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Rubbish Bags

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A plastic bag caught in the branches of a tree, surrounded by rubbish

A generic rubbish bag is a large plastic bag, usually of a single colour, that people put rubbish into. The bags may be used as an inner skin to a rubbish bin, to stop wet and noisome remains from sticking to the inside of the container, or may be used separately and stored in a yard or garden1 until they can be collected, or privately transported, for delivery to a refuse facility, or dump.

Shape and Form

Rubbish bags are usually made of polyethylene of variable thickness. Bags designed for storing paper, polystyrene and other light waste may be made from plastic a third of a millimetre thick. Standard rubbish bags and kitchen waste bags are likely to be double this. Bags used for much heavier or wet rubbish - like garden waste - may be almost a millimetre thick, with multiple ply plastic to enhance strength. The gauge of the bag - its ability to stretch and support content without breaking - is generally determined by what purpose the bag is to be put to, with larger gauges being used for garden waste or hazardous materials.

Most standard rubbish bags have a capacity of between 60 to 90 litres. They are about two-thirds of a metre wide and a little less than a metre deep. They are commonly purchased on rolls, the bags folded into a 15 centimetre wide strip, with perforations between one bag and the next.

While the majority of rubbish bags are black or grey, other colours exist and usually designate a specialised purpose. For example, a green bag is usually for biodegradable waste, such as grass, raw fruit and vegetables2, and garden clippings. Similarly, white bags3 may be used to indicate use for paper waste only, such as newspapers. Local councils may sometimes specifically assign certain colours of bags to designate specific waste content.

While most bags are simply rectangles of plastic, there are minor variations intended to make use of the bags easier and less messy.

Methods of Use


Using the rubbish bag opens up somes options in respect of managing general household waste. It is entirely possible to have the rubbish bag free-standing in your kitchen for the dumping of waste on the spot. This cuts out any fuss and means that you just have to tie it up and dump it outside when it's full. However, the sheer capacity of a standard rubbish bag means that an average household might take a few days to fill it, and in the meantime the waste at the bottom will have been sitting at room temperature and been given the opportunity to make a stink. There is also the prospect of rips or holes, which tend to lead to quite unpleasant puddles of unidentifiable liquid.

Internal Bin

A halfway solution to this issue is to purchase a large indoor lidded, flip-top or pedal bin. While most will not necessarily have the 60+ litre capacity to house the whole bag, the excess plastic lip over the edge of the bin aids the later closure of the bag. The fact that the bag and the waste within is stored within a lidded container means that issues of spillage, ripping and smells are minimised and enclosed. The bag is unlikely to be damaged while inside the bin, and if it is the whole bin can be taken outside and emptied - possibly with some assistance - into another, hopefully more secure and intact, rubbish bag.

External Bin

Another solution is to keep rubbish storage inside to a minimum and move it outside often. Small bins, with low-capacity binliners or even recycled shopping bags inside, can be used all around the house. Whenever one of the bags is filled, it can be removed, tied and put into a large rubbish bag kept outside - either free-standing or inserted into a rubbish bin. Bags inside rubbish bins are opened up, usually through liberal shaking, and inserted with the lip of the open side stretched around the edge of the bin, where practical. Smaller bags and rubbish can then be placed inside without hindrance - and nothing stays in the house long enough to cause a smell (unless you're particularly keen on eating kippers).

Jumping Through Hoops

One of the odder bins invented, what might best be described as the 'halo' bin consists of a metalic ring with a hinge on one side to which a plastic lid is attached. Some halo bins are secured to a wall directly by a bracket in roughly the same spot as the hinge, while others are attached to a stand, consisting of a base with a rod pointing upwards from one side, to which the lidded ring is attached.

The halo bin can potentially be used either in or outdoors, and supports a rubbish bag by pulling the open edges over the ring. The bag then hangs down through the ring towards the floor. The position of the ring should be such that the bottom of the bag touches the floor - therefore stopping the meagre weight of a free-hanging bag (or one later filled with rubbish) from dropping off the ring and on to the floor. Indeed, there will usually be some form of clip or securing element to ensure that the bag doesn't come free unless you need it too.

When the bag is full, it can be detached and slipped off the ring, dropping down, then secured as the bag would normally be.

Seeking Closure

The basic premise of using rubbish bags is that you fill them, secure the contents and then leave them out for refuse collectors to come and pick them up. Once deposited in their trucks, the massed waste is taken to a landfill site for dumping - ultimately to be filled to bursting, covered over and turned into a picturesque park with an unusual odour of methane around the duck ponds.

The part of this process left to the user is the filling and closure of the rubbish bag - and here the latter is to be considered in detail.

As previously stated, a rubbish bag is simply a rectangle of plastic with an opening in one side. When opened up and filled, it becomes somewhat rounder - like a lumpy and over-stuffed pillow. As a result, the more you put into a bag, the wider the opening becomes. When it comes to closing the bag, this can become an issue, as closure is achieved by pulling the lip of the opening together and securing the neck of the gathered material. In an ideal world, you should avoid filling the bag to the brim.

