a complex system (the process varies by company), and then they sell the materials for a profit. The primary markets for recyclable glass containers are the 75 glass container manufacturing plants in
the United States.

Sometimes, as in Chattanooga since January 2018, glass is not collected curbside. It must be taken to one of the five recycling centers, and that type of recycling is known as dual-stream recycling – materials are separated into specified bins by the consumer.

Glass is transported

Glass gets sent to a glass recycling company or glass manufacturer. The glass collected from dual-stream recycling goes straight to the glass recycling company. In our case, that is Strategic Materials, the largest glass recycling company in North America. In single-stream systems, the MRF separates the glass and sells it to a glass recycling company or manufacturer. (Single stream recycling has a lot of issues, especially with glass. I’ll cover that in Part 2.)

There are forty-six glass manufacturers in the U.S., and often glass must be transported across state lines for recycling. Some large cities with lively nightlife do not collect glass, such as New Orleans and Nashville. “Municipalities choosing to go without glass point to the cost of hauling a material with low market value as the reason, but other industry folks argue that the market for glass is not the problem. They consider the problem to be collection and assert that, if glass could be collected in ways that reduce its role as a contaminant, then we would see greater success with the material,” writes Beth Porter in Reduce, Reuse, Reimagine.

How glass is recycled

Glass is broken down and ground into cullet. Cullet and recycled glass melt at lower furnace temperatures than virgin (or new) glass ingredients, which saves energy. This also reduces carbon dioxide emissions. The Glass Recycling Coalition states: “Glass recycling helps to preserve limited natural resources by reducing raw material use, reduces energy consumption as recycled glass melts at lower temperatures than raw materials, saves money on reduced landfill tons, and reduces air emissions.” The Glass Packaging Institute adds that glass recycling “extends the life of plant equipment, such as furnaces,” another cost savings.

The technology for recycling glass just keeps getting better too. Watch this short NPR segment about it:

Unlike a plastic bottle, a glass bottle can become another glass bottle!

How Glass Recycling Should Work

Demonstrated in the following two infographics from the Glass Recycling Coalition is how the system should work when the recycling loop is not broken (meaning when the glass is not deposited into landfills):

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It seems so simple!

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“Any use of recovered glass saves resources,” said Luke Truman of Allagash Brewing & the Glass Recycling Coalition.

Glass Recycling Proponents

The Glass Recycling Coalition(GRC), a non-profit, “brings together a diverse membership of companies and organizations to make glass recycling work: glass manufacturers, haulers, processors, materials recovery facilities, capital markets, end markets and brands that use glass to showcase their products.” They formed in 2016. Strategic Materials is a member. They also encourage MRF’s to become members. (WestRock is not a listed member, however.)

The Glass Packaging Institute (GPI) is a trade association representing the North American glass container industry. “GPI promotes glass as the optimal packaging choice, advances environmental and recycling policies, advocates industry standards, and educates packaging professionals.” They have an additional website called upgradetoglass.com, and it promotes the switch to glass over other materials because it is safer and does not leach toxins into food and beverages. They have a section called “Why Choose Glass as Part of a Healthy Lifestyle” that I recommend you read!

The Container Recycling Institute (CRI) promotes the bottled beverage deposit system, called the Deposit Return System. In some states, this system charges the consumer a deposit fee of 5 or 10 cents. When the consumer returns that bottle for recycling, they get their money back. In some places, this includes glass, plastic, and aluminum bottles and cans. A Wall Street Journal article noted that “an average of around 63% of glass containers are recycled” in the 10 participating states. But states that don’t have deposit programs only have a glass recycling rate at around 24%.

Tennessee does not participate in the deposit system. However, there is currently a proposal called the Tennessee Bottle Bill Project.

There are additional uses for glass

On top of recycling glass to make new glass containers, there are many other uses for glass. MSW Management Weekly highlighted some of these uses, which are often referred to as secondary markets. They include road construction, either on the surface called “glassphalt” or as a road base aggregate.

Recycled glass in aggregate - isn't that pretty? Photo from Schneppa Glass.
Recycled glass in aggregate – isn’t that pretty? Photo from Schneppa Glass.

Recycled glass is also used as filler aggregate in storm drain and French drain systems. Other markets and uses include the fiberglass industry; glass beads for reflective paints; abrasives; foam glass; and other building materials – even countertops!

Recycled glass countertops and backsplash by Vetrazzo, a recycled glass surface company in California. How gorgeous!
Recycled glass countertops and backsplash by Vetrazzo, a recycled glass surface company in California. How gorgeous!

Obviously, there are lots of uses for glass.

There is a huge market for glass and so many uses for it. But if you search the internet for information about glass recycling, you’ll find many stories about different municipalities that no longer accept glass in their recycling system. The claim that there is limited or no market for recycled glass is not true. There is a huge market for it.

So why is this system breaking down? What problems are preventing recycling? That’s what I’ll be covering in Part 2. Thank you for reading!

 

Additional Resource:

Article, “Glass Recycling 101: Jars, Glass Cups and Wine Bottles,” Wine Cellar Innovations, accessed January 10, 2021.