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Eco-Friendly Trash Bags: What To Know and What To Buy

Looking for eco-friendly trash bags? I took a deep dive into many of the qualities and considerations related to choosing an eco-friendly trash bag. Read on for more and figure out which recyclable or compostable trash bag might be right for you.

A while back, I received a note from a friend asking about eco-friendly trash bags. She had a specific brand in mind and asked if I thought it was actually eco-friendly. (Sigh… the perils of doubt instilled by greenwashing). As you might expect, this led me down the eco-friendly trash bag rabbit hole. Have you visited before? If not, let me drop some knowledge on you about trash bags that are good (or not-so-bad) for the planet.

Side note: “Eco-friendly trash bags” almost sounds like an oxymoron because trash just isn’t good for the planet. But we are all going to generate some level of waste so trash bags are part of life for now. Hopefully, we can make progress to collectively use fewer trash bags over time.

The Most Eco-Friendly Trash Bag Is The One We Don’t Use

Before digging into the details of eco-friendly trash bags, let’s acknowledge that the most eco-friendly way to handle trash is to create less of it and not need plastic trash bags or more eco-friendly alternatives. 

Landfills are overflowing and waste is piling up at ever-increasing rates. According to the EPA’s most recent data from 2018 (published in December 2020), the United States generated 292 million tons of waste, the highest amount on record.

While some landfills and incinerators capture methane gases to use as energy, everything that ends up in the trash uses lots of resources as it’s made, moved around, and used by us before being disposed of. There are many ways to reduce waste, and just a few ideas include composting, shopping secondhand, using local sharing economies, and being mindful about what we buy before we buy it.

Can Trash Bags Be Eco-Friendly?

In short, yes (sort of). Certain types of trash bags can be eco-friendly relative to their traditional plastic trash bag alternatives. This largely depends on the materials from which they are made. Plastic trash bags are made of…. plastic, and plastic takes decades and often centuries to break down. Plastic is also derived from fossil fuels, and we don’t need any more of those being pulled out of the ground. Trash bags made from something other than virgin plastics will likely be a more environmentally-conscious choice than what most people are using today.

Despite our best efforts, just about everyone is going to produce some amount of trash, especially in countries rampant with consumption-driven and waste-filled systems. We all need a number of trash bags in our lives. So even if we can’t eliminate trash from our lives, what types of trash bags are the best to use for things we can’t recycle, reduce, or reuse?

What Makes A Trash Bag Eco-Friendly?

One might consider a trash bag to be more eco-friendly based on qualities like:

  • the material with which it is made
  • the amount of energy and virgin resources used to make it or transport it
  • and what happens to it at the end of its life (closely tied to the materials with which it is made). 

Materials

Eco-friendly trash bags are typically made of plant-based materials or recycled plastic. Plant-based materials generally leave behind fewer greenhouse gases and toxic chemicals leaching into the soil in which they breakdown, if (and only if) they’re decomposing in the proper conditions.

Recycled plastic bags don’t break down any differently than virgin plastic. They still can create more microplastics as they break into smaller pieces over time. But they do require fewer virgin resources and support a more robust market for recycled plastic, which can help reduce overall waste and encourage more circular materials markets. (If there’s no one interested in buying recycled plastic, there’s no market to recycle the plastic we already have in our homes.)

Energy Usage

Eco-friendly trash bags still require energy to make, transport, and process. More sustainable trash bags might be made in facilities focusing on using less energy during the manufacturing process, for example. According to The Association of Plastic Recyclers, recycled plastic takes far less energy to process than virgin plastic. It’s worth noting this organization has a core business incentive to report this finding, but the differences are quite significant.

As consumer demand pushes for corporate and political policy changes, more companies have invested in reducing the amount of energy usage at company facilities (like buildings and manufacturing plants) and reusing materials that used to be considered waste. As an example, Glad (a brand of The Clorox Company) has made significant efforts toward zero waste to landfill manufacturing operations, which could result in their trash bags being more eco-friendly than alternatives from brands not making similar investments in energy reduction.

