Ask Unclutterer: Processing car clutter

Reader Ruth submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

As a mini-van driving mom (and unabashed unclutterer), I am stymied by trash that seems to accumulate in the car on a daily basis. Dirty kleenex, gum wrappers, parking stubs, crumpled notebook paper, empty water bottles – all mysterious appear in the back of the car when I am not looking. I spend about 10 minutes a day cleaning it all out into a recycled grocery bag but can’t help wonder if there are other ideas on how to hold/manage trash in a vehicle. Of course, I would prefer something that was aesthetically pleasing (ie. NOT a Hefty bag tied to the back of the driver’s seat).

I would really like a scientific study commissioned to look into the trash and stray paper breeding ground of the automobile. I truly believe it is one of the most fertile regions on the planet. Our car grows straw wrappers, toll receipts, and used handy wipes faster than a flash of lightning — the humidity and sun exposure must be ideal trash and paper growing conditions.

To try to reduce the over-population of these items, we use a reusable trash bag tied to the back of our passenger’s seat. It’s not beautiful, but it’s better than the lawn and leaf black plastic bag you mentioned in your question.

Granted, getting others to use the bag might be the most difficult task of all. It took my husband and me a few months to even remember we had installed it, but once we remembered we’ve been using it with regularity.

You’re doing a great job by taking a few minutes each day to clean the stray clutter out of the car. I recommend to everyone a simple uncluttering session each time you get out of the car at your home. If you have kids, put incentives in place for actually using the reusable trash bags or make a game out of using it. You also might find that a bag on the back of multiple seats increases the likelihood that the receptacles will be used.

Good luck to you on keeping the clutter out of your car. For additional car uncluttering information, check out “Cleaning out your cluttered car” and “Clutter creeps into the car.”

Thank you, Ruth, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

48 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Processing car clutter”

  1. posted by Kathryn Fenner on

    I have a nice cup in one of my console cupholders, into which I drop random bits of whatever (another cup holds a comb, lipgloss and pen). As far as plastic bottles go, I try to use my reusable bottle, but when that’s not feasible, I just take the plastic bottles with me when I get home–if i don’t have a free hand, I have room in a bag. Even a person with an infant has a diaper bag, and kids older than that can help carry.

  2. posted by Amandine on

    I also drive a minivan – a Toyota Sienna. I keep an ice cream bucket under the center tray in front. I can slide it out while driving, deposit the trash, and slide it back under without ever taking my eyes off the road. The kids can also reach it from the middle seats. I empty it out about once a week. It’s not the most beautiful solution, but it’s very practical, and I like not seeing the open container.

    We also have a policy of removing any fast food bags at the very first opportunity whilst traveling. This stuff never makes it into the ice cream bucket.

  3. posted by Tiffany on

    I suppose one could also use an attractive canvas tote bag and line it with a bathroom-sized trash bag (or a plastic grocery bag) and affix it somewhere in the car with clothespins or something. Which sounds like something I should try because I’m terrible about the cluttered car.

  4. posted by Meg on

    No matter what else you do, you do need a place to put the trash. My husband has a plastic bucket for trash in his work van. That has helped him a lot. I could see someone using an attractive box or even a basket so long as it was appropriate for the type of trash. In our car, we just put garbage with the rest of our stuff to bring in or place it in the cup holder if it’s small enough to lose easily. We don’t let it accumulate to begin with.

    But secondly, consider what type of trash is accumulating and try to reduce it to begin with. Lots of fast food wrappers? Maybe that’s a sign to eat in the van less. Even if it’s trash from home packed meals, consider what disposable items can and probably should be replaced with reusable ones. Even tissues can be replaced with cloth. You still have to take them out of the van to wash them but, in my experience, people tend to treat reusable items with a lot more respect.

  5. posted by Terri on

    This may not help much with the clutter, but for trash in the car, I like to use newspaper bags. (Our paper comes in a plastic bag almost every day.) Because the bag is long and thin, trash is much less likely to fall out of it than with any other type of bag that isn’t fastened down.

