Confusing words: rubbish, trash, garbage

In this post I’m going to talk rubbish. Does that mean I’ll be talking nonsense? No, actually I’m going to look at vocabulary connected to rubbish in the sense of household waste, including synonyms and related words.

So, rubbish is the stuff that we throw out of our homes. You may also have heard other words for the same thing: garbage, refuse, trash, litter, as well as words like dustbin and trash can.

an old-fashioned dustbin

Why are there different words for rubbish, and what’s the difference? In some cases, which word we use depends on whether we’re British or American.

Let’s try to make some sense of all this rubbish!

Words for household waste

[uncountable noun]
This is British English (BrE). British people throw away rubbish.
garbage, trash
[uncountable nouns]
American English (AmE) – Americans throw away garbage and trash.
garbage vs. trash Americans differentiate between type here:
garbage is used for waste from the kitchen – ‘wet’ waste, you could say;
trash is things like paper and packaging – ‘dry’ materials.
[uncountable noun]
This is not household waste. Litter is small things such as cans, bottles and paper that people leave lying on the streets and in other public places.
Litter belongs in a litter bin.
[uncountable noun]
This is a more formal word for rubbishgarbage and trash. The pronunciation is /ˈrefjuːs/
rubbish bin
[countable nouns]
(BrE) A dustbin is a small container for rubbish, mostly outside. The modern type, with wheels, is called a wheelie bin.
Put rubbish in the dustbin!
garbage can
trash can
[countable nouns]
(AmE) A small container for garbage and trash, usually outside.
garbage in a garbage can
litter bin
[countable noun]
A small container in a street or other public place where people can put litter.

And to collect all this waste we need the following:

refuse collector, waste collector These are formal words for the person who takes away refuse/rubbish/garbage.
dustman, bin man These are informal words used in BrE for a refuse collector.
trash collector, garbage collector, garbage man These are informal words used in AmE for a refuse collector.
dustbin lorry, dustcart (BrE),
garbage truck, trash truck (AmE)
This is the vehicle used to take away refuse/rubbish/garbage.

recycle bin

Reduce waste – recycle whenever you can!

And if you didn’t work it out from the context of the first sentence, talk rubbish means to ‘talk nonsense’.

Stuart is an English teacher and runs the Speakspeak website. He currently lives in Prague and has been teaching for over 20 years. See all posts by Stuart


  1. Bill Davis - August 21, 2013, 2:54 pm Reply

    Excellent. And good to show all the BrE and AmE differences.

    How about “trash talk”? Is that used in BrE? For AmE, it means to boastfully belittle an opponent and predict one’s own victory, etc.

    • Stuart Cook - August 21, 2013, 6:57 pm Reply

      Thanks, Bill
      I’ve honestly never heard of trash talk. We use trash something in BrE to mean ‘heavily criticise/disparage’, e.g. “The critics totally trashed the film.” I’d presume that’s used the same way in the US, too.

      • Bill Davis - August 21, 2013, 7:40 pm Reply

        Yes, Stuart. We use “trash” in that way, also.

        • Ross - September 22, 2015, 3:54 am Reply

          I think the BrE equivalent of “Trash Talk” would be sledging.

  2. ailyn panergar - September 10, 2013, 3:17 pm Reply

    i just learned that brE and amE has difference

  3. Lui ramos - September 25, 2013, 11:13 pm Reply

    Kindly tackle about different an common australian words or idioms used..thanks

  4. Anton K. - October 29, 2013, 8:47 am Reply

    Great article! Thanks a lot!
    I’ve only got a couple of questions. Could you help me with these?
    What’s the relation between ‘waste’ and ‘rubbish’ (‘trash’, ‘garbage’), and ‘waste’ and ‘refuse’?
    Is the term ‘wheelie bin’ commonly used in UK? What do you call a waste container used at home (e.g. the one kept under the kitchen sink)? Is there a special term for the area where the outdoor waste containers are kept (e.g. in the courtyard of an appartment block). Thanks.

    • Stuart Cook - November 5, 2013, 9:14 am Reply

      Waste is defined as ‘material that is not wanted’. Rubbish is simply a less formal synonym for waste.
      Yes, wheelie bin is used in the UK. And a waste container in the home in the UK is called a bin.

      • Anton K. - November 20, 2013, 6:29 am Reply

        Thanks, Stuart!

  5. Tabi Tataw Farrokh - March 5, 2014, 11:46 am Reply

    Trash ,gabbage and litter have really got me going.U clearified that now.Thanks

  6. Geraldine Pugh - June 10, 2014, 12:44 am Reply

    What about in an office? In BrE we would say the bin, or the waste paper bin/waste paper basket. What about in the US? I guess these definitions came before we started recycling paper!