This isn’t the “be all end all” of green living, but it’s progress. And progress from a large company happens at a much more impactful scale than me unplugging my unused toaster or skipping a straw at a restaurant. In short, it’s worth something while continuing to encourage companies to always strive for better.

End-of-Life Options

What happens to our trash bags after we fill them up depends in large part on the materials of which they are made and the facility where they go. And how eco-friendly a trash bag is also depends, to some extent, on how the consumer chooses to dispose of it.

While eco-friendly trash bags made from recycled plastic reduce waste during the production process (presumably), their end-of-life alternatives aren’t any better than traditional trash bags. We still end up tossing plastic into our landfills. Their eco-friendly benefits derive from the production considerations more than the disposal factors.

Trash bags made from plant-based materials have a chance of breaking down and returning nutrients to the soil if (and only if) they are delivered to a composting facility. No matter how snazzy the bag material is, depositing plant-based (i.e. compostable) trash bags in a landfill negates nearly all of the beneficial impact of making them from plant-based materials.

In order for organic matter (like the plant-based material of the compostable trash bag) to decompose in an eco-friendly way, it needs oxygen and water throughout the decomposition process. Even basic food scraps don’t break down properly in a landfill because they are buried under waste in an environment void of sufficient oxygen.

Without oxygen, organic matter (like plant-based trash bags) decomposes and generates methane, a greenhouse gas that’s approximately 25-30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. In other words, sending organic matter to landfills is pretty terrible for the environment.

Further, plant-based trash bags filled with non-organic matter make moot the material of which the bag is made. The contents of the bag contaminate a composting environment, so you can only compost a plant-based trash bag if it’s filled with only compostable materials (i.e. not typical trash).

If you fill your compostable trash bag with trash, it has to go to a landfill. In a suffocating landfill, plant-based trash bags decompose slowly and release methane just like our food scraps. It essentially defeats the purpose of using compostable bags at all.

Challenges of Plant-Based Fossil Fuel Alternatives

It’s worth noting that materials like plant-based plastic alternatives have their own set of challenges. Using plant-based fossil fuel alternatives increases the demand for the commodities used to make them (like corn and soy). In current agriculture models, these crops are often grown in monocultures that diminish biodiversity. The crops typically use synthetic fertilizers made from fossil fuels that cause soil degradation and pollution run-off.

Higher demand for corn and soy also sparks commodity price increases that impact food prices throughout the food supply chain. Corn and soy-based products are rampant in many items you buy from the grocery store (consider products like soy-based vegetarian options or anything with corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup in it). These commodity food products are also staples for animal feed. Correspondingly, spikes in animal feed prices impact meat and dairy pricing as well.

Fossil fuels are, of course, a major environmental concern. Using plant-based plastic alternatives instead of fossil fuels will likely continue to be one piece of the solution to eliminating carbon emissions and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. But it’s important to keep in mind that using plant-based trash bags is far from a magical solution that gives us permission to continue generating massive amounts of waste.

Why Use Eco-friendly Trash Bags?

Just about all of us need some number of trash bags that will end up in landfills. Landfills are airtight by design to limit contamination of and leachate seeping into surrounding areas. Therefore, compostable bags won’t decompose properly without adequate air and water. Even food scraps don’t break down in a landfill properly or expeditiously, so bags made from biomaterials aren’t going to decompose properly either.

If you’re filling trash bags with items that need to go to the landfill, it probably makes the most sense to choose recycled plastic trash bags. Nothing will break down in the landfill, though you’ll support the growth and maturation of a more robust plastic recycling market. As demand for recycled plastics increases, so too will the investment in systems and mechanisms to effectively and efficiently get more plastic out of waste streams and into recycling streams.

If you’re using eco-friendly trash bags for organic matter, like kitchen food scraps or yard waste, and can send the bags to a composting facility, opt for compostable trash bags (if you even need them at all). So long as the bags are certified as compostable, the bags and all the organic matter will decompose effectively and in a way that supports soil rebuilding and reduced emissions.

When Not To Use Eco-Friendly Trash Bags?