  6. posted by Christina on

    As a kid, my mom decorated an old oatmeal container (tall cardboard cylinder) with pretty wrapping paper to make a trash can. She lined it with a newpaper bag so that used tissues or handwipes wouldn’t ruin the “can”. To keep it upright in her car, she slung an old lanyard (the kind you wear around your neck with a clip on the end to hold a nametag/ID badge) around the center console of her car, and clipped it to the can, which stayed either up front or in back to the left of the front passenger seat, depending on where the clip was located on the lanyard. This worked great for her, but of course it does take some practice for all members of the family putting trash in it and taking trash with them when the get out of the car! We had a no-food rule in most of our cars, though, which helped. You could easily do this with a small trash can from the store (They often sell gallon size cans during the upcoming back to school sales if you can’t find them year-round.) but my mom’s idea let her choose a design she liked, recycle old paper, and it was super cheap and easy to do!

  7. posted by Melanie on

    I’m not sure I think of trash as the same thing as clutter.

    This one seems like a no-brainer. Provide some type of receptacle for the trash, and expect everyone to use it. Just as you teach your children not to throw trash on the floor of your home; you can just as readily teach them not to throw trash on the floor of your car. You pick the method (rewards, punishment, game, civic responsibility, etc.); but the concept is the same.

  8. posted by analyticchard on

    I agree with Melanie, why is tossing trash in car even allowed? I don’t even understand the concept of a trash receptacle in the car. For a long-distance, cross-country drive, sure a bag to collect trash and dump at next rest stop. But for around town? Gum wrappers and tissues go in your pocket until you reach destination and then throw it away. Empty water bottles can be placed on the floor, again, until destination reached.

  9. posted by Bethany on

    I use a reusable trash bag in my car. *I* can remember to throw out trash when I exit my car, but my passengers certainly don’t. I also don’t like having water bottles and other trash floating around my car until I arrive at my destination. Just make sure you get in the habit of emptying it at the gas station when you fill up, and it will never get smelly or start overflowing.

  10. posted by JessA on

    I have three kids, it’s unfathomable how little bits of trash can pile up! Here is my solution: Every time I pump gas, I go through the car and throw out the trash. I put the pump on auto and quickly grab all I can. If the kids are in the car, even better, they help and it goes faster. By making this a habit, our vehicles now stay very clean.

  11. posted by CC on

    This would work if you had kids. When I was younger I used to get a ride from the neighbors to school. The mother put her oldest son in charge of keeping the car clean. Of course he hated cleaning the car, so he was always very conscientious of the other passengers (me, his friends, and his siblings). He would always make sure the passengers cleaned up after themselves after every ride, including his mom.

    Also they make commercial garbage containers for cars. Here’s an example:

  12. posted by Keter on

    I keep plastic shopping bags in the car specifically for trash. I promise you, even the ugliest plastic sack filled with trash is more attractive than trash strewn all over the car, and will also corral something you can’t see that is even grosser – germs! Set the expectation that everyone will use the bag, and then you have only one thing to pick up and throw away at the end of the day and you won’t have to put your hands on others’ dirty garbage.

    I also have always had a rule about never eating in the car and anything that does not belong in the car is removed either at the destination or as soon as I get home…if you never let it “pile up” it can’t “breed”! I also do a very thorough cleaning quarterly, and about once a year I have the upholstery and carpets professionally shampooed. A spotless car is a good motivator to keep it spotless because it makes any mess so much more obvious. My car is 17 years old and the upholstery is clean and has no smell as a consequence of this very simple but consistent upkeep.

  13. posted by jess on

    Not the most useful solution but as a child my dad kept his car immaculate, as a result all three of us kids were afraid to even leave a sweet wrapper in there in case we got in trouble! I think encouraging cleanliness is easier when everyone in the family seems to have a touch of OCD though…

  14. posted by Simple Pittsburgh on

    I have a very simple rule. Pack in/Pack Out. It is the same rule for hiking. If you pack it in, you should pack it out. It means that you don’t even store trash in your vehicle. It leaves when you leave. It keeps my vehicle perfectly clean.

  15. posted by amandalee on

    I share a car, but I’m the only one that cleans it. I pick up all the trash nearly every time I’m in the car, and every time we stop for gas I take a few minutes to vacuum the floorboards and mats for little crumbs.

