Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Honey, I shrunk the waste

Trash compactors started turning up in American kitchens in the late 1960s. They use electricity to ram garbage into a compaction chamber, shrinking trash volume by as much as 80% and cutting down on the number of trips from the kitchen to the garbage can.

From a green perspective, though, there's no compelling reason to buy a trash compactor. It will reduce the volume, but not the weight, of material that goes into your garbage can. Garbage trucks also compact trash so home compactors may not save much landfill space, and they don't make any difference if your garbage goes to an incinerator.

If you pay for garbage collection by volume, a trash compactor may save you money. But that's not a plus for the Earth--especially if it encourages you to produce more waste.

Top Tips

  • Keep it simple. An Earth-friendly alternative to a trash compactor is an ordinary trash bin in the kitchen lined with reused plastic or paper bags from the grocery store.

  • Reduce, reuse, and recycle. The greenest trash is the trash you don't make. Don't buy products you don't need, avoid overpackaged items, and buy in bulk. What you can't reduce, reuse. Repair things that break instead of throwing them away. Avoid single-use products if there's a longer-lasting alternative. For example, use cloth napkins instead of paper. Borrow instead of buy. What you can't reduce or reuse, recycle. If you're diligent about these three "Rs," the trash that's left each week will be mostly nonrecyclable plastics, and the volume may be low enough that a trash compactor will be superfluous.

  • Compost. Keep food waste out of the trash by turning food and yard waste into nutrients for your garden. It's easy--and you can learn how in our composting section.

Other Considerations

  • A full compactor bag can weigh as much as 50 pounds. Some people will have difficulty lifting and hauling that much weight.

  • Most trash compactors have charcoal filters to reduce food odors. Some compactors also use "air fresheners"--synthetic fragrances that mask odors. People with chemical sensitivities may not be able to tolerate those fragrances. Also, some companies advertise compactors bags with "odor-absorbing additives." What these additives are is not disclosed and how they might affect home health is an open question.

  • Trash compactors typically cost between $400 and $1,000. The units offer similar features. For more money you'll get more style, a luxury label, larger capacity, and greater compacting force. Beware of the hidden costs that can add up: one-time-use compactor bags made of plastic or paper (with a moisture-resistant lining) and replacement of charcoal filters every six to nine months and fragrances every four to six weeks.


...to your wallet
If you pay for garbage collection by volume, a compactor can reduce your garbage hauling costs. But a more environmentally friendly way to reduce those costs is to compost and be diligent about the 3Rs: reduce, reuse, and recycle.

Common Mistakes

Equating compaction with reduction. If you're concerned about waste, focus on creating less of it rather than squashing what you've got.

Getting Started

  • Read our article on the 3Rs[link to article] for more tips on how to go on a waste diet.

  • Trash compactors are mostly metal, so if you're getting rid of an old one, have it recycled. Contact your city's recycling department or Earth911 for local recycling options.

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