State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

You Asked: What Are the Most Eco-Friendly Garbage Bags?

Got a burning question about climate change? “You Asked” is a series where Earth Institute experts tackle reader questions on science and sustainability. To submit a question, drop a comment below, message us on Instagram, or email us here.

Today’s question comes via our Earth Month Q&A on Instagram: 

Are there eco-friendly garbage bags? 

Answer provided by Phebe Pierson

phebe pierson
Phebe Pierson is communications coordinator at the Earth Institute and a former GrowNYC Greenmarkets employee. For this post she consulted with a graduate of Columbia’s Sustainability Management master’s program, Asami Tanimoto, who is also a zero waste enthusiast, and makes a living helping companies become more sustainable.

While there are some options for slightly less wasteful trash bags out there, they’re not the best. You could go for bags made from 100% post-consumer-recycled plastics, meaning that no new plastic was created to make the product. But these will sit in the landfill just like any other plastic bag.

There are also compostable/biodegradable options, although these tend to be more expensive and less sturdy. Seams can easily break and the bags don’t really stretch. Plus, while “compostable” sounds promising, they don’t break down in landfills either; the material used to make these types of bags is meant to be disposed of in high-heat industrial composting facilities.

Most landfills don’t get to the temperatures needed for compostable bags to break down, meaning they will essentially mummify along with the other trash in the landfill. This is true of “bioplastic” bags, cups and utensils, too, by the way.

One advantage of compostable trash bags is that they won’t eventually turn into teeny tiny bits of plastic in the ocean. But when you really look at what’s collecting in the ocean, it’s more likely shopping bags, water bottles, and other single-use items that are easily blown around, not full trash bags. In fact, most microplastics that end up in our water come from clothing made with plastic materials like nylon, spandex, and polyester.

The only surefire way to be truly eco-friendly about trash bags is to create less trash, so you don’t need as many! To do that, here are some tips to reduce your waste:

  1. Compost your kitchen scraps. See if your neighborhood has curbside pickup by the NYC Department of Sanitation. If not, check out GrowNYC’s drop-off locations (including farmers market and DSNY Compost-on-the-Go locations) and the Lower East Side Ecology Center. While these options are NYC-specific, most cities will have similar options.If none of these work for you, there are also private companies who will arrange to come pick up your food scraps, or creative at-home processing solutions. And if you live somewhere with a backyard, you can keep a low-maintenance composting set-up going outside.
  2. Use reusable bags and containers for everything at the store—you don’t have to stop at the totes. This includes produce (you can use small mesh or cotton bags for produce instead of using the clear plastic ones), fresh fish or meat (use a large Tupperware!), and more.
  3. Buy in bulk instead of pre-packaged. Your local Whole Foods or health food store will likely have a bulk section with dry pantry and baking goods. This is a great place to test drive your new BYOB(ag) mission; bring bags, jars, and Tupperware, and make sure to weigh them before filling. That way the cashier can charge you properly for just the weight of the food you bought. Bonus: buying in bulk is usually cheaper! There are also a bunch of companies out there that offer bulk refill programs for household products, so you can refill your bottle at home and then send/bring back the empty bulk bottles.
  4. The farmer’s market is a great place to find packaging-free seasonal produce, fish, bread, cheese, and more. Another bonus: it’s local, so it’s fresher and fewer greenhouse gas emissions were created to get it to you. And you’ll get to talk to the people who actually grew what you’re buying!Find a market near you through GrowNYC Greenmarkets, Down to Earth Markets, and Harvest Home Markets.
  5. When you do buy packaged items, try to get things in glass, metal, or paper. Glass and metal are easily recyclable, and if paper gets food on it can be composted instead of recycled.
  6. When your old household items wear out, replace them with items made from natural, recyclable, and/or renewable resources. For instance: compostable bamboo toothbrushes, wooden dish scrubbers, refillable all-natural floss, toothpaste packaged in a recyclable metal tube, or toothpaste tablets that come in a glass jar. The internet is full of clever zero-waste life hacks!
  7. Recycle every little thing you can! Check out DSNY’s website to see everything you can recycle at home. TerraCycle is a great resource for the harder items like protein bar wrappers.

This is a long list and it may seem overwhelming, but you won’t be doing all these things at once. Always use up what you have before replacing it—no need to throw something perfectly functional away just because it’s made of plastic. But if you start aiming for zero waste every time you need something from the store or every time you need a new item at home, you’ll start making a big difference over time.

I wish you luck in your zero waste journey!

Help fund climate research by Earth Institute experts here. The more we know, the better we can protect our planet.

