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Eco-Friendly Trash Bags: What To Know and What To Buy (2021)

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 month or so ago, 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 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 lots of 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 of 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, but they do require fewer virgin resources and support a more robust market for recycled plastic, which can help reduce overall waste.

Energy Usage

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. 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. 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.

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

In order for organic matter to decompose in an eco-friendly way, the matter needs oxygen and water throughout the 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 is 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 are considered contamination in a composting environment, and the bag goes to the 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 the 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 the bags made of recycled plastic. 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 direct such waste to a composting facility, opt for compostable trash bags (if you even need them at all). 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 all together if it’s an option. Recyclable materials can go straight into a bin if your municipality or collection company allows it (our requires it). Reuse paper bags or use up anything you already have on hand before buying something fancy or new. The most sustainable items we can use up are the ones we already own.

Small compostable bags in a countertop food scrap bin aren’t usually necessary. They help reduce the “ick” factor for some people. But we’ve been composting for years, and I actually prefer not to use a liner in the countertop compost bucket. I simply wash the bucket each time I empty scraps into our compost bin.

Lastly, if you’re sending the 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. If you’re looking for plant-based trash bags that will do the “eco-friendly thing” you’re expecting them to do, look for bags 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 just means that something will eventually breakdown into pieces. Everything is biodegradable if you wait long enough, even plastic. In other words, making a claim that a product is biodegradable is an empty claim on its own. Many companies use this word because it resonates with consumers. It’s also used, in some respects, in certain types of certifications (along with other meaningful classifications and definitions).

That a product is biodegradable may be part of a larger, meaningful scope of eco-friendly qualities. But beware that the term “biodegradable” doesn’t carry any weight on its own 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.

Further, 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 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.

tl;dr on Composting vs. Biodegradable?

Compostable means what you probably think it does (and you can eventually feed it to your vegetable garden) and biodegradable means nothing. 

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

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 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” certification 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.

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 breaking when they are full of food scraps and yard waste. Many different bags have significantly different levels of durability.

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. 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 get 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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