trash bags stacked along the curb in front of suburban house

Are you on your way to a zero waste household? If you haul your trash to the curb every week in a plastic trash bag, figuring out a more sustainable alternative to that plastic bag can be challenging. We’ve rounded up a few greener trash bag alternatives for your consideration to help you reduce your single-use plastic trash bag consumption.

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Reusable Bags

There aren’t a lot of reusable trash bag alternatives on the market, but reusable pail liners are becoming more common. Marley’s Monsters in Eugene, Oregon makes washable pail liners in two sizes. The smaller one fits pails up to 6 gallons and the larger one fits most kitchen pails up to 18 gallons. Made of polyurethane laminate fabric (PUL), they are water-resistant, machine-washable, and reusable.

Various manufacturers offer reusable diaper pail liners, including Planet Wise, Teamoy, Alvababy, and more, ranging in capacity from 5 gallons to 13.5 gallons. These washable pail liners work just as well for household rubbish and can be reused dozens of times. Reuse is always better than single-use products and eliminating plastic waste destined to be trash is a big win.

Plant-based Bags

Reusable bags won’t work for regular curbside trash collection. However, you can lessen your Earth-impact by making use of plant-based trash bags, even if they are single-use. Using plant materials instead of plastic is a good choice as there is a smaller environmental impact in growing crops as opposed to mining for oil. Plants are a renewable resource while fossil fuels, which are used to make conventional plastic, are nonrenewable.

There are many offerings on the market including bags made of sugar cane, surplus crops, corn starch, GMO-free plants, and plenty more. Many of these plant-based bags claim to be compostable, which brings us to our next greener trash bag alternative.

Compostable Bags

Compostable bags break down into a mix of organic and inorganic material over time, typically less than a year. For your landfill trash, compostable bags are also beneficial since they reduce the leftover microplastic pollution in a landfill. There are many compostable bags on the market and most contain plant-based content, but even that can leave inorganic polymers (plastic) after they biodegrade. Check out well-reviewed UNNI ASTM, ProGreen, and HoldOn compostable bags.

It’s important to understand that “compostable” does not always mean you can drop the bag in your home compost pile. Most products that carry the “compostable” label require industrial composting (also called commercial composting), in which the pile reaches a higher temperature than at home. Commercial composting breaks down material faster and more completely. We do not recommend sending compostable bags to compost facilities because they leave microplastics in the resulting compost. Consequently, many organic composting facilities refuse to take these bags. Don’t place these bags in your home pile and be sure to check that they can sent to a commercial composting facility if you use them for yard waste.

U.S. shoppers should look for the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) label. The BPI website provides a searchable list of compostable products, but keep in mind it confirms only that a product can be industrially composted. The European TUV Home Compostable Certified label, if available, identifies products that you can confidently compost at home. You can search (though it’s designed for business and not easy for shoppers to use) for home compostable products on the TUV website.

Recycled Content Bags

Another greener option for single-use waste bags is using a bag with recycled content. It’s common eco-knowledge that utilizing any sort of waste and making it into a new product is better than using virgin oil to make a single-use plastic item.

There are many recycled content bags to choose from. We recommend looking for certifications to differentiate brands. For example Evolution Trash Bags are certified by the UL ECOLOGO Program. Also, consider well-reviewed brands such as Neat or brands that have been doing this eco-product thing for a while such as Seventh Generation.

DIY Trash Bags

Perhaps the greenest alternative to a standard plastic trash bag is to make your own trash bag. Find some folding directions for many sizes of bags on the Make Your Own Zone. These directions instruct crafters to make use of newspapers but you can also make bags out of mailer ads (similar to a newspaper) or leftover craft paper. Of course, paper bags can only be used for dry waste so this option is best for an office or bathroom waste bin. Reusing what you already have on hand and have already used is one of the greenest options for waste bags.

Maybe Skip That Liner

What are the bagging rules for your waste hauler? Perhaps you can skip the trash can liner altogether; trucks that dump the waste directly into their compactor may allow you to nix the bag. We recommend you inquire about this alternative before putting it in place. On the other hand, most recycling programs require materials to be unbagged; however, it’s not the same in every community. If you do need to bag your waste, consider only lining one large trash bin in your home and dumping all bins into that one bag. You can cut down on bag usage considerably if you only use one.

Even if your home is zero waste, you do still need to collect compost and recycling. Choosing a greener option for your waste collection bag is one way to make your life gentler on the Earth.

Originally published on February 3, 2021, this article was updated on August 7, 2023, by the Earth911 editorial team to clarify that compostable bags often leave residual inorganic plastics after they biodegrade.

By Maureen Wise

Maureen Wise is a freelance writer for a number of green-leaning companies and organizations. She also is a sustainability consultant and previously worked in higher education sustainability and watershed restoration. Wise serves on the board of an arts and environment nonprofit, is a solar owner, and is a certified master recycler. Wise writes eco-mysteries under the pen name Iris March.