Skip trash bags altogether if it’s an option. Recyclable materials can go straight into a bin if your municipality or collection company allows it (ours requires it). Reuse paper bags and plastic bags or use up anything you already have on hand before buying something fancy or new. The most sustainable items we can use are the ones we already own.

Small compostable bags in a countertop food scrap bin aren’t usually necessary, though they help reduce the “ick” factor for some people. If a compostable liner bag is the only thing standing between you and a kitchen composting habit, then grab that compostable bag and compost away!

Related Reading: 7 Simple Tips to Prevent Kitchen Compost Bins from Smelling

We’ve been composting for years. For a while, I preferred not to use a liner in the countertop compost bucket. I simply washed the bucket each time I empty scraps into our compost bin. These days, I compost things like meat, bones, and some dairy with a commercial composting service and use a compostable liner in the bin where we collect scraps for this pick-up service.

However, I tend to simply toss food scraps in a bowl with a plate over it when I’m collecting scraps for our garden composter. Do what works best for you.

Just beware that compostable liner bags typically take longer to break down in backyard compost bins than most food scraps. They won’t hurt the compost, but you may have to fish them out periodically when you’re harvesting finished compost for your garden.

Lastly, if you’re sending the trash bag to the landfill and it’s full of non-compostable trash, don’t waste the bio-plastic alternative materials that go into the plant-based trash bags. Opt for the recycled plastic bag instead.

Compostable vs. Biodegradable Trash Bags: What’s The Difference?

Many companies claim their bags are either compostable or biodegradable (or sometimes both). There’s a big difference between the two terms, and both terms come with caveats. Go figure…

Compostable

Compostable is a regulated term that means something will break down without material safety or environmental concerns within a defined period of time and become an element of usable compost (i.e. soil amendment). If you’re looking for plant-based bioplastics that will do the “eco-friendly thing” you’re expecting them to do, look for items that are compostable.

According to the United States Federal Trade Commission’s Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims (“FTC’s Green Guides”), an item is compostable if “the item will break down into, or otherwise become part of, usable compost (e.g., soil-conditioning material, mulch) in a safe and timely manner (i.e., in approximately the same time as the materials with which it is composted) in an appropriate composting facility, or in a home compost pile or device.”

In other words, the item should fully decompose just like other organic matter such as food scraps and yard waste. If the compostable item is in a hot and highly-managed industrial compost facility, it should break down rather quickly. In a passive compost system like the lazily-managed pile in my backyard, the item should break down in less than a year.

Biodegradable

Biodegradable is an increasingly regulated term, though it’s been used loosely in the past and is even prohibited from being used in certain states and cities due to its likelihood to be misleading. For example, California prohibits the use of the term “biodegradable” on plastic products entirely and has even filed lawsuits and reached legal settlements with companies that violate these rules.

The FTC’s Green Guides state that in order to claim an item is degradable or biodegradable, that item must “completely break down and return to nature (i.e., decompose into elements found in nature) within a reasonably short period of time after customary disposal.”

It further goes on to state that “It is deceptive to make an unqualified degradable claim for items entering the solid waste stream if the items do not completely decompose within one year after customary disposal. Unqualified degradable claims for items that are customarily disposed of in landfills, incinerators, and recycling facilities are deceptive because these locations do not present conditions in which complete decomposition will occur within one year.”

In short, an item must fully break down within one year into elements naturally occurring in nature, and it must not be an item that is customarily thrown in a landfill, an incinerator, or another facility where such degradation cannot happen within one year due to the design of the facility.

Reflect on that for a moment and consider how many items are labeled “biodegradable” that most certainly won’t end up in a composting facility and almost definitely will end up in a landfill, incinerator, or recycling facility. Furthermore, with respect to trash bags that are specifically designed to head to landfills and incinerators in many cases, stating they are biodegradable doesn’t seem that appropriate under the FT Green Guide regulations.

tl;dr on Composting vs. Biodegradable?

When used in accordance with FTC guidelines, compostable and biodegradable both indicate that something should break down in less than a year into elements found in nature. However, compostable items will break down into something that can be used as soil amendment while this is not necessarily the case for biodegradable items.

What Certifications To Look For When Purchasing Eco-Friendly Trash Bags?

