Eco-friendly trash bags…are they worth it?

Eco-friendly trash bags…are they worth it?

Feb 25, 2022Ashley Danielson, RDN, LD

Plastic, reusable, eco-friendly, green living, biodegradable, compostable — all of these words starting flying around the computer screen as I sat down to research what it looks like to lead a more sustainable lifestyle when it comes to trash bags.

At home we use reusable grocery bags if possible, reusable and washable produce and lunch bags, glass food storage containers, and more. When we learn about another great option to reduce waste and be more environmentally friendly, we typically try it out and never look back. We even jumped on the reusable paper towel bus, and although we still purchase paper towels (Mama-friendly for toddler life, #AmIRight?), we still love them and use them daily.

We have had the discussion of what composting would look like at our house, but haven’t taken the leap, even though I would love to! I bet I’m not the only one who has more questions on creating more sustainability in our daily lives as humans.

Plastic Trash Bags

Easy buy-in-bulk bags can help manage smelly, gross garbage. Once full, you can throw onto the curb or throw into your garbage bin. They come unscented or scented and in a variety of sizes to tackle your small garbage baskets in the bathroom or your food waste in the kitchen. Although the past 10 years have created more awareness for consumers to focus on reusable versus plastic bags in the grocery store, plastic trash bag sales have actually risen 120% in cities where plastic grocery bags have been banned.4 But they affect our environment. Plastic bags are made out of low-density polyethylene (fossil fuel), which takes an extremely long time to break down in landfills — as in hundreds of years. During the breakdown, harmful micro plastics are released. This is a term that we see with marketing on products or maybe when we talk about environmentally-friendly items. These plastics do a lot more harm than good; they contaminate the ocean and harm marine animals.

And then there is the impact of the carbon footprint, which can depend on the type of manufacturing, where the bags have traveled, and how they were used, especially with the food supply. One study predicted that emissions from plastics production and incineration could produce 56 gigatons of carbon between now and 2050, or 50 times the annual emissions of all coal power plants in the United States.2

Eco-friendly Trash Bags

When it comes to eco-friendly trash bags, quite a few options fall into this category, including 100% recycled plastic bags, paper bags, compostable trash bags and biodegradable trash bags. With changes in the past two years due to our worldwide pandemic, many consumers spend an exceptional amount of time at home compared to what their life was like earlier. Some people have started to re-think the products they are using since they most likely have more trash at home than they did before.

— Biodegradable trash bags

According to its definition, “biodegradable” means that it is capable of being broken down especially into innocuous products by the action of living things (such as microorganisms). Some of the biodegradable trash bags typically are more expensive than others, and they can’t be recycled.  Additionally, if they leave micro plastics behind, this “earth-friendly” option becomes degradable, not biodegradable. Biodegradable plastics contain petrochemical-based plastics, which means that the item breaks down quickly. They are typically also “photodegradable” or “oxo-degradable,” which only means that they break down in sunlight or air, instead of including living organisms in part of that breakdown.  In simple terms, most biodegradable trash bags are just as harmful as plastic trash bags.3

Bioplastics is another term; it can be blended with petroleum-based plastics in biodegradable or compostable trash bags. Ingredients in bioplastics are typically plant-based and renewable materials such as corn (polylactic acid/PLA), grains, sugar cane, starch or vegetable oils. The result is a long chain of carbon molecules, much similar to plastic. On the other side, there is an additional type of bioplastics: polyhydroxyalkanoate/PHA. PHA works by consuming organic material to produce reserves, with the result being a plastic-like structure that be used for trash bags, food packaging and medical products. Last, we have Mater-Bi; a combination of a plant-starch bioplastic and cellophane, creating a wood-based bioplastic.

Compostable trash bags

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “compost” as a mixture that consists largely of decayed organic matter and is used for fertilizing and conditioning land. It can fully break down into natural elements in a short period of time (12-24 weeks) and can become beneficial for the soil.

If compostable, products have to meet the criteria of the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) D64001 to determine if they are actually able to break down properly when disposed of. With these standards, they must reach or exceed a 90% conversion rate of carbon within material in carbon dioxide within 180 days. In the end, 10% returns to the soil as compost, but the rest still enters as a greenhouse gas:

  • Product must physically be able to disintegrate; it is not distinguishable from the finished product after composting.
  • Biodegradation must happen; microorganisms will consume the product quickly.
  • End products cannot harm or diminish plant growth.

If you choose to go with the compostable route, disposing of the bag needs to be done properly; otherwise, it really can be just as bad as plastic.

Options for first steps

After doing more research, reading and breaking down all of this information, compostable trash bags seem the best option to go with, or maybe even using your own compostable bin to take care of matters. Doing this allows you to compost your own food scraps (even better if you have a garden to take care of). Another option would be investing in a bin that is washable instead of using trash bags to cut down on the plastic and other materials that you are using. And even if you choose to not go this route, you can still do your part by recycling as much as you can with paper, glass, metal and more.

Looking to make that next step? Check out the eco-friendly trash bags that we offer on WholeLotta Good. 

Need an extra push to get going in life, whether it is making small or big changes like re-thinking the products you use at home? Contact our Hy-Vee Dietitians for more support.

*The blog articles, recipes and recommendations found on this site are not intended as medical advice and should not replace consulting with your medical provider. Please consult a medical professional for individual advice.


  1. 2021. Standard Specification for Labeling of Plastics Designed to be Aerobically Composted in Municipal or Industrial Facilities. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 26 January 2022].
  2. Joyce, C., 2019. Plastic Has A Big Carbon Footprint — But That Isn't The Whole Story. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 26 January 2022].
  3. Sustainable Jungle. 2021. Compostable and Biodegradable Trash Bags: Should You Use Them?. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 26 January 2022].
  4. Terrapass. 2020. The Impact of & Alternatives for Plastic Trash Bags. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 26 January 2022].






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