What's the difference between garbage and trash? Is the difference significant?
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.''
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.
I am almost 80 years old. When I was a child, I remember we had two collections, trash, and garbage. The trash was cans, paper, etc. Garbage was what we used to put into a strainer in our sinks before we washed dished (garbage disposers hadn't been invented yet?) The trash went to a "sanitary-fill" where piles of trash were burned, and then metal cans were extracted with a electro-magnet. Then what was left was pushed over into a canyon and covered with dirt. The garbage was given to places that raised hogs and pigs. Also, the garbage can was a small container with a lid to keep off the flies, but most of the trash containers were not covered. Well, that is the way it was seventy years ago!
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.