Could somebody please explain the differences in usage of those words? The only difference I could find is that garbage and trash is AmE, rubbish BrE and litter / waste seem to be used in BrE and AmE.

(This topic came up when I was in Scotland and a scottish gentlemen tried to talk to some czech people. They had problems understanding his accent when he said one of those words and I supported him by saying those synonyms)

Longman dictionary

garbage: (1) especially AmE waste material, such as paper, empty containers, and food thrown away; = rubbish BrE [...]

litter: (1) WASTE [U] waste paper, cans etc that people have thrown away and left on the ground in a public place; = rubbish, trash, garbage: People who drop litter can be fined in some cities. | a town with a litter problem. [...]

rubbish: [U] especially BrE (1) food, paper etc that is no longer needed and has been thrown away; = garbage AmE, trash AmE [...]

trash: (1) AmE, things that you throw away, such as empty bottles, used papers, food that has gone bad etc; = rubbish BrE [...]

waste: (4) UNWANTED MATERIALS [U] unwanted materials or substances that are left after you have used something: The emphasis is on recycling houshold waste. | industrial/chemical etc waste proposals to end the dumping of industrial waste into rivers and seas | waste pipes | the disposal of hazardous waste -> nuclear waste, toxic waste -> see picture at ENVIRONMENT [...]

Trash vs Garbage

was answered here. Trash is something thrown away (which could still be useful for somebody else), garbage is useless (e.g. bad food). Garbage seems to be rather organic while trash is inorganic.

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    This same question was raised a few months ago. The meanings of the terms are quite dependent on one's locality. – Hot Licks Sep 5 '15 at 18:30
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    @HotLicks I'm sorry, I didn't see that. Could you add a link, please? – Martin Thoma Sep 5 '15 at 18:34
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    (And you forgot "refuse".) – Hot Licks Sep 6 '15 at 0:21
  • Even in a single country the meanings can vary by region. My Brooklyn-born mother-in-law invariably talks about taking out the "rubbish" while my Florida relatives always say "trash" for the same thing. They all agree that garbage means stuff that can rot and smell bad though. – barbecue Sep 6 '15 at 2:01

The words are not synonyms because the mental pictures created in the listener's mind will be different. For anyone interested in this way of thinking about words / definitions, I encourage you to read "Louder than Words."

All of my definitions are from The AHD, except Rubbish, from Cambridge Advanced Learners.

Litter: A disorderly accumulation of objects or things carelessly discarded. "The streets were filled with litter after the parade." This sentence will produce a different mental picture in a native English speaker's mind than "The streets were filled with garbage after the parade." This should be a clue as the meaning of garbage...

Garbage: Food waste as from a kitchen / worthless or nonsensical material. Garbage usually smells bad. No one wants to root through a garbage can. People wouldn't mind as much going through the office waste basket...

Waste: (verb) To use, consume, or spend thoughtlessly or carelessly. Waste has an idea of leftovers or things not entirely consumed. An office waste basket would have paper, paper clips, receipts, and other things in it that are considered leftovers or weren't used because they were extraneous. This is why we say "industrial waste," and not "industrial garbage / litter." In 100 years, hopefully, the expression "industrial waste" will be considered an unfortunate thing of the past, in the same way as "the electric chair."

Rubbish: AHD--worthless material, Cambridge--waste material or things that are no longer wanted. I include the British definition because in BrE, rubbish carries a similar meaning as waste in AmE. However, I feel that regardless of the speaker's native form of English, if you were to ask them to draw pictures of rubbish or waste, there would be significant difference and similarities. Also, in BrE people say "That's a load of rubbish," or "Quit talking rubbish." In AmE people would say "That's a load of BS," or "Quit talking trash / BS." (If anyone has some better "conversions" I would welcome those.)

Trash: To throw away or discard / worthless material. Also Empty words, worthless ideas, worthless or offensive literary material. It would seem then that trash and waste have similar meanings in some cases, but in others not so much. Waste basket and trash basket might be considered similar. But we don;t say "Quit talking waste," or "You're being trashful."

Refuse: Items discarded as useless or worthless. I think a refuse pile is very different from a garbage heap. In my mind, I picture old washing machines, printers, metal parts, bike tires, computer cables, car parts, etc. Garbage heaps smell and have things that are generally of lesser value.

In no way is this a scientific ordering but, I think one could order the words in terms of "grossness factor," thus: 1) Garbage 2) Trash 3) Rubbish (US perspective) / Waste 4) Litter 5) Refuse

I think it would be an interesting experiment to ask AmE or BrE speakers to describe the contents of "Rubbish bin" "Trash can," or "garbage can," and "waste basket."

Because the words "rubbish and "trash" are also used in expressions such as "talk trash / rubbish," I feel that the mental images created are different for these words than for other words and may in fact produce confusion as to what should be imagined...context possibly sorts this out.

This is a topic that could easily fill 20 pages of discussion about all the different uses, mental pictures created, word history, change of word meaning through history (check out Corpus of Historical American English), and etymology. Because of this, I don't think it's possible to give a quick summary that tells all.

