5 frugal trashcan hacks.

First USEME trashcan sighting in Ramoji Film City © by vincelaconte

When I lived in Seattle my under-sink trashcan was quite small. I could get away with this for several reasons: I lived alone, cooked frugally and took enthusiastic advantage of the city’s single-stream recycling program. Generally it took a week or more for the can to fill up.

Being an illegitimus frugalis, I never bought a single kitchen trashcan liner. Why should I, when plastic shopping bags were so ubiquitous? Even though I toted at least one reusable bag everywhere I went, the plastics had a way of accumulating:

I picked them up while walking home. (Once I also picked up some free ice cream this way.) 

People gave me things inside shopping bags.

Sometimes I bought so much (usually from the used-bread, used-meat or dented-can bins that the order wouldn’t fit in my cloth bag, so I’d have to accept an additional plastic one.

I gleaned them while on vacation. My relatives tend to use plastic with happy abandon. Folded-up bags take up practically no room in a carry-on.

Thus I always had at least a few dozen bags on hand. That is, until Seattle’s ban on plastic shopping bags took effect in July 2012.

Alternative bag sources

I had my backlog o’bags, and it was still possible to get more – discarded on the street, say, or from the Walgreens just over the city line. But I also had a secret weapon: My absolute inability to throw something away if I could get one more use from it.

Here are some of my frugal trashcan tips:

  • Open your next package of toilet paper at the top, with scissors. When the paper is used up, line the trashcan with the empty bag. (If you buy jumbo packs of paper towels or toilet paper at Costco, the big plastic outer wrap can be used for larger amounts of garbage.)
  • Getting new socks, underwear or T-shirts? Open that package from the top as well.
  • The mail-order pharmacy sent my maintenance meds in soft, collapsible (and non-recyclable) envelopes that fit the bathroom trashcan perfectly.
  • Bags that held pet food or cat litter are stiff enough to stand upright in the kitchen trashcan. (I didn’t have a pet, but some of my neighbors did. As an inveterate Dumpster wader, I’d pull the bags from the recycle bin.)
  • If you live in a non-recycling area, throw trash into a box and toss the filled carton into the Dumpster or garbage can.

These practices may seem penny-ante to some, and may very well be: I don’t know how much you actually save because I’ve never bought a box of plastic trashcan liners.

But it isn’t just the savings or part of my financial planning. I’m also interested in giving that plastic one last use before it gets discarded. Imagine if millions more people did this.

One more shot

Now I live in Anchorage, where plastic bags are handed out as freely as insincere compliments on Ladies’ Night. Some stores give you a nickel per reusable bag, but I still see a lot of discarded bags floating around or impaled on winter-bare tree branches. Ugh.

My hostess is an avid recycler, so I’m back to generating very little garbage – and to lining the bathroom trashcan with shopping bags, toilet-paper packages and the like.

Incidentally, those women’s magazines household-hints sections are correct: An empty tissue box does a great job organizing folded-up plastic shopping bags. The other items live in the bottom of or next to the trashcan, waiting for one more shot at usefulness.

Readers: Do you re-use bags or other items for trashcans? Got any other ideas to share?

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  1. Heck yeah, I reuse plastic bags, not only for my trash, but to line my cat’s poop box, to tote stuff around in, as packing in boxes I mail, as templates for cloth bags I make once a decade or so, and I try to keep one or two in my car for muddy shoes and such. As long as they’re still legal around here, I’ll use ’em.

    • I re-use plastic bags mostly to pick up after my dog. And not just shopping bags — bread bags, bags the newspaper and circulars/coupons come in, whatever I can reuse I do. I can’t be one of those people who buys plastic poo bags when they are everywhere for free. I have friends who save theirs for me too! I’ve got quiet a stash, and they take up practically no storage space.

      • Donna Freedman

        @Sheila: I save newspaper bags, bread bags and the like for my niece, who recently adopted a shelter dog. She has a never-ending need for the things. Buying them seems a foreign idea to me as well.

        • On a similar note, we take ours to a daycare… they use them for diapers. (Each diaper gets wrapped separately before being put in the trash.)

          • Donna Freedman

            @Nicoleandmaggie: Good idea. I never thought of that but I bet other child care places could use them.

  2. Holly Samlan

    I have used the cat food/litter bags for trassh for YEARS.

    When I get the larger plastic bags I use them in the litter box.

