Nearly four in five Americans prefer taking out the trash to washing dishes by hand. But that doesn’t make the chore any less gross—especially when your garbage can (and everything inside it) smells awful. So, why does your garbage can smell so bad?

Here’s the TL;DR:

Your garbage can may smell bad because of food and drink residue or discarded spoiled or expired food. Poor ventilation and high humidity can also trap foul odors, encourage mold and bacterial growth, and accelerate decomposition. It could also stem from low-quality trash bags or plastic trash cans.

If your trash can reeks, keep reading. I’ll go into more detail about the possible culprits behind the stench and why it never seems to leave. You’ll also learn how to deodorize garbage cans and keep them smelling fresh!

Reasons Your Garbage Can Smells Awful

A trash can could have a bad smell for many reasons—including what you put into it, its physical location, the trash bags you use, and the can itself. 

If you’re not quite sure why your bin is stinking up the house, here are six possible reasons:

1. Food + Drink Residue

The most likely culprit is food or drink residue somewhere in the can. This can be anything splashing on the lid or leaking through a torn trash bag that’s begun to decompose. 

As the residue decomposes, so do the bacteria and chemicals in the waste. They begin releasing various odorous compounds. The decomposition process also releases gases like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. Both have their own distinct (and not-so-pleasant) odors. 

The table below explains the most common garbage can smells and which foods cause them:

common garbage can odors and where they come from (table)

2. Spoiled or Expired Food

Spoiled or expired food smells bad enough in the refrigerator. That stench becomes worse when left to sit in garbage cans at room temperature—and with little air flow. 

That’s because old food creates the perfect environment for bacterial growth and has already begun decomposing. Bacteria in the food and the environment will begin breaking down the organic matter in the food (AKA: decomposition). As this happens, the spoiled food releases chemicals and distinct, foul odors. 

For example, fatty foods and oils may smell rancid when spoiled, and rotten high-sugar foods have a sour, vinegary, or vaguely “fermented” odor. 

The table below details common odors caused by spoiled or expired foods:

common spoiled/expired food odors (table)

3. Lack of Ventilation or High Humidity

Poor ventilation and high humidity create the perfect storm for your garbage can’s scent: bacteria, mold, and moisture. 

A tightly sealed lid traps the air inside the can and creates an anaerobic environment. Anaerobic simply means “without air.” 

Not only do anaerobic conditions create more pungent odors, but the tightly closed lid also allows these odors to build up in the bin. The longer these odors sit without fresh air flow, the more intense they become.

When the humidity inside your trash can remains high, the can (and everything in it) becomes damp. Bacteria, mold, and mildew all thrive in moist places. A garbage bin that seals in humid air may smell musty or begin developing mold or mildew. 

4. Improper Garbage Disposal

There are some things you need to throw out but simply don’t belong in the trash can—as long as you don’t want a persistent, awful stench. Because they often take longer to decompose than your typical “trash,” the smell is released slowly and continually. 

Some of the worst offenders are soiled diapers, animal waste, used cat litter, and improperly sealed leftover kitchen waste. 

5. Low-Quality Garbage Bags

Your trash can may also reek if you use cheaply made trash bags. The reason for this is simple: because they’re often made with thin and weak materials, these bags are also more prone to punctures and tears

The liner may develop a hole that allows liquids and foul odors to leak, causing the entire can to stink even worse.

6. Absorbent Garbage Can Material

If your trash can is plastic, that may explain why it seemingly holds onto bad smells.

Some lower-quality, thinner plastics have microscopic pores that trap particles. These include odors and any residue that leaks into the bin. So, trash odors may remain long after you’ve emptied the bin and swapped in a fresh bag. 

How To Make Your Garbage Can Smell Better

Now that you know the source of the odor, you can take steps to either get rid of it or prevent smells from happening again.

Here are some of the best strategies for refreshing a stinky garbage can:

1. Use Trash Bags With Odor Control

One of the simplest solutions is switching to garbage bags with built-in odor control mechanisms. Although these won’t completely remove the source of the stench, they can mask it to make it less noticeable. 

Some examples of features to look for include:

  • Scented bags: Release a pleasing scent like citrus or lavender to mask unpleasant scents
  • Odor-neutralizing agents: Contain ingredients like baking soda or activated charcoal to eliminate odors before they become a problem
  • Reinforced or double-layered bags: A stronger material that’ll resist tears and rips that’s often thick enough to prevent odors from leaving the bag (punctures are still possible, just less likely)
  • Drawstring closure: Helps to prevent odors from leaking out when tied tightly

Here’s a closer look at a garbage bag that’s 25% more durable, has a reinforced bottom and seams, and is scented:

reinforced garbage bag texture side by side

2. Try DIY Odor Control Solutions

You can also deodorize smelly garbage cans with items you already have in your home. These solutions are cost-effective, convenient, and just plain simple. Just keep in mind their efficacy depends on the type and severity of the odor.