Columbia campus skyline with text Columbia Climate School Class Day 2024 - Congratulations Graduates

Congratulations to our Columbia Climate School MA in Climate & Society Class of 2024! Learn about our May 10 Class Day celebration. #ColumbiaClimate2024

Subscribe
Notify of
guest

30 Comments
Oldest
Newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Paul Wightman
Paul Wightman
5 years ago

Plastics need to be designed to work in the primary managed waste system that plastics are being discarded. “Compostable” plastics are completely inadequate, the performance stinks, it’s not going there and in the end, Compostable plastics do not create compost. Plastics should be designed to meet ASTM D5526 performance standards, because like it or not, 90% of plastics in the U.S. end-up in Anaerobically Managed Waste Streams that convert carbon-based waste into renewable clean energy. Unfortunately, the general nomenclature for these managed systems has been turned into a “trigger” word to help the fledgling Recycling industry protect its own interest.

rebecca thompson
rebecca thompson
Reply to  Paul Wightman
15 days ago

Well said Paul!

Susan Ringler
Susan Ringler
4 years ago

But if you do need to buy garbage bags, the brands with the most post-consumer recycled content are : Evolution, earthsense, and Ifyoucare. Lots of others are available wholesale only in huge quantities with high shipping costs.

Steve Sakana
Steve Sakana
Reply to  Susan Ringler
3 years ago

Also Grove Collaborative sells 100% recycled bags.

Kimberly Slone
Kimberly Slone
4 years ago

Excuse me? This isn’t helpful or practical! The majority of Americans are performing the work of two people at our jobs and/or working two or three jobs. We’re exhausted! There’s no time to cook, sort or recycle. And here in Alaska, there’s no curbside pickup. Safeway, Walmart, Target, Fred Myers.. none of these places make it easy to bring your own container. Every time I do, it’s a lengthy discussion. I’ve called Safeway headquarters and I was told there’s no policy regarding this and to talk to the store manager. My second issue is produce and fruit take weeks to get to Alaska and so far I don’t trust local farming practices so, I buy frozen to get the most nutritious food I can. I recycle but not everything can be recycled or composted here. I’m overwhelmed, overworked and angry. We need system wide change. In the meantime, what are the best options for rural communities or Alaskan communities for getting rid of packaging and dog poop? Are there any trash bags you would recommend? Are there any frozen food, dog food etc corporate packaging that is better than the rest? After the summer we had here in Alaska, I think we’re way too late in our effort to change corporate behavior and we will reach 3 degrees of heating sooner than later.

Michelle Choi
Michelle Choi
Reply to  Kimberly Slone
4 years ago

I think you guys in Alaska are the exception, not the norm.

Nanette
Nanette
Reply to  Kimberly Slone
3 years ago

I hear ya. They put it all on us, when it’s the corporations who are causing the problem and they are the ones who SHOULD bear responsibility for the solutions. Will they? I doubt it.

Jane Nichols
Jane Nichols
Reply to  Nanette
3 years ago

Absolutely!! The corporations should bear the responsibility for the solutions. Quit making it so hard for folks to do this!
Kudos to the Alaska respondent for laying out why the personal responsibility approach is b.s., individuals can do some of this, sure, but corporations should do a whole lot more than they currently do!

Ella Rae
Ella Rae
Reply to  Kimberly Slone
2 years ago

My solution is to use paper bags to line my under sink garbage bin. We know paper, especially brown Kraft paper, will break down. It’s not the perfect solution but lining the bin with newspaper is kind of messy especially when it goes out for garbage day pick up. For shopping, I use cloth bags and reusable mesh bags for produce. I hear you about being busy and having limited options. We just have to do our best and hope that solutions will follow.

Brajshukl
4 years ago

Awesome all ways use it

Kari
Kari
4 years ago

Many places have stopped accepting glass recycling.

Our only hope is to reduce our consumption…..a difficult thing when the United States bases the health of the economy on consuming more.

Elsa Infante
Elsa Infante
4 years ago

I am going to try holding a clean up event at the biggest inner city park in America and I want to do it the most eco friendly way possible…. how do you think I can do this? I want to be able to also separate what is recyclable and trash. I need advice and help.

Marcela
Marcela
4 years ago

I’m not sure if I misread the title of the article, it says “what are the most eco-friendly garbage bags” but then it goes on to talk about ways to reduce waste…instead of actually talking about garbage bags?

deborah
deborah
Reply to  Marcela
3 years ago

Perhaps it’s because there are No real products that do what were asking for. Hopefully, plant based, 100% biodegradable materials will be found. I’m in 2020, so going to research this and hope we’ve made progress. Be well.

Paul Measley
Paul Measley
4 years ago

Greenpeace and EIA say compostable/biodegradable garbage bags are actually not good for the environment in this recent report: https://eia-international.org/wp-content/uploads/Checking-Out-on-Plastics-2-report.pdf

I came across this Australian based company making reusable garbage bags made with recycled plastic called TOMbag – https://www.tombag.com.au

Has anybody heard of them?