    Meg’s suggestion is good, though – why does the car get cluttered or full of trash in the first place? That’s exactly the question I would ask if it were my house, so why not my shared car?

  16. posted by WilliamB on

    The Container Store has several waterproof solutions, sincluding bag to hang from the back of a seat or a weighted box to put on the floor. I have no problem with paper and wrapper trash, but I don’t allow organics. Anything that can rot has to be removed at the end of the ride.

  17. posted by Kris on

    We keep a kitchen sized trash can in the garage, right next to where I park, so when we get out we can do a quick clean out. I also have a very large Land’s End canvas tote that we fill with whatever we are going to need to take with us, so that it can easily be loaded into and taken out of the car. Actually we have two. One just stays packed with generic stuff for if we are going to be out of the house all day (toys for the kids, blankets for naps, etc.) This also helps with organization since we load up the tote bag the night before and don’t have to scramble for things when we’re trying to leave. Every night the tote bag gets cleaned out and reloaded for the next day’s trip.

  18. posted by Sue on

    One simple rule for friends and family works well enough for me: whatever you bring into the car, you take out when you leave.

  19. posted by GirlOverboard on

    As for things like water bottles, maybe you could get your kids on board with using their own water bottles. Make sure they bring them out of the car with the rest of their stuff and you can wash them with the rest of the dishes at the end of each day. If they forget their water bottle, too bad – you might have some cranky kids the first few times you refuse to buy bottled water from the gas station, but it’ll train them to always keep them on-hand. This will not only create less trash that goes into the environment, but it’ll also save you money.

  20. posted by Christal on

    I have a collapsible trash can that velcros to the carpet in the back seat. When it is not needed it collapses down and goes in the glove compartment. It came in a set of 3 sizes, so I chose one and gave the others away. Works perfectly and never tips over, and yet is easy to take into the house and empty when full. I think I purchased it at an auto parts store (possibly Pep Boys or Auto Zone).

  21. posted by Jen on

    I think this is one reason why there is so much garbage on the roads.

    I drive a small sedan & we keep a plastic grocery bag hooked to the gear shift up front. Every time I fill up with gas, the trash gets dumped. Also, every time we come home from anywhere, everyone has to take out whatever they brought to the car. That doesn’t always happen, sometimes I’m crawling around the back seat picking up after my family but most of the time it stays clutter free.

  22. posted by Kelly Sue on

    I’ve seen some cute auto trash bags on Etsy. Like this:

  23. posted by chacha1 on

    DH and I use a collapsible trash “can” when we’re on a trip. Otherwise, pack in/pack out.

    IMO having a car full of trash – and especially trash that tells onlookers you have kids – is an invitation to have your car broken into, since people who carry kids around often have unsecured electronics and money (change for meters, tolls, snacks etc) in the car as well.

    DH has known people whose cars were broken into who had nothing more visible inside than an empty fast-food bag, because some people might think that bag has a)food b) drugs c)money in it. Seems like worst-case-scenario thinking, but when it’s so easy to keep a car clean, why not just do it?

  24. posted by gypsy packer on

    So it’s tacky…the throwaway (or even cotton)grocery bag, one on each door handle, so children have no excuse not to put the trash in its container. Every drive or two, assign someone to each bag, to empty it immediately and then put the container back.

  25. posted by Michelle on

    My mother and I were just talking about this! Both she and I have gotten comments from friends over the years who get into our cars and then look around bewildered and exclaim, “Oh! Did you just get the car detailed? How do you keep it so clean in here?”
    I really believe it is all about your mindset, that seems to be the key to keeping the car cleaned out on a regular basis. Growing up we just never left anything in the car that didn’t belong there. No toys, no wrappers; if we ate fast food we used the bag for trash, and then tossed it as soon as we got to our destination. Likewise, if we had things in the car for work or school we brought them in with us as soon as we got home. Contrast this with my college roommate who would buy a bottle of coke each time she went into a store and leave them in the cup holders until they were all full, then the old bottles, half drunk bottles got thrown in the back to make room for new ones, etc… just a totally different mindset about the car.