Here are seven of my favorites:

Baking Soda

Baking soda is one of the best natural deodorizers for the home for three reasons: amphoteric, hygroscopic, and adsorptive. That means it can 1) neutralize acidic and basic compounds, 2) absorb moisture, and 3) allow odor particles to stick to its surface.

Pulling excess dampness out of the air can eliminate odors that thrive in moist conditions. Scientifically, baking soda also brings compounds closer to a “neutral” state, making them less likely to have odors. 

Baking soda is most effective against decomposing food, sour or spoiled smells, pet waste, and moldy odors. 

Step-by-Step Guide

Materials Needed: Baking soda, a small bowl or container

  1. Place an open, small bowl in the bottom of the empty can.
  2. Sprinkle a thin layer (~¼ cup) of baking soda into the container. 
  3. Swap in new baking soda every 1-2 weeks or as needed.

Placing baking soda in a bowl is extremely important to avoid corrosion if you have a metal garbage can.

For More Stubborn Garbage Odors

If your garbage bin is particularly rank, you can scrub it down with baking soda and water instead.

Materials Needed: Baking soda, warm water, a scrub brush or sponge

  1. Empty out the trash can completely. 
  2. Rinse the can thoroughly with water to remove any loose debris.
  3. Sprinkle a thin layer of baking soda into the bin. 
  4. Pour enough warm water into the garbage can to cover the baking soda. The warmth helps activate the baking soda to assist in loosening grime and odors.
  5. Let the water and baking soda sit in the garbage can for 15-30 minutes. Letting it soak can help it lift stains and odors. 
  6. Use a scrub brush or sponge to wash the can’s inside. Pay close attention to corners, crevices, and the bottom of the can that hold onto dirt.
  7. Clean the lid and handle. These areas are known for holding onto bacteria and odors. 
  8. Rinse thoroughly with clean water to remove any remaining baking soda.
  9. Give it a quick sniff to check for any remaining odors. 
  10. Repeat as needed.
  11. Let the garbage can dry completely before adding a bag or trash. Moisture can encourage the growth of mold or bacteria.

Cat Litter or Activated Charcoal

Second to baking soda, cat litter and activated charcoal are among the most reliable household odor absorbers. Both are adsorbent (or trap odor molecules on their surface). But each also brings its own unique benefits. 

Most litter contains naturally absorbent materials like clay or silica gel—making it a great option for damp garbage bins. By trapping excess moisture, you can reduce the likelihood of odor-causing bacteria and the smells they carry. Some litter also contains odor-neutralizing additives (i.e., baking soda) or fragrances (i.e., Febreze) to mask odors. 

Activated charcoal kicks this “adsorption” up a few notches. In fact, according to the National Center for Poison Control, a teaspoon of activated charcoal has the same surface area as a football field. Its highly porous surface allows it to trap and absorb a large volume of odors—from food scraps to bagged dog waste.

Step-by-Step Guide

Materials Needed: Cat litter or activated charcoal, a small bowl or container, a small mesh bag or cheesecloth (optional)

  1. Empty the can completely. 
  2. Put an open, small bowl in the bottom of the empty bin. (Alternative: Contain the litter or activated charcoal by placing it in a mesh bag or cheesecloth.)
  3. Pour a layer of litter or charcoal into the container. Both are highly absorbent and can neutralize odors.
  4. Position the bowl at the bottom of the garbage can. (Alternative: If using a mesh bag or cheesecloth, tie it securely and hang it inside the can.)
  5. Add new litter or charcoal when odors reappear.
kitty litter deodorizing sachet in garbage can

Citrus Peels

Lemon, orange, and grapefruit peels neutralize bad garbage odors with a slightly zesty twist. Each of these fruits contains a terpene called d-Limonene—an ingredient in cleaning products because of its citrusy scent. Adding peels to the bottom of your bin can deodorize bad odors and “refresh” the bin’s fragrance.