  3. Mrs Short

    Yep- for litter!! At Christmastime my family also uses them in place of tissue paper, especially when wrapping a present in a box to disguise the contents!! (so of course I have my ‘stock’ of boxes- all shapes and sizes- recycled – never bought and paid for, of course!!).

  4. I use plastic bags for trashbags, too. A couple of weeks ago, one of the Fred Meyers clerks at the Dimond store in ANC said that some time next year, Fred Meyers is going to discontinue using plastic bags and shoppers will be expected to bring their own reusable bags or get charged for a plastic bag.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Sherry: That’s how they do it in Seattle — except that you get charged for a paper bag.

      • Homer has banned plastic bags starting Jan. 1, so don’t forget to bring your re-usables when you come for a visit. I’m all for it! We Americans need to rethink the amount of sutff we mindlessly dispose of and consider how we’re using resources.

        • Donna Freedman

          @Jenny: You bet! I always have at least one stuck in my backpack. Looking forward to driving down to Homer with Linda B., maybe in late winter/early spring. She likes to go at least twice a year.

  5. lostAnnfound

    I use them as stuffing/filler for mailing out packages to the daughter in college and then she uses them in her trashcan!

    Also use them for picking up after the dog’s business when we go for a walk.

  6. Beverley

    I use mine as trash bags and for litter box offerings.

  7. I use my plastic bags to line my small trash baskets and when cleaning out the litter box. The only time I throw out a plastic bag is when it’s just too “holey” to be of use for anything.

  8. Tracy Stone

    And I thought I was so smart using the dog food bags in the kitchen trash can! I have to cut the top and fold it down, but that way the trash goes in it instead of it going into the trash! Good to know I’m not alone.

  9. Hootieman

    If you have an overly large supply of the bags, there is a recycle bin at our local grocery. There is a company that takes them, and turns them into large thin black trash bags. Schools can get in on the recycle program, and raise money for their schools.

  10. I save all the bags I get from the grocery store, etc and cut them into strips, create a ball of “yarn” and crochet tote bags which are durable and reusable. My daughters each have one for overnight trips, and they are especially handy for swimming clothes and after basketball practice sweats. Last year, I made totes for my extended family as a Christmas gift, and they were well received! This year, I am attempting to crochet plastic mats and rugs for my front door and under my garbage pail.

  11. Northern Mom


    I am just a tiny bit older than you . I can remember the time before plastic bags when paper was the only bag used by department or grocery stores.

    My mother who was born in 1915 “never” purchased plastic bags. I had a summer job in the 70’s and brought stuff (usable) home all the time in green garbage bags. She marvelled at paying money for something to throw it away.

    I learnt from her the fine art of lining a paper or “holey” plastic bag with flyers. My childhood remembrances are of her peeling vegetables or having other “wet” garbage and it was wrapped in newspaper before it was thrown out in a paper bag.

    I use a cloth bag at most check outs, increasingly the places I shop have incorporated a 5 cent charge for plastic bags.

    I love the suggestions for sourcing bags that everyone has given, many we use, but always looking for new suggestions.

  12. Plastic banned here and paper charged for. We are having withdrawls. Garbage can liners, totes for recycle, totes for goodwill or thrift shop. My friend is going to have to buy poop bags for the dogs. I don’t know what my husband will use for the vegetables people buy from us. I’m not sure the net is positive if we have to go out and buy several kinds of “containers” to stay tidied up!

  13. Andy McClung

    I save our bread bags and wrap sandwiches in them for my husband’s lunch — just twist the top down by the sandwich and flip over the edges like you would a pair of socks. As for grocery plastic bags, we get so many every month, even using canvas totes, that I take some to a friend who volunteers at a charitable food pantry. They ALWAYS need bags. And, I remember back in the 80’s, that era of now-questionable taste in interior design, my mother used the bags to stuff valences to go with the drapes she’d made.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Andy: I wrap sandwiches (and leftovers) in bread bags, too. At this moment an old bread bag holds the caramels I made this morning to give as gifts.
      Good for you to think of donating them to the food pantry.

  14. I also pick up loose empty trash bags when walking (mostly used as trash bag liners and for cat “offerings”). A liquor store recently opened in my neighborhood and now in the park behind it there’s way too many bags for the taking on the ground – a lot with bottles or other icky trash in them.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Janice B: When I lived in Seattle I found a lot of black plastic bags, many with giant, empty beer cans in them. What made me laugh is the straws stuck in the cans — apparently you could walk down the street sipping a cold one as long as the can didn’t show.