  26. posted by Rue on

    Stores like Target and Wal-mart sell vehicle trash bags that are cute and that velcro to the back of a headrest. I keep one in my car (velcroed to the back of the passenger headrest, so it’s easier for me to reach while I’m driving). Like one of these (

    I also make it a point that when I stop for gas, I get any trash I can see out of my car and toss it in one of the bins at the gas station while I wait for the fuel to pump. Sometimes if I just have a little trash, when I get out to go into a store I’ll throw it into the store’s trashcan out front.

  27. posted by Heather on

    Don’t buy a trash bag that looks too cute! I once bought a traditional car litter bag because I liked the lizards painted all over it. It was a flat vinyl bag, about the size and shape of a brown paper lunch bag, with a velcro strip to attach it to the console or dashboard. I got enthusiastic “Oh, cute purse!” comments from the next three people who rode with me. Who glues their purse to the dashboard? I decided I didn’t want to have my truck broken into over a bag of trash that looked like a purse. Maybe if it had “TRASH” in large print across the front…

    I replaced the too-cute trash bag with a see-through mesh drawstring bag. Now I don’t worry about someone breaking in for a handful of used tissues and gum wrappers, but it’s not very useful for anything messy like granola bar wrappers with crumbs. I like some of the other creative ideas; I’ll definitely try the newspaper bags!

    For non-trash clutter (breath mints, lotion, hand sanitizer, wipes, tissue, sunscreen, pen & notepad, maps, rescue tool), I bought a small canvas pop-up organizer that sits on the transmission hump (I don’t have a console, and I save my glove box for paperwork). It’s divided into three sections and has a map pocket in the back and slots for pens. You can find these in all different sizes and configurations, depending on your needs.

    I am happy for those people who have lifestyles that don’t generate any trash in the car, but I don’t think this post is for them. I live out of my truck some days, and trash is inevitable, some of it wet or messy with food residue and crumbs. My pockets are already frustratingly tiny. I’m not about to walk around all day with my pockets cluttered with garbage when I can put it in the trash bag in my truck and throw it away at home. And no, there’s not always a public trash bin available.

  28. posted by Adventure-Some Matthew on

    I don’t seem to end up with much trash in the car, so my system must work (one caveat, I have no kids, so that helps).

    For long trips, I stick a grocery store bag on the gear shift (it’s in the console) so that I have a readily accessible trash container. This also makes it easy to empty every time I stop.

    I rarely eat in the car, and even more rarely is it fast food. When I do eat fast food, I use the bag to catch trash, and it leaves the vehicle the first time that I stop. Other food is normally me finishing something that I started at home when I’m running late. So it has no container, or the container goes into my bag whenever I get to my destination.

    For daily clutter (gum wrappers, notes to myself, etc), I either put them into my pocket, or drop them into a cup holder. Conveniently, there are 3 cup holders: one for my wife, one for myself, and one for trash. Whenever I stop for gas I make sure to empty any accumulation into the trash.

  29. posted by GirlOverboard on

    You know, I had to come back to say that I find it funny how many people seem surprised or taken aback by the idea of a trash can in the car. I thought that in itself seemed odd…

    Until I remembered that up until, I think, 2003, it was illegal to not have a trash bag in the car in Washington State. They ended up repealing that law in exchange for higher littering fines, but the practice has stuck with me.

  30. posted by Marie on

    I have a foldable car trash bag for each vehicle. It comes in a durable, black industrial fabric the size of a large lunch bag. It has a clip-able strap that I fasten around the passenger-side headrest so it’s easy to reach from any seat. The top has a metal frame so you can open or close it like a purse. I love it! My only problem these days (with a small child and lots to carry) is emptying it frequently enough. Ideally, I empty it while getting gas. For longer trips, I’ll add a plastic bag for travel trash. And I always it throw out when I stop to gas up and/or when I unload the car.

  31. posted by ecuadoriana on

    Erin wrote: “I truly believe it [automobile] is one of the most fertile regions on the planet.”

    Out of context of this article, this is one of the funniest and most obvious statements one could make about the back seat of many cars being “fertile”- and I’m NOT referring to trash pileups!!!LOL!!!!

    OK (wiping tear of laughter from eye), as many have stated- why in the world do the same people, big & small, who wouldn’t strew trash all over your living room floor the same people who think nothing of treating the floor of the car like a roving trash dumpster? This is crazy!

