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Four things to consider when choosing — and using — trash bags

Some are thicker. Some are greener. Some mask your stinky garbage with the scent of faux cherry blossoms.

(Linnea Bullion for The Washington Post)
7 min

I have never paid attention to the specifics of the standard 13-gallon kitchen trash bags I pick up at Safeway or Costco. I just choose a box of plain white bags with drawstring closures. But over the past few years, I’ve noticed an explosion of options: stretchier panels to make overstuffed bags more flexible and tear resistant; bags in black or pastel colors, plus gray to match stainless appliances; bags made with recycled plastic; and, of course, the ubiquitous scented bags.

A search on Target’s website offers dozens of results for 13-gallon trash bags, whether from major manufacturers Glad and Hefty, the store’s own label or others. Numerous kitchen bag offerings these days have some sort of scent or odor controller, and I have to say, the thought of masking the aroma of crab shells with fake vanilla does not spark joy for me.

“The market has changed for sure,” says C.C. Ciafone, director of marketing for Glad, a division of Clorox. Everyone’s been home and cooking more these past 19 months, she says, and the amount of residential trash produced has increased, bumping up sales of garbage bags. In 2020, the total market for trash bags in the United States rose 11.9 percent over the previous year, according to Joan Driggs, vice president at IRI, a market research firm.

Ciafone says the contents of consumers’ trash have also changed. A positive note is that people have been recycling more and placing fewer cardboard boxes and plastic bottles in kitchen trash bags, she says. “But with so much more food waste, our trash tends to be stinkier, smellier wet trash.” That has increased the appeal of scented or odor-neutralizing products. The latest release? Deep pink Glad ForceFlexPlus bags with a cherry blossom scent. They smell sort of like the Tidal Basin in April, mixed with a whiff of Febreze.

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Clearly, my basic white bags make me as boring as anyone who still wears white underwear. But with so many options and features, how do you choose? Here are four things to consider when shopping for — and using — kitchen garbage bags.

The spectrum of greener choices is growing. If you have thought more about the effects of household waste on the environment and have considered switching to a greener kitchen trash bag, know that there are a growing number of choices. But sorting through the terminology on the packaging can be daunting. Major manufacturers and smaller companies are creating bags labeled with a wide range of terms, such as “eco-friendly,” a catchall moniker that has endless interpretations and no official standards. There are also trash bags that are made with recycled materials or reclaimed plastic, or that are packaged in recycled paperboard. Some bags are made from plants, others from post-consumer plastic.

“There are multiple attributes that can make a bag more sustainable,” says Rhodes Yepsen, executive director of the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI). “You have to choose the one that makes sense for your situation.” Yepsen says that, although there are many bags marked as being “biodegradable,” the term can be misleading on its own without additional information saying where they are disposed of and how long they take to break down. Several states, including Maryland, even prohibit the term from being used on plastic products, Yepsen says.

Bags marked “compostable” are made to be used if you separate food scraps for composting, which keeps them out of landfills and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. If you compost through your municipality, you could use these as a liner. A BPI seal on the packaging verifies that the bag was tested and that it meets the criteria for compostability. If you compost in your backyard, look for bags that say “suitable for home composting.” Keep in mind, though, that compostable bags are not appropriate for household trash that is headed to a landfill, Yepsen says. They also tend to be thinner than regular garbage bags, and they may tear more easily.

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“At the end of the day, we all have trash, and we need a way to collect it that is tidy and clean for us and the trash haulers,” Yepsen says. Beyond the type of bag you choose, however, he says it’s important to make behavior changes that are more environmentally friendly, including taking the time to recycle and compost whenever possible and buying only what you need to avoid waste.

That row of numbers on the box has nuggets of useful information. At a quick glance, the numbers on the bottom of most trash bag box labels can be confusing. Most measure the size and capacity of the bag. Focus on the mil measurement (1/1000th of an inch), which tells you the thickness of the bag and the amount of plastic in it. This can be an indication of strength and how heavy a load the bag can hold. However, other factors in the bag’s construction, such as it having flexible side panels, reinforced seams or multiple layers, can also play into its sturdiness. A 13-gallon kitchen bag is usually between 0.7 and 0.9 mil. If you have a big clean-out project with heavy, sharp objects, look for a contractor-grade bag of around three mil.

There’s more than one way to eliminate bad smells from trash. Odors are the No. 1 consumer complaint when it comes to trash bags, Ciafone says. Bags with some sort of scent or odor-neutralizing feature have taken off in the past 10 years. They now make up more than half of the assortment of the 13-gallon bags at Home Depot, according to Ryan Moy, Home Depot’s merchant of cleaning. Bags described as smelling like “fresh laundry” are the best sellers in this category, he says. Scented bags are particularly popular in households with diapers or litter boxes, or where trash sits for days before being taken out.

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Glad has odor-neutralizing technology in many of its bags. The additional scent, Ciafone says, is there for “consumer delight.” At Hefty, a division of Reynolds Consumer Products, Ultra Strong kitchen trash bags come with an Arm & Hammer odor neutralizer; eight have scents, and one is unscented.

Scented bags are not for everyone. They might give you a headache if you’re sensitive to fragrances. Another option is to go with bags with just an odor controller or neutralizer, which have no scent in and of themselves. “They just try to eliminate whatever smells you get in the trash,” Moy says.

The best odor controller of all, of course, is to take out your trash before it smells icky.

Does installation matter? Most of us don’t think about having a “method” of installing bags, and lifestyle hacks sometimes seem ridiculous. (However, I do subscribe to lifestyle hints columnist Heloise’s tip to keep a handful of bags at the bottom of the can, within easy reach.)

But TikTok has turned garbage bag replacement into an art, including various versions of the inside-out “hat method.” This approach involves popping the bag around the rim of the trash can like a hat and shoving it down into the can. Ciafone does not recommend this method with Glad bags. “Our odor neutralization technology is on the inside of the bag,” she wrote. “So it isn’t recommended to flip it inside out.”

How does a trash bag pro do it? Moy unrolls the bag, and then, he says, “I typically take it by the drawstring and give it a little snap and let the air pop it open. Then I put my arm into it and push through inside to the bottom of the can. I use the drawstring to hug the top of the trash can, wrapping it over the edge to make sure it fits snugly.”

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