    • Stuart Cook - June 10, 2014, 10:16 pm Reply

      Good additions – waste paper bin and waste paper basket can be added to the list. I’m not sure what the AmE equivalent is.

      • Sheogorath - May 6, 2015, 5:34 am Reply

        Um, I believe you forgot ‘kitchen bin’. :)

  7. Chloe rivera - December 13, 2014, 9:55 am Reply

    Hi im confused and need clarification because in AmE, they say “take out the trash” or “take out the garbage” but if i try to convert that to British it sounds silly to say “take out the rubbish”. Whats the correct equivalent to British? Thanks in advance.

    • Stuart Cook - December 14, 2014, 6:55 pm Reply

      Either take something to the dustbin (’empty the inside bin and put it in the dustbin’) or take the bin out (meaning: ‘put the dustbin in the street, where the dustman have access to it’).

  8. Phương Nhi Nguyễn - January 26, 2015, 3:19 pm Reply

    What about dust? Is it different from rubbish? Explain me, please.

    • Stuart Cook - January 26, 2015, 11:14 pm Reply

      Dust is a fine powder which collects on surfaces.

      • Anonymous - March 6, 2016, 7:26 am Reply

        The English terms , Dustbin / Dustman came about because of all the ash dust that people used to dispose of in the bins when eveyone had open coal fires to clean out daily .

  9. Ehsan Kazemi - February 8, 2015, 11:27 am Reply

    Thanks, that ‘s excellent

  10. Ajerd Mustapha - February 16, 2015, 12:27 pm Reply

    Thanks a lot . IBecause i’m not a native speaker of English ( Arabic) I used to use them all as synonyms but now I can make a difference

  11. TheWritersGuide - October 4, 2015, 6:43 am Reply

    The term ‘dust bin’ is a relic of the time when most homes were heated with coal fires. The ‘dust’ was the ash swept out of fireplaces when they were cleaned.

    The distinction between trash and garbage is one that was found in Elizabethan English, but fell out of use in the UK.

  12. Prudence - January 23, 2016, 11:06 pm Reply

    What is the right name for a small rubbish bag (plastic). Should I say get rid of this rubbish bag or get rid of this garbush bag.

    • Stuart Cook - February 2, 2016, 10:53 am Reply

      The plastic bags we buy and use in the bin are actually called bin liners. I think once it’s full we’d simply say “take out the rubbish” or “empty the bin”.

  13. Stan Gabriel, London - January 28, 2016, 6:59 am Reply

    I’m well aware that both we, in the United Kingdom, and overseas use “litter” and perhaps “refuse” as well. But are “waste” and “junk” also used in America as synonyms for rubbish like they are in the UK?

  14. Steve Bradford - February 4, 2016, 12:50 pm Reply

    I’ve never seen a better presentation of those confusing words before. They did sound all the same to me, but not anymore. When we should use the word “waste” in the meaning of garbage?

    • Rusty - March 3, 2016, 3:31 am Reply

      Junk is a whole piece, not the refuse of something or if another job. For example a table described as junk might be scratched up or very dirty and perceived as no longer useful or in style even. Some people will discard as junk a quite valuable antique just because they are tired of it or don’t like the style. There’s an old saying, “One man’s JUNK is another man’s TREASURE.”

  15. Ema - February 8, 2016, 7:40 am Reply

    I would have also mentioned that many of these words have different alternative meanings also, and are often in the connotation of the word you choose to mean “thing you throw away”:
    RUBBISH – nonsense
    TRASH – not classy
    GARBAGE – disposable
    LITTER – dispersed
    REFUSE – worthless

  16. Jeremy Prior - April 18, 2016, 6:06 pm Reply

    There is another thing in the UK we have somewhat differently from the USA the use of Junk as Junk Shop. Second hand shops selling bric-a-brac and used furniture and all kinds of second hand items are commonly known as Junk Shops.
    But certainly around London area we rarely heard of Junk yards – as when they were full of scrapped cars and metal we called them Scrap Yards. I don’t know what they call those in the USA. Certainly I’m having trouble finding out what Americans call a Skip (open topped dumpster that can be exchanged for empty ones and left in front drives or even out in the street) Skip comes from old Norse Skeppe meaning a basket. It’s all very interesting studying the differences.

  17. Luanne - August 26, 2016, 6:01 pm Reply

    Interesting. To further split hairs between Canada and the US… Canadians most always use the term garbage and never trash unless they immigrated from the US or rubbish if they came over from the UK.

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