Now that you have an idea of what to consider when purchasing eco-friendly trash bags, how do you know that companies are telling the truth about their products? There are several third-party certifications that validate claims about a product’s ability to decompose in an environmentally-friendly way.

ASTM International Standards

The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) is an international standard-setting organization that offers third-party certifications for thousands of products and processes. ASTM D6400 for Compostable Plastics is a common standard used by many eco-friendly trash bag companies and is also referenced in the California regulation I mentioned above.

Its full name is ASTM D6400: Standard Specification for Labeling of Plastics Designed to be Aerobically Composted in Municipal or Industrial Facilities. The standard is intended to test and confirm that a product made from plastics will compost satisfactorily and at a rate comparable to known compostable materials. This standard requires that both disintegration (physical breakdown) and biodegradation/compost production (chemical breakdown) must occur within 180 days. It also requires that, in the end, the final product is of no harm to the surrounding ecosystem.

Notice that it specifically addresses aerobic decomposition in a municipal or industrial facility (not necessarily a backyard compost system where conditions may not be perfect or reach necessary temperatures for ideal breakdown). Some eco-friendly trash bags will specifically note when they are compostable only in an industrial facility or when they also break down in a backyard or home compost system.

Biodegradable Products Institute Certification

The Biodegradable Products Institute offers certification for compostable products as well and is one of the largest certification organizations in North America. They use independent laboratories to perform their certifications based on ASTM D6400 criteria.

These certifications are typically denoted as “BPI” certifications though they mean the same thing as meeting the ASTM D6400 standard with respect to compostability.

Further, a product with a BPI or ASTM D6400 certification may also compost in your home composting system, they just haven’t been certified to do so.

OK Compost from TUV Austria

TUV Austria is a European equivalent of BPI. They have several green certifications related to a product’s ability to be composted including OK Compost Industrial and OK Compost Home. The OK Compost Industrial mark is equivalent to the BPI certification above, such that it confirms a product will decompose properly in an industrial facility.

OK Compost Home, however, offers validation that a product will also break down in a home composting system. They consider the lower temperatures and less-than-ideal conditions in most garden compost heaps and conclude accordingly.

Each of these certifications helps to validate that an eco-friendly trash bag truly meets the requirements to decompose under the right conditions and can be helpful when comparing brands when you’re in the market for compostable trash bags.

Related Reading: Everyday Kitchen Items: Home Compostable vs. Industrial Compostable (for more information about the differences between industrial and at-home composting)

What Qualities To Review When Purchasing Eco-Friendly Trash Bags?

Recycled Plastic Trash Bags

When comparing trash bags made with recycled plastic, consider the % of the bag made with recycled materials. In most cases, only a portion of the bag uses recycled materials, so one company may use significantly more recycled materials than another.

You may also look into other environmental steps the manufacturer has taken to reduce their environmental impact such as using their own manufacturing waste in new products or reducing energy usage during the production process.

Compostable Trash Bags

Because these are designed to break down, they eventually break. Some are stronger than others, and no one wants trash bags to break when they are full of food scraps and yard waste. Many different bags have significantly different levels of durability.

Check reviews for durability to see if some seem to hold up better than others (and remember that the more durable they are, the longer they are likely to take to break down in a compost bin as well). Oh… the trade-offs.

Reviews

Check the reviews for the bags on various sites like Amazon, Target, Walmart, or any store that sells them. Beware of sponsored reviews (they’re growing in popularity) but companies should be required to disclose when reviews are sponsored or part of a campaign. These reviews may be legitimate but they’re likely to be more favorable than entirely unbiased reviews.

Sizing & Carrying Capacity

Also, be sure to get the right size for your needs. There are tiny compostable trash bags that hold about 1 gallon and fit countertop food scrap bins. There are also very large compostable trash bags more suited for restaurants and large organizations that could fill such a bag with organic matter in just a few days (or even less). In most cases, companies also disclose generally how much weight the bag can carry.

Remember not to waste your money on compostable trash bags for everyday waste that ends up in the landfill. They don’t break down and even release methane, a vicious greenhouse gas, so it’s not a productive way to reduce your environmental footprint.