If the bag has been used as the inner skin of a rubbish bin, this generally means that the edges of the bag will have been pulled over the sides of the bin to keep it in place - open and accessible - during use. The result is that when the bag is removed from the bin, there is excess material at the top that means that gathering and securing is easier.

If the bag has been used loose, or is being used in a bin to contain a lot of smaller, indoor waste bags, the tendency is for overfilling to occur. This is common when the rubbish being placed into the bag includes broken-up cardboard boxes, equipment packaging - such as large pieces of polystyrene, metal rods or wood waste, and pieces of bush or tree branches. Under these circumstances it is necessary to introduce some measure of compression, forcing the content of the bag down to remove areas of unfilled space between folds and layers, whereas larger pieces of waste may need to be extracted and broken up into smaller bits. A common problem with forcing the content of the bag down is that excess pressure exerted may result in stretching, tears and holes in the bag. It can also be quite messy - or potentially dangerous - if there are wet or hazardous materials in the bag. When in doubt, a pair of rubber gloves should be in order, or better still some sturdy gardening gloves.

Closing the bag involves gathering the edges of the open side together and securing it. There is more than one way to achieve this. One method is to take hold of the lip of the open side, holding opposing sides in each hand. Gather the two sides together, trying to get a handful of bag on each side. You should be able to then tie the two handfuls together, creating a simple knot. If that seems too complicated, the top can be pulled into a single gathering, and then this can be knotted around itself - rather like tying a knot in a piece of rope.

For those that are feeling a little less dextrous, it is possible to use something else to secure the gathered top of the bag, rather than using a knot. Twisty ties are designed exactly for this purpose. You could also using ordinary clear tape, packing tape or gaffer tape - though this is something of an extreme solution.

Pull-tie Bags

Tending to make the bag somewhat more expensive because of the greater complexity involved in manufacture, the pull-tie bag has a collar of plastic at the top that forms a flattened tube all the way around the open end of the bag. Threaded through this collar is a loop of tough plastic that is accessible through a single gap in the tube. When the bag is full, the pull-tie can be tugged through this hole, gathering the top of the bag together and closing off the contents within. Once pulled tight, the loop of plastic can then be tied and knotted around the closed neck of the bag. A very neat and simple solution to closing the bag effectively.

Petal-tie Bags

Somewhat cheaper than the pull-tie version, the petal-tie bag is cut so that there is an extra flap, or petal, of plastic at four compass points of the lip of the bag. When the bag has been filled, the flaps can be tied together, knotting the north to the south flap, and the east to the west flap, closing the top of the bag. This means that the bag can be secured without needing hands to come too close to the waste materials inside the bag.

Handle-tie Bags

A further variation upon this theme are bags that have a handle on either side of the open edge of the bag. Usually, these handles are quite large and are made from a folded strip of plastic that is somewhat thicker, as a result, than the body of the bag itself. The handles greatly enhance the ease of moving the bag around or removing it from inside a bin when full, and can be tied across the top of the bag, in a knot. This process is a little easier than the petal-tie bag, and the bags are slightly less expensive than the pull-tie bags.

The Mysterious (Dangerous) Plastic Strip

There is a form of rubbish bag that appears to be entirely standard in form and shape, except that in the fold of one corner there is a length of clear plastic attached. This long, thin string of plastic can be easily detached with a tug, the intention being that it can then be used to help secure the open top of the bag when full, rather than resorting to find twisty ties or tape.

One downside to this idea is that no one appears to know quite what to do with the plastic strip, as there aren't any easy to follow instructions printed on the bag. Some haven't fathomed, for example, that the strip is removable, and attempt to tie the top of the bag with the other end of the string still attached to the bottom corner. Most simply haven't worked out that the strip has any purpose at all.

The other downside to the concept is that the strip is all too easily swallowed by cats, dogs and other passing wildlife. Few animals can resist something that's shiny and stringlike as a prospective plaything. Swallowed without too much effort, the string can obviously play havoc with an animal's digestive tract and breathing - so it is vitally important that these bags are kept in a safe place and that the string is kept well out of harm's way.


While standard rubbish bags can fulfil most requirements of rubbish containment, there are times when a more specialised version is preferable:

  • Pedal or swing-bin bags - Entirely reasonable as it may be to use standard rubbish bags in internal bins, it is more practical to use lower-capacity bags designed for the task. These generally have half, or less, of the capacity of a rubbish bag and are usually made of the lowest viable gauge of plastic material suitable for holding the weight to be contained. Variations may exist with handle-ties or similar means to assist closure, and when filled they are removed and stored inside a proper outdoor rubbish bag. Internal waste bags tend to be white, though colours vary.
  • Bags for Wheelie Bins - While generally speaking wheelie bins are designed to provide high-capacity rubbish containment, usually holding three full-standard 60-litre rubbish bags, there are occasions when they are themselves used to store rubbish directly. Due to the size of wheelie bins and the difficulty of cleaning rubbish from inside - especially wet grass or sticky food materials - there are large-capacity rubbish bags that can be placed inside a wheelie bin, ensuring the bin stays clean without interfering with their standard emptying process.
  • Clinical and hazardous waste bags - Designed to hold potentially dangerous waste, like needles, surgical instruments, soiled sheets and bloodied bandages, clinical waste bags are generally larger and constructed from a high gauge of plastic much less liable to be pierced by anything sharp inside. Clinical waste bags tend to be yellow - or some other very eye-catching colour - always sport prominent warnings and hazard signs, and are more generally used in hospitals. Disposal of the bags is completed through incineration rather than landfill-dumping.
  • Rubble bags - The extreme end of the rubbish bag spectrum, these very high-gauge plastic bags may be used for storing building rubble. Generally, however, these are constructed of canvas instead, providing a much more robust container that will not stretch or break under the considerable pressure exerted by the weight of the content.

