Weekend Project: Trash can clean up

If you’re anything like me, you rarely, if ever, think about the trash cans. Maybe if one tips over you’ll think about it, but, for the most part, they’re mentally invisible.

Earlier this week, however, I noticed that my outdoor trash can was stinky. I have no idea what foul thing crawled in there and died, but “maliciously odorous” would aptly explain its stench.

I thought that I’m likely not the only one in such smelly circumstances, and came up with the idea to make a weekend project out of cleaning my cans. So, if you’re looking for a weekend project idea, maybe a trash can clean up is for you, too?

Gather up all of your trash cans (indoor and outdoor) and set them in a paved location near a drain (or take them to a self-service car wash if convenient). Squirt a bit of dishwashing detergent into each can, and then fill the bottoms with a few inches of water. Let the cans soak for at least 15 minutes, give them a good scrub with a long handled brush, and then dump out the water. Rinse them well, let them dry in the weekend sun, and then put them back in place.

Your nose will most certainly thank you!


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

24 Comments for “Weekend Project: Trash can clean up”

  1. posted by Cady on

    My outdoor trash can has the same odor as yours, I believe. There may be some trash can critter attacking all the outdoor cans.

    I agree with your cleaning suggestion. And allowing them to dry in the sun will work wonders. The sun has an amazing affect on foul odors!

  2. posted by BenSS on

    I’ve got to disagree with this strategy purely because you’re dumping soap and possibly trash straight down a storm drain, which usually goes right to the local waterway. A little soap isn’t going to kill your lawn, and the self-service car wash is probably the best idea.

  3. posted by Lori on

    Ben is right about the soap down the drain — better to dump it on the lawn, since you’re using an eco-friendly soap already, and not some caustic chemical cleaner, right? You’ll get an extra use out of the water, too.

    FYI, many self-service car washes technically won’t let you wash anything other than cars there (although you can probably get away with it if it’s an off hour and not busy, but who wants to put that stinky can into the car and drive it somewhere?).

  4. posted by carolyne on

    We did this earlier this summer. My husband and son gathered up all garbage cans (indoor and out), all recycling bins, all garden bins, everything.

    They went to the car wash. A few quarters later all were soaped and scrubbed and washed and ready for coming home. They were left to air dry on the front lawn.

    The mess was left at a place equipped to deal with it and we had clean cans. And they boys had a fun outing.

  5. posted by Beverly West on

    I had to do the same thing just this week. I used powdered OxiClean, which worked wonders.

    As for the smell, I think it came from some coffee that spilled when I dumped a (mostly) empty cup in there. Oops.

  6. posted by infmom on

    A long-handled scrub brush is a dandy tool for situations like this. Saves you having to go up to your armpit in dirty trash can. ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. posted by Fit Bottomed Girls on

    I totally need to do this. Febreeze just isnt’ cutting it. lol.

  8. posted by Kelly on

    If anyone has suggestions for what you do if you live in a small apartment building in an urban area I would appreciate it.

    We live on the third floor of a brownstone and manage our own trash can and recycling bin (we keep them on the back deck of our home and put them out ourselves each week). We don’t have access to the back yard or to hoses – only the ground floor has this privilege.

    Because it is an urban area we use public transit, so we don’t have a car to put them in and take them somewhere, and this seems a particularly “malodious” task to impose upon a friend and their vehicle.

    We fear our only option is our shower? Ew!

  9. posted by Trish on

    Kelly, do you have a utility sink in your basement or laundry? Alternatively, you could fill it with cleanser, scrub the inside and then dump the icky stuff down the toilet (provided there aren’t big bits floating around). A layer of newspaper or cardboard on your bathroom floor will protect your tile.

  10. posted by Aron Clark on

    I know that there’s probably some people that despise this method and us for using it, as it is a chemical, but bleach works wonderfully if a fly has secretly flown in before you’ve closed the lid, and laid its lovely little offspring (maggots) in there.

    Just squirt a bit of bleach on the bottom and around the sides of the bin (make sure youre wearing old clothes that cover all your skin, and at least rubber gloves), then leave for about 15 minutes. I shouldn’t think it matters whether the lid is closed or not. The just rinse with water from a hosepipe or watering can. Then pour out in your favourite disposal area (definitely would NOT recommend disposing onto lawn, as this is bleach, and will kill anything delicate and living).

