What To Do When the Heat Makes Your Home Smell Like Garbage

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The heat of summer can create a symphony of smells in your home. This week, one reader has a question about her rank-smelling trash can.

So my apartment has one of those trash can in a cabinet situations and it also has my heat/hot water pipes running directly behind this same cabinet. The cabinet has developed what can only be described as a “permanent hot garbage smell.” It’s sort of like a mild version of midtown Manhattan in July. I take the trash out pretty often to keep it from cooking, but it’s summer now and it’s getting worse. The smell is leaking into the rest of the apartment and I only have so much money to spend on candles.

Please help, I really don’t want to have to avoid my problems by moving.

The other week, as you are assuredly aware, there was a blackout in New York City. It didn’t affect my neighborhood, but there was a brief “oh shit” moment for me when I first heard the news because I also happened to be out of town…and I had visions of coming home to a fridge full of hot, rotted foods that had been sitting in an un-air conditioned apartment.

I tell you that to tell you this: Heat + smells is something that’s been on the brain lately, and so this question is timely—not just for people who have a stinking trash can sitch, but also for people who do lose power and end up in that fridge full of rotted foods nightmare scenario.

So there are basically three things you’ll need to do to eliminate a trash-y, old food-y smell, and to keep it at bay going forward:

  1. Cleaning the cabinet (or fridge, or cooler, etc.)
  2. Washing the trash can (or fridge, or cooler, etc.)
  3. Introducing odor absorbers/eliminators.

Clean the Cabinet

I’m working off the assumption that the cabinet that houses the trash can is made of wood, which is part of the issue here in that wood is porous and can absorb and retain odors. So, the first step is to clean the cabinet itself. Start by removing everything stored in there, and then use an antibacterial cleaning solution and a rag or large sponge to wipe down the walls and floor. Here, a diluted bleach solution, antibacterial multi-surface cleaner like Lysol Clean & Fresh or Method Antibac, or diluted white vinegar would all be good choices. After thoroughly wiping out the cabinet, leave the door open to allow it to dry completely and to allow some air to circulate within. If you choose to use bleach, be sure that your work area is well-ventilated and wear a pair of household gloves to protect your hands.


Wash the Trash Can

Then, you’ll also want to wash the trash can itself, especially if it’s a plastic one—plastic, like wood, is porous and will retain odors. You can use any one of the same products to clean a trash can as you would to clean the cabinet interior; diluted Dr. Bronner’s is another good option for its effectiveness at odor-eliminating.


Absorb Odors

After performing those two jobs, things should be smelling a lot better—while you’re working, provided the heat of the day allows for it, open as many windows as you can and turn on a fan or two to help move the air around. Now, you can introduce products that will help absorb odors as they happen to keep the smell from getting overwhelming. Real talk though: These products will help, but they need to be replaced regularly (check manufacturer instructions for replacement timeline recommendations, as they vary quite wildly from product to product). You will also likely need to perform that cabinet and trash can washing routine again as stubborn, lingering odors start to, well, linger again.


One of the best odor absorbers out there is active charcoal, which also goes by the name activated charcoal, active carbon or activated carbon (it’s all the same stuff). You can purchase it in brick or sachet form, or buy it loose. You could also put a small odor eliminating air purifier in the space. Or use both! It’s also not a bad idea to keep a disinfecting/deodorizing spray like Lysol or Ozium on hand for times when you notice a smell developing but don’t have the time or energy to do a full cleaning of the area. Ozium also makes canister-style odor eliminators; a similar product that is very good is the Bad Air Sponge. Odor-absorbing trash bags are also available, and so when you run out of your current stash, it’s not a bad idea to switch to this type of bag.


If, after doing all of this, the smell still persists or the amount of upkeep required to manage it is more than you want to do, you may want to invest in a trash can that has a built-in odor control filter.