What Not to Bag

It is important that you fully understand the limitations of your average plastic rubbish bag. While you will be able to put a lot of everyday rubbish into them without a second thought, there are instances where an alternative method of disposal would be advisable, if not outright required.

  • Ash and Cigarettes - Like just about every other form of plastic, combination with a significant heat source will lead to melting, disfiguration and unsightly holes. In the case of a rubbish bag, this poses the prospective hazard of dumping a week's worth of your mouldering rubbish all over the kitchen floor or garden path. If you must dispose of cigarettes, or sweep ashes, into a rubbish bag, be absolutely certain that everything is cold. Water and stamping with booted feet are ideal ways of extinguishing troublesome glowing cinders.
  • Paint, Batteries and Oil - Chemicals and acids have the potential to react with plastic, and either cause melting or holes - though they can even combine to create noxious fumes. The way paint, oil and acid also tend not to combine to well with things like carpet, shoes or kitchen tiles also means that special care should be taken. Ideally, dispose of these things at a public dumping ground or see if there might be a local disposal firm or garage that can take them off your hands4. If you must dispose of paint in your rubbish bag, mix it with sand or sawdust - something that will combine with it to make for a more manageable solid that is less likely to cause a problem.
  • Branches - Amongst other objects of a thin, stick-like, pointy nature, branches are a great way of puncturing a dozen unsightly and less-than-ideal holes in the sides and bottom of your bag. This is especially an issue where you have whole branches that you have made no effort to cut up and break down with an appropriate gardening tool. If you simply try to bend branches up by hand and stuff them into a rubbish bag, they'll unfurl and poke big holes in the side, or struggle damagingly when you're trying to force them in through the top. You are best to break them down into small bits, and ideally use a heavier gauge garden waste bag. Better still, dispose of them down the local tip or through an environmentally-friendly recycling centre. Some local councils may actually provide a municipal service for the collection of garden waste. If so, they'd probably appreciate all your cut grass and raw, household fruit and vegetable waste as well.
  • Glass - Where glass is concerned, if you must dispose of it in a rubbish bag, take care not to break anything. Place cleaned bottles and other glass waste into the bag by hand and, if practical, dispose of it yourself through a local dump. Better still, find a local recycling centre and take the glass along there - cleaned and with metal caps removed, sorted by glass colour (ie clear, green, brown). If glass is broken, it should be wrapped in newspaper, or something similar, to prevent bag-ripping and potential danger to those touching or carrying the bag.
  • Syringes and Hazardous Waste - Due to issues of public safety and hazards related to diseases and infection communicable through blood, faecal waste, and so on, medical waste and associated rubbish should be disposed off through private services and in appropriate high gauge clinical waste bags or 'sharps' bins.

Alternative Uses

There are obvious, and some less obvious, uses that rubbish bags can be put to:

  • Makeshift Bra - Those of larger physical construction might consider using a handle-tie rubbish bag to make a plastic bag bra.
  • Sleeping Bag - Rubbish bags are big enough to be useful in creating a temporary sleeping bag. With two nested inside one another, the space between padded with straw, newspaper or some similar padding, potentially warm, short-term bedding could be created.
  • Composting - Rubbish bags filled with suitable garden waste, kept moist and aired, can be used for making compost.
  • Windbreaker - With a couple of measures of bamboo, or some other reasonably straight sticks, you can create a windbreaker by driving the sticks into the ground and pull the bag over the top between them.
  • Insulating Bodybag - Wearing a rubbish bag, by cutting off the two corners for armholes and one between for your head, traps a lot of warmth. It can also be used as a poncho when raining.
  • Camping - A rubbish bag is generally useful when camping. As well as providing a means to keep supplies dry or keeping wet clothes separate, you can slice and stretch a bag between two points - say a couple of rocks - to provide an impromptu shelter. A brightly-coloured rubbish bag can be used both to provide shelter and to grab the attention of passing search helicopters if you're lost - or be sliced into strips to create a pattern or message to call for help. Where running water is not readily available, a rubbish bag could be rigged up to catch condensation, snow or rainwater.

1 Or, in some other designated storage cupboard, cage, container or big hole in the ground - if you happen not to live in a two-up, two-down suburban semi-detached dwelling place.2While cooked vegetables remain entirely biodegradable, there are recorded instances where raw produce only has been designated suitable for putting in eco-recycling rubbish bags or bins.3These may be plastic, but sometimes heavy-duty paper is used.4 Indeed, in many places, disposal of batteries or engine oil through any other means is illegal.

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