  15. I take a long time to go through a box of kitchen trash bags. FYI different brands of plastic bags break down at different rates, so if you are interested you can find bags that are more biodegradable. As for plastic grocery sacks I reuse as much as possible, mainly for dog walks. Although I have a doggie poop composter now if I am out an about I have a bag on hand for cleanup. I leave a couple in the car for emergencies. As for shopping I tend to say no bag as much as possible or use a reusable tote. (except for meat, anything that could run or any chemicals I don’t want near food).

    We also have single stream recycling here (that just means there is one bin that I throw everything recycable in. I also recycle as much as possible.

    Something like 16% of all recycable goods in the US are recycled. I just watched a TV program on it not too long ago. Recycling is a huge industry and an increase of each 1% nationwide would create 4 new plants and hundreds of jobs! on the flip side, landfills, they are disgusting, most garbage in the US is just out there baking in the sun and leaching into the water supply. I am not a militant enviornmentalist but not recycling doesn’t make good enviornmental or economic sense.

  16. Wow! Awesome assortment of bag-snagging ideas!

    I’ve never been that creative…the dog food bag strategy, SO perfect, went right past me during all the years that I fed my pooches commercial food. Now I feed the corgi real food (yeah: human food), so, darn it, no dog food bags.

    But plastic grocery bags serve all sorts of purposes. I set one in the kitchen sink to gather wet garbage — it seems to be easier to carry a small bag out to the alley than a honking big bag, and because it’s sitting there right under my nose, I take the trash out a lot more often, sparing the house from “houseitosis” (remember that ad?) and insect invasions.

    They’re also great for storing cut bread, fruit, and various other food items.

    Those long thin plastic bags that come wrapped around newspapers work really well for picking up dog mounds. They’re compact enough that you can stuff several of them into a pill bottle to carry in a pocket or purse, and they fit neatly over your hand, allowing you to pick up after dog with…uhm…a certain degree of panache. I suppose.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Funny: My niece has a dog now so I’m always on the lookout for poop bags. And yeah, I remember “houseitosis.” Gee, I’m old.

  17. Oh I LOVE the idea for the empty tissue box!! Genius!

    • Donna Freedman

      @Mutant Supermodel: Wish I could take credit, but I read that tip in a woman’s magazine years ago. It sure keeps them organized.

  18. Have any of you seen the purses that are knitted/crocheted from plastic bag strips? The bags are sent to some African country and the women make neat handbag/carryalls from them.

  19. I am recentful of discontinuing the use of plastic bags at all stores. We are being charged in the price of our purchase anyway for their use and like many of you, I find them indespensible. My family uses them for so many things that we have begun to hoard them in preparation for their demise. Why must I suffer for the failings of some? Those making these laws assume that none of us are responsible whereas you have just proven otherwise. I CHOOSE to care for my environment but resent being ordered by so many rules, with the exception of safety and even many of those need to go.

  20. Fru-gal Lisa

    One of the local thrift stores re-uses bags from other stores; I save my excess for them, since they’re a charity. I never buy trash bags either, so I let the store give me bags about once a week.

    When I used to get advertising newspapers, packaged in plastic sleeves, on the lawn, I used the sleeves for doggy-do when I walked our mutts. Newspaper plastic sleeves are the perfect size for this.

    You can also store plastic bags or plastic newspaper sleeves in the cardboard tube in the center of the paper towels. (Even though I usually use rags, I still need paper towels for some kitchen duties like microwaving.)

    Thanks for the tip on how to cut toilet paper bags and the like into plastic bags — I will use that one! I also have dumpster dived and gotten drycleaner’s bags. Turn the drycleaner’s bags inside out after knotting the end that has the coathanger hole: they make great trash bags for the kitchen. Make sure the knot is tied securely, so kitchen trash doesn’t spill out or leak.

  21. I use the dog/cat food bags, too, but as the actual wastebasket. When I empty a bag of food, I fold the top down inside the bag to make it more sturdy. When the bag is full (or I’ve got another just-emptied bag) I dump the whole bag, trash and all, in my curbside container. I used to move a lot, and this way I didn’t have worry about having the right number of cans for THIS house–just open up that Meow Mix! 🙂

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