Will Compostable Trash Bags Decompose In Backyard Compost?

Some compostable trash bags will break down in a backyard compost system and others will not. Check the description of the product before you buy it and look for the certifications mentioned above. If the company doesn’t disclose information to make this clear, reach out to them and ask.

Brands of Eco-Friendly Trash Bags

Now that you’ve got a lot to think about related to eco-friendly trash bags, you must be wondering what the best brands are. I’d love to tell you with conviction, but the honest answer is that there are a ton of different eco-friendly trash bags, and what works for you will not necessarily be the best for everyone.

Think about the considerations mentioned above when searching for the best eco-friendly trash bag for you. Do you want recycled plastic because it’s going to the landfill anyway? Can you use compostable bags because the bag and all the contents belong in a compost facility? Are you putting them in a backyard compost bin or sending them to an industrial or commercial composting facility? Do you even really need them?

I’ve included a few types of eco-friendly trash bags to consider that either I’ve used or have gotten great reviews online. Check these out. If they don’t meet your needs, of course, you can always do a quick internet search and pay attention to the qualities I discussed in detail above.

Compostable Trash Bags

BioBags

Size: Various (food scraps, yard waste, kitchen trash, snack size, pet waste, and more)

Material: Compostable biomaterials

Certification: BPI (ATSM D6400)

Home Compostable: Yes

Behren’s Food Scrap Bags

Size: 1.5 gallon

Material: Compostable biomaterials

Certification: BPI (ATSM D6400)

Home Compostable: Yes

UNNI Food Scrap Bags

Size: 2.6 gallon

Material: Compostable biomaterials

Certification: BPI (ATSM D6400), OK Compost Home

Home Compostable: Yes

Recyclable Trash Bags

GreenPolly Blue Trash Bags

Size: 13 gallon

Material: 90% recycled plastic; 10% renewable sugarcane

Certification: N/A

Home Compostable: No

Glad ForceFlex Trash Bags

Size: 13 gallon

Material: 50% recycled or reclaimed plastic

Certification: N/A

Home Compostable: No

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Jen Panaro

Jen Panaro, founder and editor-in-chief of Honestly Modern, is a self-proclaimed composting nerd and advocate for sustainable living for modern families. To find her latest work, subscribe to her newsletter, Sage Neighbor.

In her spare time, she’s a serial library book borrower, a messy gardener, and a mom of two boys who spends a lot of time in hockey rinks and on baseball fields.

You can find more of her work at Raising Global Kidizens, an online space to help parents and caregivers raise the next generation of responsible global citizens.

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10 Comments

  1. Thank you very much for this article. I’ve just spent an hour going round in circles on the internet looking at bin bags and wondering about the issues you’ve cleared up here. Living in a tiny flat in a ski resort in France (yes, not very sustainable in many ways, sorry) – we’ve got no choice but for some stuff to still go to landfill, so we’re sticking with the recycled plastic ones we can get in the supermarket

  2. Thank you soo much for this article! You cleared up the misconception that I think most of us have about compostable trash bags. Before we do any research it sounds like the perfect solution and I was looking into wich compostable bags to buy because I was willing to spend the extra money as long as I could do my part to mitigate this environmental crisis. Im glad I ran into your article you saved me time and money. I will opt into recycled plastic bags.

  3. Thank you for doing the research on this confusing issue! I now feel empowered to make the right decision depending upon use. Trash bags aside, we need to stop the manufacture of non-compostable substances!

    1. Glad it was helpful. And yes, less production and consumption of wasteful products would be best!

    1. Hey Sarah – I think these should be just fine to use if the material is going to a compost facility. The description says they are “Certified and meets the ASTM D6400 standards for compostability” – so you should be set. Thanks for doing this for your community! It’s so important. – Jen

  4. Hey-
    Thanks for the article. I live in NYC and my stuff is going to the landfill. And I’ll go with recycled bags. I love that you say the best practice is to use what you’ve already got on hand. It’s a confusing topic and I feel that you are knowledgeable and operate without and agenda. So helpful.
    Regards,
    Patrick

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