Dear Umbra,

I am attempting to wean myself off plastic bags. I am also aware of the environmental impact of brown paper bags. So we are OK with cloth grocery bags, but can you suggest an alternative that can be used as a trash can liner (that’s economical)?

Lisa
Columbus, Ga.

Dearest Lisa,

Plastic trash bags … a Frequently Asked Question that I have never answered. Have I been saving this succulent trash bag question for a special day? No, not really. Late March, though, feels a bit like trash bag time, so let us slosh forward into speculation about what could possibly improve our trash arrangements.

Clearly there’s a better way.

Photo: iStockphoto

A few obvious ideas strike me: no trash bags, recycled plastic trash bags, biodegradable trash bags, reusing someone else’s plastic bags.

No trash bags: Is this possible? It sounds disgusting, but if we reduce our garbage as we should, the grossness may ebb. We can reduce the mass and moisture of our garbage by recycling, composting, eating less or no meat, and frequently emptying the trash bin. We can wash the trash can often so it won’t get stinky. Through serious whole-family commitment, the No Bag option may be feasible — until the trash leaves our house.

Unfortunately, I can’t put loose trash in my outdoor trash can for pickup. If you can, maybe this idea will work for you. Or the No Bag option could morph into a Fewer Bags option: Is it possible to line the outdoor trash can with one ginormous bag? Then we could empty our bagless household garbage into the giant bag and tie the giant bag shut just before pickup day. I still see holes in this plan. Maybe the garbage people limit the size of individual garbage bags. Only one way to find out: call your waste disposal company or city and learn the rules. There must be some way to use slightly less baggage.

Recycled plastic trash bags are completely possible. Until we find a no-bag trash option, we should be buying trash bags made with recycled plastic. Recycled plastic content replaces virgin plastic content and reduces our use of petroleum. Recycled plastic bags also keep plastic out of the waste stream. We all know this about recycled material, but it’s worth pointing out every once in a while: buying products with recycled content is almost as important as sending material to be recycled. Biodegradable trash bags, on the other hand, will be a waste of money unless you know for sure that your landfill is designed to hasten decomposition, through aerobic or anaerobic means. Call your town government to find out where the garbage goes.

Our final idea of the day is to reuse someone else’s plastic bags. At first, this will be easy and uncomplicated. You surely have friends with piles of used shopping bags. Offer to collect these bags, and you will have small garbage bags for months (yet more motivation to produce less trash, since you may need to find a smaller trash can to match the smaller bag). Unfortunately, if you continue to garnish their bags, you will become complicit in virgin bag use. The better path is to convert these people to reusable shopping bags, offer to take their old bags off their hands, and then have neighborly company in the trash bag dilemma. There are unavoidable and nonrecyclable bags, such as those coated-paper dog (and other) food bags, and these would make acceptable garbage bags upon occasion. Again, you’ll need to check with the garbage guys to see if these pass muster.

Where does this leave us? I am not trying to slither out of the question, I just can’t come up with a clean answer. Except: make less trash, use fewer garbage bags, have less of a dilemma.

Incineratorly,
Umbra