Step-by-Step Guide

Materials Needed: Lemon or orange peels, a small mesh bag or cheesecloth

  1. Save peels from lemons or oranges. Ensure that the peels are clean and don’t have any remaining fruit
  2. Let the peels air-dry for 24 hours (or until slightly dehydrated). Drying them will intensify the citrus aroma and stretch the scent further.
  3. Put the dried peels in a mesh bag or cheesecloth. 
  4. Hang the bag with citrus peels inside the garbage can so it’s not touching the bottom. If you’re using cheesecloth, tie it securely and hang it inside the can.
  5. Swap in new peels about every 1-2 weeks or as needed.

You can toss the peels directly into the bottom of the bin, but using a mesh bag or cheesecloth makes them easier to remove. 

Vinegar

Vinegar (specifically, white distilled vinegar) is naturally acidic and contains acetic acid. It also tends to bond with volatile molecules, and once it evaporates, it takes the strong odor along with it. 

Studies—like this one and this one—also suggest that vinegar’s acetic acid has decent antibacterial and antifungal traits. Just keep in mind that while vinegar may be able to kill bacteria in your trash can, it’s yet to be proven a true “disinfectant.”

Step-by-Step Guide

Materials Needed: White vinegar, water, a spray bottle, scrub brush (optional)

  1. Mix equal parts vinegar and water in a spray bottle (a 1:1 ratio).
  2. Spritz the inside of the can with the solution. Ensure you cover the bottom, sides, and lid thoroughly.
  3. Let it sit for at least 15-30 minutes to give the vinegar time to penetrate and neutralize odors.
  4. If you’re dealing with stubborn stains or odors, use a scrub brush to scrub the inside with the vinegar mixture.
  5. Rinse the can thoroughly with clean water to remove all vinegar residue. 
  6. Let the garbage can air dry completely before adding a new garbage bag or waste.
  7. Use the vinegar spray after cleaning or emptying the garbage can in the future.
Did you know you can also remove some airborne odors with a bowl of vinegar? Learn more in my post: A Bowl of Vinegar to Absorb Odors? [+ 6 Other Home Uses].

Dryer Sheets

dryer sheet texture pores

Dryer sheets are also surprisingly efficient odor-maskers and—bonus—can make your garbage can smell like fresh linen 24/7! Not only do they release a fresh scent when exposed to air, but they’re also made of a thin yet porous material. A sheet or two at the bottom of your can might trap those relentless odors for good. 

Step-by-Step Guide

Materials Needed: Dryer sheets

  1. Place a dryer sheet at the bottom of the empty garbage can. Add more than one if it’s an oversized or tall bin.
  2. Replace the sheet every 1-2 weeks or as needed.

Coffee Grounds

Coffee grounds won’t only give your trash bin a subtle scent of freshly brewed coffee. They’re also highly porous, naturally acidic, and hygroscopic. That means they can 1) stick odor molecules to their surface and neutralize stronger and more pungent odors. Coffee grounds can also absorb excess moisture—and thus—reduce odor-causing bacteria. 

Step-by-Step Guide

Materials Needed: Used coffee grounds, a small bowl or container

  1. Position an open, small bowl in the bottom of the empty can.
  2. Fill the bowl with used coffee grounds. Spread them evenly in the bowl to create a thin layer.
  3. Place the ground-filled bowl at the bottom of the trash can. 
  4. Replace the coffee grounds on a regular basis—about every 1-2 weeks or as needed. 

You can use freshly ground coffee beans instead for a more fragrant kick. 

Essential Oils

As plant extracts with fragrant aromas, essential oils may effectively mask unwanted odors. But beyond a pleasing fragrance, some oils—like tea tree, eucalyptus, and lavender—are also antimicrobial. As a result, they may be able to kill some bacteria, viruses, and fungi that cause odors.

Step-by-Step Guide

Materials Needed: Essential oils, cotton balls or a small cloth

  1. Select one or more essential oils. Common choices for deodorizing include lavender, tea tree, eucalyptus, lemon, or peppermint.
  2. Apply a few drops of oil to a cotton ball or a small cloth. The number of drops you use will determine the intensity of the fragrance.
  3. Tuck the oil-infused ball or cloth into the bottom of the can. If yours has a lid, you can place the infused material near the top or under the lid.
  4. Replace the cotton ball or cloth every 1-2 weeks or as needed. 

3. Do More Regular Cleaning

cleaning can in tub with soap and water

If your trash collection is once a week or you can’t get around tossing used diapers or spoiled food in the bin, a more regular cleaning routine is in order. Be sure to dump out anything left behind—especially liquids—when changing the bag, and do a complete bin cleaning once a month to keep it smellin’ fresh.

