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What's the difference between garbage and trash? Is the difference significant?

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Wait what, no love for rubbish, litter, junk, refuse..? –  RegDwigнt Apr 7 '11 at 22:38
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@RegDwight Well, this question is sorta specific to AmE I'm not hating on BrE! :D –  bcc32 Apr 7 '11 at 22:39
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Ah yes. Mkay. I took the liberty of adding the AmE tag. –  RegDwigнt Apr 7 '11 at 22:44
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Garbage is what you program into a computer. Trash is what you try to keep your daughter from dating. –  Robusto Apr 8 '11 at 0:28
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4 Answers 4

up vote 17 down vote accepted

I think the saying "one person's trash is another person's treasure" helps answer this question. Trash more often has the meaning of something discarded, whereas garbage more often carries the meaning of true refuse, often food waste. Of course, food waste can be a treasure to a gardener working on a compost pile, but I'm speaking generally here. It's not a very significant distinction, and the terms are often used interchangeably, but there are instances when they are not synonymous.

This excerpt from a 1986 Orlando Sentinel article titled "Trash Vs. Garbage: Any Big Difference?" supports this general distinction in meaning:

There was a little note stuck to the can. It said, in essence, that my refuse hadn't been picked up because -- and I quote -- ''trash and garbage had been mixed.''

I hate making mistakes like that. I didn't close the cover on a book of matches before striking. It was weeks before I got over the guilt.

I called Georgia Waste Systems, where I have my trash/garbage account, to apologize. They were very nice and said a lot of people make the same mistake I did and they were not planning a lawsuit.

As long as I had somebody on the phone who could explain, I asked, ''What is the difference between trash and garbage?''

''Garbage,'' the woman said, ''are things that come from the bathroom or kitchen.''

''You mean like bread you leave out for months and green things start growing on it?'' I asked.

''Precisely,'' she said.

''Trash,'' she continued, ''is basically anything else. We do not pick up leaves, for instance, or old furniture or boxes of materials that were collected when somebody cleaned out their attic.''

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Probably worth saying that "trash and garbage had been mixed." won't be widely understood; the distinction isn't firm enough for that phrase to make sense. Normally you'd say something like "food and non-food waste had been mixed". –  Mechanical snail May 30 '12 at 9:40
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The distinction my grandparents made was that they burned their trash but not their garbage. If this was ever the general rule, it no longer is.

UPDATE: There's some evidence for this definition in the 1896 Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, although there definition (2) doesn't include waste paper, which my grandparents definitely included in trash.

Trash: 1. That which is worthless or useless; rubbish; refuse. 2. Esp., loppings and leaves of trees, bruised sugar cane, etc. 3. A worthless person.
Garbage: Offal; refuse animal or vegetable matter from a kitchen; hence, anything worthless or loathsome.

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can't you technically burn anything? or do you mean things that are flammable, per se? –  bcc32 Apr 7 '11 at 22:40
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Trash was the stuff they disposed of by burning themselves. Garbage was the stuff they paid somebody to haul away. –  Peter Shor Apr 7 '11 at 22:44
    
That's interesting, never heard that one before. –  Uticensis Apr 7 '11 at 22:44
    
that's interesting; i suppose most people don't burn any waste nowadays, though. –  bcc32 Apr 7 '11 at 22:45
    
@bcc32: It's probably illegal to burn your waste nowadays, which is why I commented that this may not still be the rule. It also may not have been the generally accepted definition ... I don't know. –  Peter Shor Apr 7 '11 at 22:47
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Garbage is organic (e.g. food scraps, etc.). Trash is inorganic (e.g. bottles, cans, etc.).

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A garbage-collector friend of mine specified the distinction as "garbage is wet, trash is dry", and as explained further is basically this organic/manufactured distinction. –  AndrewS May 30 '12 at 19:09
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It seems to me that "Trash" is more of a slang term. I suppose they are both an alternative for "refuse". They are somewhat contextual, as well. For example:

That outfit makes you look trashy.

In this sense, the word trash is used to imply the wearer of the clothing appears to be disheveled, careless, or provocative. Personally, I wouldn't say,

That outfit makes you look like garbage.

The context has shifted to imply the wearer now resembles a large pile of refuse. I seriously doubt this is the case. I suppose they may be modelling the "Derelict" line of fashion clothing, featured in the Zoolander movie.

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