    My hubby drives a pick up truck all day long for his construction business often transporting his work crew, lumber, tools, generators, etc. And guess what? The floor, aside from the daily accumulation of sand & dirt from work boots (carpets get shook out at end of day), stays clear of trash, water bottles, soda cans, etc. Why? because if you bring it in you take it out- or next time you can walk. He has the cleanest work vehicle of any man I’ve ever seen! He doesn’t have a trash bag or can in the truck. Doesn’t need one. His philosophy is “If you have the strength to hold onto the soda can when it’s full of soda, you can hold onto it when it is empty. Weighs less when it’s empty.”

    That being said, if grown men- construction workers- can be trained to not toss their trash on the floor of the boss’ truck, then kids can be trained just as easily. Remember mom & dad- you’re the boss! Those little kids you’re carting around all day are your interns. You have 18 years to train ’em well!

    In my own vehicle I do have a little bag for trash. I bring it in with me when I get home, empty it into the rubbish bin (recyclables go into the recycle bin) and I put it by the front door with my other things to take back out with me in the morning. Easy.

    Long trips, a trash bag that gets empty when we get to our destination.

    I don’t understand what the problem is!!

    Now, what to do about the other aspect of the “fertile region” of the back seat!!!

  32. posted by Erin Doland on

    @ecuadoriana — Ha!! Oooops! Totally did not intend for there to be a hidden meaning in there.

  33. posted by Dorothy on

    I get books on CD from my local library and I usually check out 2-4 at a time. I also have a notebook, a container of gum and a few other pieces of car clutter.

    This stuff lived on the passenger seat of my car. If I wanted to take a passenger, I’d toss it all in the backseat to be dealt with “later”. Yikes!

    A couple weeks ago I got a cardboard box and put it on the seat. Everything went in there. When I had a passenger, I could just lift the whole box onto the back seat and later put it back in the passenger seat.

    This worked well for me, and I’ve now replaced the box with a basket like this:
    The basket looks nice, it’s just the right size — when it’s too full, I know it’s time to winnow it out — and the handle makes it easy to lift in and out of the back seat.

  34. posted by Caroline - SOS on

    At our house in the Colorado Mts, my husband had his driver’s side window broken out by a large bear so the bear could get to a bag of cheese flavored doritos, with 4 chips left.

    Expensive lesson on containing car clutter

  35. posted by Kerri on

    I (re)use an empty baby wipes container–the hard plastic box kind. It’s great because it never spills, you can actually fit more than you think in there, and it can hold wet and sticky items without making a mess. And it’s reusable– I’ve been using the same one for about 2 years.

  36. posted by Donna on

    I have a variety of methods and use them all. If I’m gassing the car up, I walk around the car to each door and gather any trash to throw away while the pump is going, although I leave recyclables in the car until I get home. I try to take trash out and recyclables in as I arrive home, but in case I don’t, my routines specify that each Sunday or Monday I do a quick car clean up – anything that needs to come in, comes in, (sometimes a case of water or other nonperishables left in car) recyclables get put away, empty water bottles for refilling come inside, and trash gets thrown out. Usually doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes if I’ve done my work all week.

  37. posted by Dee on

    I have terrible clutter problems, BUT NOT IN THE CAR!
    It’s simple, really.
    Absolutely every time I get out of the car, I take out any trash from the last stop and dispose of it. Public trash cans are every where. Use them.
    It works.

  38. posted by Karen on

    We received some small canvas totes as goody bags from a b’day party we attended. Two are denim with handles and they hang perfectly from the arm rests in our Honda Odyssey van. I hang one on the passenger seat and one on one of the middle row seats so EVERYONE in the vehicle can reach a trash bag. Now, if I can just get them to USE them, we’d have a much cleaner van =)

  39. posted by Valerie on

    I always keep my car clean, it is just about the only place where I can easily avoid accumulating clutter. When I do have trash that comes into the care with me or something from fast food, it goes into the cubbie area in the door and then out when I leave.

    I don’t have a lot of trash (an advantage of no kids) and it is so easy to reach that I don’t even have to think about it.

    When I was a kid it was hopeless getting us to keep trash from accumulating in our van, but at least weekly clean out sessions as a group kept it in check.

