We Tried 5 Methods for Cleaning and Deodorizing Stinky Trash Cans — And the Winner Is Clear

published Mar 28, 2023
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Graphic with garbage can in kitchen, then to the right, photos of 5 different cleaning materials: all-purpose cleaner, baking soda, dish soap & white vinegar, bleach, and hydrogen peroxide
Credit: Main photo: Joe Lingeman; Cleaning method photos: Lucy Schaeffer; Prop Styling: Tom Hoerup

When it comes to dreaded household chores, up there with toilet cleaning is another less routine (but highly despised) task: cleaning a dirty garbage can. The last time I cleaned every single garbage can in our whole house was days into the pandemic lockdown. We took advantage of a sunny spring day and the kids and I made an assembly line in the backyard, putting our detail scrub brushes, the hose, the cleansing power of the sun, and plenty of unexpected extra time to good use that day. 

This spring is our first since moving, and we didn’t actually bring our old trash cans with us because it didn’t seem worth it to take up precious space in the moving truck. In our new house, we had a temporary kitchen trash can that we used until our kitchen remodel was finished. Because we no longer use it in the kitchen, it’s become our garage trash can. All of that is to say that this trash can was filthy. It was perfect for testing out five different ways to clean and deodorize a well-used (read: dirty) trash can. 

How We Tested the Methods to Clean a Dirty Trash Can

To test trash-can cleaning methods, I sectioned off the main part of the trash can and the textured lid and tried each of the five different methods on both. The methods tested were all-purpose cleaner, a baking soda-water paste, a liquid dish soap and vinegar solution, a bleach-water solution, and hydrogen peroxide. I used a nylon scrub brush for each method (washing it in between methods, of course). When I was done with all my testing, I took the trash can to the bathtub and rinsed it off, leaving it there to dry. 

The Ratings

To compare methods, I rated them based on how easy they were to use, how well they worked, how long they took relative to the other methods (a high score means less time), and overall. Each component is rated on a 1 to 5 scale, with 1 being the worst. 

Credit: Photo: Lucy Schaeffer; Prop Styling: Tom Hoerup

Trash-Can Cleaning Method: All-Purpose Cleaner

  • Ease of use: 5/5
  • Performance: 2/5
  • Total time: 3/5
  • Overall: 3/5 

The method: To execute this method, I grabbed my Mrs. Meyer’s All-Purpose Cleaner, sprayed it on the trash can, and scrubbed. 

How it went:
The only thing this method had going for it was how easy it was to just spray and scrub. Unfortunately, there was very little payoff. I knew that the trash can had to be cleaner, but it didn’t look cleaner at all. Visible dirt didn’t budge. For a trash can that isn’t super dirty, or for routine maintenance, this method would be fine, but don’t bother if you’re trying to deep-clean it.

Credit: Photo: Lucy Schaeffer; Prop Styling: Tom Hoerup

Trash-Can Cleaning Method: Hydrogen Peroxide 

  • Ease of use: 4/5
  • Performance: 3/5
  • Total time: 4/5
  • Overall: 3.5/5

The method: For this method, I dribbled the hydrogen peroxide directly from the bottle onto the dirty areas of the trash can, let it sit for a bit, then scrubbed. 

How it went: I noticed that the hydrogen peroxide pooling at the bottom of the trash can became a little bit dirty, so I knew it was lifting some dirt, but it didn’t do much for the major trouble spots. I liked that the hydrogen peroxide had some disinfecting properties, but I also want my trash can to look clean when I’m done cleaning it. 

Credit: Photo: Lucy Schaeffer; Prop Styling: Tom Hoerup

Trash-Can Cleaning Method: Dish Soap and Vinegar

  • Ease of use: 4/5
  • Performance: 4/5 
  • Total time: 4/5
  • Overall: 4/5

The method: For this method, I grabbed a bowl, poured in some distilled white vinegar, and squirted in some liquid dish soap. I dipped my scrub brush into it, swished to mix, and began scrubbing the trash can. 

How it went: This method was great. Stains lifted much faster than I expected them to. I had all the ingredients for the cleaning solution on-hand, and they were easy to mix together and use. 

Credit: Photo: Lucy Schaeffer; Prop Styling: Tom Hoerup

Trash-Can Cleaning Method: Baking Soda Paste

  • Ease of use: 4/5
  • Performance: 4.5/5
  • Total time: 5/5
  • Overall: 4.5/5

The method: I made a relatively thick paste of baking soda with a bit of water and spread it over the trash can with my hands. I don’t know why I did that, because it made it way messier than it needed to be! Next time I would just lift some paste with my brush and use that to spread and scrub. 

How it went: This method worked great! I liked it more than the vinegar and dish soap method because it lifted stains and scuffs super fast. However, there isn’t anything disinfecting about the baking soda, which could be a drawback when cleaning trash cans. 

Credit: Photo: Lucy Schaeffer; Prop Styling: Tom Hoerup

Trash-Can Cleaning Method: Bleach and Water in a Spray Bottle 

  • Ease of use: 4/5
  • Performance: 5/5
  • Total time: 4.5/5
  • Overall: 5/5

The method: I mixed about a teaspoon of bleach in a spray bottle halfway full of water. I sprayed the solution on the trash can and scrubbed with the brush. 

How it went: I didn’t like having to mix my own bleach solution, but it was actually quick and easy, and the solution worked so well that it was worth it. Not only did it lift dirt and stains with ease — especially after sitting on them for a little bit — but I also knew that my trash can was getting sanitized in the process, thanks to the bleach. For this reason, I dub bleach and water in a spray bottle the winning method!