  • I would position refuse closer to garbage than litter. – barbecue Sep 6 '15 at 1:56
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    @barbecue Where are you from? If I asked you to describe or draw pictures of "refuse" what would you draw? Would you agree that "garbage" is typically smelly and disgusting? – michael_timofeev Sep 6 '15 at 2:28
  • I'm from up north, but have lived in Florida many years. Garbage to me means food waste and things you don't want to touch with your bare hands. Coffee grounds, egg shells, gnawed bones, greasy bags, empty containers with food debris, half-eaten sandwiches, etc. If i drew a picture of refuse, I'd draw something like an unrecognizable mass of decaying stuff of uncertain origin. Of course everything I draw looks like that... – barbecue Sep 6 '15 at 2:43
  • @barbecueThanks. I ask because I feel that there are no such things as synonyms (well, in some cases, yes) and that people form different mental pictures for different words, even something like "pants" or "trousers." If I gave a group of native English speakers 100 photos and asked them to separate the pants pictures form the trousers pictures, I think there would be statistically significant differences, and definite piles of pictures. Same for garbage, refuse, litter, etc. – michael_timofeev Sep 6 '15 at 2:55
  • I agree to some extent. I find I have very different connotations for many words that are technically synonyms, but I also think those connotations are not only regional, but individual. To me, pants is a more generic term, trousers suggests something a workman would wear, and slacks is what a professional wears in the office. But my New York mother-in-law uses trousers for more formal pants, and dungarees for jeans. And she thinks slacks are more casual than trousers. – barbecue Sep 6 '15 at 3:01

All are pretty similar with one exception. Litter isn't the stuff in the bucket in my kitchen. It's trash where it doesn't belong. As in "please don't litter." It's the one word with a negative connotation as it's in the wrong place. A garbage can, a trash barrel, the same. Litter is by the side of the road or on the street.

The difference between them is mostly idiomatic. These words are synonyms. Their literal meanings do not differ much at all.

Idioms are fixed expressions that don't take well to synonym substitutions.

"Trash talk" is an idiom but "litter talk", certainly isn't. Similarly, "kitty litter" is while "kitty rubbish" is not. You may think this answer is a "load of rubbish" but if you say it's a "load of waste" people look at you funny. Better to say it's a "waste of space".

Does that help or am I just spewing garbage?

  • Two out your three idiomatic examples are invalid because they’re using senses of the words that aren’t synonymic with the other words. Both litter and rubbish (as well as the other words, of course) have other, distinct meanings that are not synonymous with trash/garbage/waste to begin with. Nobody would ever talk about garbaging in the streets, either, and “The poor fellow is trashing away” is completely unrelated to “The poor fellow is wasting away”. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 5 '15 at 21:40
  • @JanusBahsJacquet well, as I said their meanings don't differ much. I did not say there is no difference. What I said was that the biggest difference, as in the one most likely to get you corrected, is if you break the idiom. Call it a rubbish bin rather than a trash can and few would dispute that your meaning is just as clear, but they might get a clue about where you grew up. – candied_orange Sep 6 '15 at 2:02

It's easy to understand why these terms might be considered to by synonyms, but that doesn't mean that they are completely interchangeable. Synonyms may have different connotations, idiomatic useages, and often have subtle difference in their meanings. For instance, although "litter" might by synonymous with "garbage" in certain contexts, one wouldn't refer to the garbage in a garbage can as "litter." As another example, "waste" could be used to emphasize the byproduct of an otherwise useful process, whereas "trash" and "garbage" would have a hard time doing that without elaboration.

All of these words (and plenty more) can be for things that are headed for a landfill.

All of these words have other meanings. The only difference is when you use them as such.


garbage (Google) noun: unwanted data in a computer's memory.

waste (Google) noun: an act or instance of using or expending something carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose.

One man's junk is another man's treasure.

  • In Chicago, there's no difference. So long as it's not yard waste or construction debris. "We will pick up almost anything," Pittman said. "It is our objective to pick up everything that’s in front of the truck, be it trash, sofas, on occasion electronics such as refrigerators, stoves." – Mazura Sep 6 '15 at 0:55

Civil Engineers know that the differences depend on the material and the amount of water content. Garbage has more water content than rubbish, for example.

See page 26-18 of The Civil Engineering Handbook, Second Edition, edited by W.F. Chen and J.Y. Richard Liew, and published by the CRC press (ISBN-13: 978-0849309588 - CAT# 0958) for more details.

Having lived in Canada, USA and UK, I find that generally Canadians say garbage, Americans say trash and British say rubbish.

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    But are you saying that the meanings of those three words are exactly equivalent in the three countries? The problem with that argument (in my opinion) is that a Canadian (for example) may have three distinct things in mind when he or she thinks of the three words garbage, trash, and rubbish. I certainly use all three words to mean somewhat different things. – Sven Yargs Mar 8 '17 at 5:19

protected by tchrist Oct 27 '17 at 13:02

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