Shannon
Shannon
4 years ago

Didn’t really answer the original question.

Pedro Hernandez
Pedro Hernandez
4 years ago

The produce at a farmers market is not necessarily local. There are a lot of people who buy produce from a wholesaler and selling it at the farmers market. They will tell people it’s all locally grown organically on their family farm if asked even though they have no idea where it was grown, let alone how it was grown or harvested. Unfortunately you have to do some work, and verify the sellers are actually growing what they are selling.

Morgan Flinner
Morgan Flinner
4 years ago

We do compost and recycle. We only have 1 bag of trash a week from our family of 4. But I still don’t know what the best bag is to use. Please advise 🙂

Curtis Clark
Curtis Clark
4 years ago

You’ve actually got great information here about the many cons of existing alternatives for plastic bags – more than other sites I’ve been looking on. But then you don’t follow-through on the question in your title, and instead just remind us that nothing composts in a landfill, and tell us to reduce waste. I can say that anyone here reading this article already knows that reducing waste is the best way to be eco-friendly.

We are here to find out what bags to put that reduced waste into.
And we do want to hear your thoughts!

So what about the PROS of each alternative? Is there one you would recommend? My initial thoughts are that since no bags will compost in a landfill, we are looking at what is the most eco-friendly bag during its manufacture process – I.e. what bags use the least materials, and most renewable materials, to create, etc. For example, maybe compostable bags don’t compost, but does producing them leave a smaller carbon footprint anyway?

P.S. I never found compostable bags are all that bad, performance wise. If they don’t work for some of your trash cans/loads, then just use them for the other lighter-use trash cans. (if they do in fact, turn out to be more eco-friendly)

Jenna
Jenna
4 years ago

Wow, what an unnecessarily discouraging post. In the REAL WORLD, no matter how eco you are, you still need garbage bags to dispose of non-recyclable/non-compostable items. Your “Make big changes or nothing” logic is part of the reason why people get so discouraged from trying to do better. We all have to implement multiple small habits to be as Green as possible. Using biodegradable trash bags isn’t perfect, but it’s infinitely better than using plastic trash bags.

Jessica Erin MacMurtrie
Jessica Erin MacMurtrie
4 years ago

I’m trying to reduce our plastic waste so I was trying to find eco-friendly garbage liners. We live in an apartment and this article was really not helpful at all for that purpose. I’ve been realizing after researching that a lot of the ways to improve are really only geared towards people with houses and yards…

Yvette Strom
Yvette Strom
4 years ago

I do everything I can to reduce my waste and recycle everything I can at my local recycling center but I end up with a paper grocery bag worth of garbage a week. And I do use the paper grocery bag to put it in the bin. Is that my best ecological choice?

Nanette
Nanette
3 years ago

How about using paper grocery bags? You have to carry your can to the curb- trash chute and dump the bag out of the can, but technically it IS in a bag.

Kate
Kate
Reply to  Nanette
3 months ago

That is the best option, I think, short of just dumping your trash loose from your garbage can into the transfer station compacter. That is allowed in our town, where we do not have trash pick-up.

Ror
Ror
3 years ago

Eco-Friendly garbage bags is the best alternative for plastic bags. Make separating food recycling clean and easy for you and your family.

Mike
Mike
3 years ago

Hi, we have food scrap pickup at our appartment, and I need to buy my own bags for our counter can. Do you know if these are ok? https://greenpaperproducts.com/biodegradable-trash-bags-kitchen-g100.aspx

fiona liu
fiona liu
3 years ago

Garbage bags are mainly made of plastic, while plastic ones are extracted from petroleum, and it takes about 200 years for garbage bags to rot when buried in the ground and seriously pollute the soil; if incineration is adopted, harmful smoke and dust will be generated And toxic gases, long-term pollution of the environment.
https://www.chinapapershop.com/product/high-quality-plastic-garbage-bags

Jane
Jane
3 years ago

I have had this same question for most of my adult life (ahem, 30+ years) and getting the same responses as what is in the article & the comments, I’m going to start using bags that appear to made with fewer resources or are less toxic to create. So essentially I’m not going to worry about them sitting in a landfill but I will continue to do what I can to reduce my waste and then either re-use a bag or purchase bags that are made with fewer resources or are less toxic to create (such as those mentioned in the comments or new ones that come on the scene). Writing this in April 2021.

John
John
1 year ago

If you really want to have eco-friendly garbage bags don’t look at composable ones. Try reusable bags you can wash them and clean them when you do your laundry it really helps.

Denielle Rose
Denielle Rose
9 months ago

I appreciate the intent of this article, but most of us have some garbage, and have municipal waste picking up our garbage. I produce very little waste in a week, but I still need to put what I do use on the curb, and would like to know what the best options are for that. In this way, the title is a bit misleading and the article doesn’t answer the question.