  40. posted by DiAnne on

    First…since you described the clutter, I have to point out that reusable water bottles would be your friend. I’ve bought 8 (2 for each person) and put names on both the bottle and lid. That saves so much money and so much trash.

    The other thing that has helped is that I put a kitchen-sized trash can in my garage right by the door of my car (I’m blessed with a 24-foot-wide garage). It’s not in the way of the door opening, but it is right there when I get out and it helps being able to throw the plethora of fast food bags right into that trash can. If I had to walk them all the way to the big trash can (a mere 10 feet away), I’d ignore it and let it accumulate. Yeah, I’m THAT lazy.

  41. posted by Kate on

    I found this today, it’s perfect for your car clutter problem. It straps to the back of your seat, or the shifter, and you can use grocery bags as the liner. Plus it’s adorable!

  42. posted by claire7676 on

    I use a kleenex holder/trash bag item like the one pictured here: It’s attached to the headrest of the passenger’s seat. I usually don’t have a passenger, so I just keep it in the front seat. If someone is in the passenger’s seat, it’s super easy to quickly twist around so it’s hanging off the back of the seat. However, the passenger can’t reach the tissues or the trash can (unless they’re double jointed). It does have a mesh net on either side so you can store little stuff (like a headset for your cell phone). I line the trash can area with a plastic bag to make sure nothing spills into it. It’s worked great for me for years (then again, I don’t have kids….).

  43. posted by Jay on

    It seems to me that there are two choices: (1) don’t leave trash in the car, and (2) clean up trash that has been left in the car. I would rather spend my energies on number 1.

    While in the car, I put small pieces of trash in the cup holder or in the built-in troughs at the bottom of the driver’s door. When I leave the car, I take the trash with me. If you generate more trash, a gallon plastic bag is a cheap and easy trash bag that can even handle food trash.

  44. posted by Bren on

    I drive a Honda Odyssey – the big honkin’ one (used to have the smaller one and I miss it EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.) and we are fond of calling it the “Dumpster on Wheels”. I recently did a car makeover and not only does it look snazzy but IT WORKS.

    Under the front console I have a plastic basket that holds bandaids, gloves, wipes, etc.; all sorts of “emergency” items. I have a tall pencil holder in one cup holder for all change. I have a paint bucket lined with a plastic grocery bag in the back seat for trash. I have three collapsible tote baskets in the “way back” (cargo area); red for returns, green for donations and yellow for comes in the house.

    It’s cheap, it’s easy and like I said, it all works! That’s the key. I see all these fabulous car organizers and none of them, so far, have been designed for real people with real crap!

  45. posted by Sasha on

    I keep a small plastic trash bin in the backseat of my car. It works fabulously. (It helps to get a shape that is a bit more solid.) In a van, you might need one bin per seat row. With young kids, you’d still need to pick up some, but it would doubtlessly help.

    I like this solution because these bins are available everywhere; I buy one, stick it in the car, and I’m done. Dumping the trash is also very easy.

  46. posted by Melony on

    I bought several auto litter bags as gifts a while back from nstitches4u on They come in many different designs, are super handy, and look great without looking like something you’d break into a car for. nstitches4u can be reached at nstitches4u(at) or here on the etsy site:;page=1

  47. posted by mydivabydesign - The Diva's Home on

    Car clutter! It doesn’t creep into my car, it oozes out the pores of my children! My solution is to make them clean it up! My son had borrowed some money from me one day, and to pay it back I had him clean out and vacuum my car. Well worth it!

  48. posted by Marilyn on

    I made a three-sided tube out of pieces of plastic, covered with fabric, each side about 8 inches tall, and about 6 inches wide. A plastic grocery bag serves as a liner. The device sits up against the passenger seat in the front, reachable by the driver. Its shape and small size mean that it really isn’t in the way of the passenger’s feet. I keep a couple of spare folded “liners” in the elbow rest between the seats.

    This is the best thing for saving your sanity and keeping the trash in your car to a minimum.

    I also have a small basket in the back seat to collect items that are on their way someplace–to a friend, to church, etc. Might not get dropped off today, but at least they are out of the house and (neatly) in the car.

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