Garbage: Rethinking the need for bags

by Nancy Alton

This article was originally published in March 2009

Did you know?

Food waste makes up one-third of the residential garbage in Seattle, or nearly 45,000 tons!

It does not biodegrade in landfills. Instead, food waste takes up space and produces methane, a greenhouse gas that causes climate change.

Why compost?

Composting reduces garbage and builds healthy soil for plants and gardens. Compost-rich soil absorbs runoff and breaks down pollutants like oil, grease, metals, fertilizers and pesticides.

To learn what can be composted and easy ways to do it, visit Seattle Public Utilities:

Better recycling and composting begins March 30 in Seattle

  • New collection day for most households
  • WEEKLY food and yard waste collection for single-family households
  • Meat, fish and dairy scraps go in food and yard waste cart
  • More food and yard waste cart options
  • Recycle more paper, plastic and metal items
  • Glass bottles and jars won’t need to be separated

(March 2009) — Garbage brings out my inner cheapskate. I can’t recall the last time I bought garbage bags to house the waste my family creates on a daily basis. It’s ugly to admit I have loved the free plastic bags I got from stores.

These bad-for-the-planet sacks have lined my kitchen waste container for years. It was the prospect of a proposed 20-cent-per-bag fee at Seattle’s grocery, drug and convenience stores that made me change my wanton ways.

The plastics industry has stymied the implementation of the Seattle City Council’s “green” fee on disposable bags, forcing it to a citywide vote sometime this year. No matter the outcome of the balloting, I’m glad that publicity about a green fee made me really think about my garbage.

A family friend reminded me that garbage-can liners are a new-fangled thing. “We never used bags when I was a kid,” said Audrey, with a laugh. These must-have garbage bags for wastebaskets are a relatively recent phenomenon.

Hmm, I thought, maybe my idea of not lining my waste pail with a bag at all was a good, solid concept.

How green would our kitchen be if my husband, Chris, and I really stopped using plastic garbage bags? My mom already thought I was crazy for never buying paper towels. As I talked over my plan with friends, I discovered several of them thought it was an unsanitary concept. Touching garbage seemed to be a big concern.

Chris and I plowed ahead, though. Late last summer we stopped using plastic bags in our kitchen garbage bin. We didn’t care that it was the beginning of fruit fly season. (We’ve never used a bag in our compost bucket. Some people use Biobags for this since they decompose and can go right in the yard waste bin.)

Surprisingly, it wasn’t a huge adjustment. Before the change, we emptied our kitchen can almost every evening into our outside garbage bin. Now we do this consistently every single night. I wondered if we would waste excessive water cleaning the bin. But that hasn’t been the case. Sure, we clean it much more often but a little hot water and a tiny bit of scrubbing go a long way.

If anything, this experiment has made me think about food composting more. Now we put a lot more food waste into the yard waste bin. I re-read the city’s rules for food composting again. I didn’t realize pasta and tea bags were acceptable for composting. Now I am less apt to be lazy when sorting the garbage. It makes for a cleaner garbage can.

Of course, we still have food waste that yells out for a bag: grease, chicken bones and leftovers that never were eaten. So we put those in a paper or plastic bag and close it.

It’s not that I can’t put these yucky things in the garbage can without a bag. It’s just that leaving them loose in the can might encourage raccoons or other animals to get into our garbage. We already prop our small black bin under a window ledge so the crows don’t tease it open.

In late summer and throughout our warm Seattle fall, fruit flies love our yard. We have raspberries, blueberries, an apple tree and a plum tree. I try to think of fruit flies as the dark side of enjoying fresh fruit picked right from our backyard. When the flies took to our city waste receptacle, we just needed to think up a solution.

So we put a large garbage bag inside our outside garbage can, putting all our waste inside the bag and pulling it shut. This seemed to work just fine. After fruit fly season slowed down, we stopped lining the outside bin with a bag.

Our anti-liner experiment has turned into the way we live now. I can’t say I never accept a plastic bag when I shop at Bartell’s. Still, we no longer line the kitchen garbage can with a bag. And I don’t really miss it. Cleaning the pail has added only a mere minute or two of work to my life every few days.

Now I just need to remember all my cloth sacks every time I visit a store that offers me plastic bags.

Nancy Alton is a freelance writer and editor in the Seattle area.

Also in this issue

Farm tours mark the 10th anniversary of the PCC Farmland Trust

Beginning in June, take a farm tour on one of the trust's properties to learn about the land and the source of our food as the Farmland Trust celebrates its 10th birthday.

News bites, March 2009

Washington continues to lose farmland, School principal bans sugar, High fructose corn syrup contains mercury, and more