Materials Needed: A mild detergent, hot water, a scrub brush or sponge, baking soda or white vinegar (optional)

  1. Empty the garbage can.
  2. Hose down the can or use a bucket of water to rinse away any loose debris.
  3. Mix a small amount of mild detergent with hot water. Apply the soapy mixture to the inside and outside of the bin.
  4. With your scrub brush or sponge, scrub all surfaces—including the bottom, sides, and lid. Use extra elbow grease on stains or sticky residue.
  5. Remove all soap residue by rinsing the can with water.
  6. Let the garbage can dry fully before adding a new bag. 
  7. If there are lingering odors, sprinkle baking soda at the bottom or wipe it down with a mix of water and vinegar. Let it sit for a bit before rinsing it with water.

4. Freeze Foul-Smelling Food Items

If you have extra space in your freezer, you can freeze smelly foods before tossing them in the bin. 

The reason for this is simple: freezing slows the growth and activity of bacteria—a common cause of decomposition and bad odors. It also reduces the amount of moisture in the food. Since bacteria and odors thrive in moisture, freezing should (theoretically) stave off these bad smells. 

Keep in mind that freezing merely slows decomposition. It’ll still smell if you freeze rotten seafood, put it in the can, and let it sit at room temperature for a few days. This strategy is most effective when the food is stored in a plastic bag and tossed into the bin shortly before pick-up; it’s a temporary fix.

Materials Needed: Newspaper or paper towels, sealable plastic bags

  1. Wrap the items in newspaper or paper towels. This can help absorb moisture and contain odors.
  2. Place the foul-smelling food—now wrapped in newspaper or paper towel—in sealable plastic bags.
  3. Put the sealed bags in the freezer until it’s time to take out the trash. By freezing, you can reduce the spread of odors since cold temperatures slow down the release of volatile compounds that lead to bad garbage can smells. 
  4. When it’s time to empty the garbage can (i.e., trash pick-up day), put the frozen items in the bag and toss them into the dumpster. 

5. Dump the Bin More Regularly

Yes, it could be as simple as regularly dumping your bin. Organic waste, like food scraps, undergo a natural decomposition process. As this occurs, bacteria break down the waste and release byproducts that produce those unpleasant odors.

Emptying the can more often will limit exactly how much decomposition occurs inside your home. It’ll prevent the long-term build-up of liquids or food waste from leaking from the bag. There’s also a lower risk of waste odors mixing—creating a more complex, pungent smell. 

Once or twice a week should be enough, but it depends on what you’re tossing into the bin and how quickly the trash piles up.

6. Keep It Dry

As we touched on earlier, high humidity brings moisture, and along with it comes bacterial growth. Bacteria play a significant role in the decomposition process. Keeping your bin dry can slow bacterial activity and the odors they cause. 

Controlling moisture inside the bin may also fend off mold and mildew, notorious for giving off musty odors. 

Here are some tips for keeping your trash can dry:

  • Never put trash directly into the garbage can; always use a trash bag!
  • For particularly wet waste, dump any excess liquid or spills into the sink (or let it dry) first. You can double-bag for even more protection. 
  • Keep the lid shut whenever possible to keep moisture from entering.
  • Store your can in a well-ventilated area for better moisture evaporation.

7. Use Steel Garbage Cans

Steel trash cans tend to be non-porous, less likely to absorb odors or liquids, and less likely to stain. This not only makes them easier to keep clean but also makes it more difficult for persistent foul odors to develop. 

Some steel garbage cans have antimicrobial lids that prevent the build-up of odor-causing bacteria. For more advanced odor control, choose a can with a tight-fitting lid that can keep odors contained in the can. You’ll also need to be proactive in keeping your garbage can clean, as steel garbage cans can still harbor bacteria and odors.

8. Use a Smaller Can With a Loose-Fitting Lid

You may also want to downsize your trash can to a smaller model. Because the can fills up more quickly, it forces you to throw the garbage out more often, giving food and odors less time to fester. 

On the other hand, a loose-fitting lid can improve ventilation by giving the garbage a consistent supply of air. Because many bacteria thrive in wet and anaerobic places, a loose lid can better disperse these odors instead of containing them in the can.

Just keep in mind that using a loose-fitting lid for extended periods may make your bin more vulnerable to pests.

Final Thoughts

If your trash smells bad, the first thing you should do is uncover the source. What’s making it stink—the can itself, the bags, or what you discard? From there, you can follow any tips detailed above to neutralize or mask those pesky odors!