    Just my two-penneth.. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  11. posted by gypsypacker on

    If you can stand the smell for the trip, take the can to the car wash with you next time you go. I’ll second the two-center. Bleach may be noxious, but it will kill mildew, fungi, bacteria and maggots and make the next cleaning job easier.

  12. posted by [email protected] Awareness * Connection on

    Agree with Aron above that bleach is the way to go. It can be diluted, but will take care of the odor and kill whatever microbes are manufacturing the stench.

  13. posted by Michele on

    I clean my outdoor cans with large amounts of baking soda. I buy it in an industrial size at Smart and Final (restaurant supply), and put in a pound our so.

  14. posted by Pamela on

    I live in an apartment so the outdoor trash cans don’t apply to me but I read a great tip about my kitchen and bathroom garbage cans years ago to control odour. Instead of using a dedicated bucket to wash your floors, use your kitchen and bathroom garbage cans. If you live in a small apartment you will save space with no bucket to take up space under your sink and you will have clean smelling garbage cans to boot. One of the best cleaning tips I’ve ever gotten.

  15. posted by larry on

    I use some pine-sol, dish soap or car wash soap in the trash can.

  16. posted by X on

    You know, baking soda does wonder on odors. My friend’s mom would put some at the bottom of the barrel to eliminate the stinky smell. You can also use it to scrub clean the garbage can too.

  17. posted by Marcia on

    I live in the metro atlanta area and there is a company called Peachie Clean. They come and clean your trash can for $8.50 and it’s so clean and smells wonderful, you might think about eating off of it. If you can forget that I have two small children in diapers, and one diaper got “stuck” in the bottom of the can. They bring the water, they haul the dirt, germs, and dirty water away. There isn’t a drop of water on your property and they dispose of it properly.

  18. posted by Gabriel on

    Heaven forbid a little soap get into the storm sewer. It might mix with the run-off motor oil and sewage that is already contaminating your water ways.

    I recognize that the soap is bad for the environment, but you’ve got to admit it’s silly given the greater problem.

  19. posted by Ashley L on

    I am having the same issue with my outside can. It smells horrid! We live close to a carwash so I’ll be going that route later today. I tried bleach, dishwashing liquid AND vinegar. Still stinks and I have nowhere to dump the liquids….yuck.

    What can I do to prevent this next time? Obviously pouring out liquids before putting them in the trash and not overloading the can but could I put pine chips or something in the bottom after its clean just in case something happens to spill?

  20. posted by Ann on

    Just to let you know… bleach really isn’t that bad. yes, straight out of the bottle it will burn the tar out of you, but diluted it is relatively safe. And, bonus, it degrades into salt and water… Sodium hypocholorite + time = NaCl + H2O.
    I am an appartment dweller and have been forced to clean the trashcans in the shower and then dump it into the toilet. Grody, but it works!

    oh, Erin. Love the site. Sorry about all the meanies lately! Congrats on the baby. I can hardly believe that you have time to do anything!

  21. posted by Philly on

    I’ll agree with Ann on this one, and add that when visiting China (Sichuan Province), I learned that many chinese farmers use human waste (“night soil”) to fertilize their crops. When eating produce there, you first wash everything in water with a few drops of bleach added. You don’t rinse the bleach water off, since water straight from the tap is contaminated with hepatitis, etc. So, I can personally attest that bleach is safe to consume in very diluted form and therefore is probably safe to put down the drain in small quantities. (By the way, the chinese think it’s gross that we use cow manure as fertilizer here.)

  22. posted by NativeMainer on

    I learned from my grandmothers to put newspaper or a brown paper bag in the bottom of the kitchen trash can to collect liquids and make the can a bit easier to keep odor-free. Every time I take out the trash bag/liner, I look to see if the newspaper is wet. If it is, it comes out and goes in the bag and a new one goes in. I think taking the can outside, hosing it down thoroughly and letting it dry in the sun is a great thing to do once or twice a year as maintenance!

  23. posted by J. Buerger on

    We have a beach rental that we do a deep clean up at the end of the season. We use our little power washer for the grill and trash cans. No soap just water and drying in the sun. Works perfectly for us. Oh and we do the power washing in the grass to not waste any more water than necessary ๐Ÿ˜‰

  24. posted by Katherine on

    Check with the your local waste pick up
    provider. Some of them will clean the can for you.

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