Can’t Empty Trash on Your Mac? Here’s How To Fix It

By | March 8, 2022

Usually, emptying the Trash folder on your Mac is a quick and easy process. You open the folder and click the Empty button in the top right corner. That’s all it takes

However, there are cases when Trash doesn’t allow you to permanently delete certain files. This can happen for various reasons.

This guide covers how to handle such cases. It shows how to check if a file is in use or locked. We’ll also review how to perform a disk repair if disk problems are stopping you from emptying the Trash. And for advanced use, we will see how to use Terminal to force the Trash to empty.

How to Empty Trash on Mac While Files Are In Use

Often, your Mac’s Trash won’t be empty because certain files in it are still being used.

Another application, or some kind of background operational process, might use it. Either way, you’ll know this is the case because a popup will tell you something like The operation couldn’t be completed because the item was in use.

This means you have to close the file before you can delete it permanently. For example, if the item is a Word document, you must close it in Word. If this is an app, you need to exit that app. Etc.

Sometimes you may not be able to identify exactly where the file was opened. In this case, maybe a background process is using it. To test if this is true, restart your Mac and try deleting the file again. If a background process uses it, you will be able to remove it from the Trash this time.

Advanced File Usage Troubleshooting

Alternatively, a startup or login item might use the file in question. You can get around this by starting your Mac in Safe Mode. This stops some software from booting up automatically.

To boot your Mac in Safe Mode and empty the Trash:

  • Shut down your Mac.
  • Turn on your Mac and immediately hold down Shift.
  • Once you boot in Safe Mode, open the Trash.
  • Click the Blank button (in the upper right corner).

This will delete the file if a startup application uses it. If not, one other option is to use Terminal to check which apps have locked files. Here’s how you do it:

  • Open Trash.
  • Press Cmd + Space to launch Spotlight.
  • Type Terminal and hit Return.
  • Type lsof and press Space. This command means a list of open files and displays a list of files used with the process that opened them.
  • Go back to the Trash and drag the files you want to delete into Terminal.
  • Press Return to run the command.

This will bring up a list of apps using the file.

Close everything, though keep in mind that Terminal may not provide the full name of the application. For example, in the screenshot above, it lists Microsoft Word as Microsoft 1839. As such, you may have to try closing a number of different applications.

How to Empty Trash When Files Are Locked

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In other cases, the file you are trying to delete may be locked. You can easily fix this by opening the Trash and unlocking it. Here’s what you need to do:

  • Open the Trash.
  • Right-click the file you want to delete.
  • Click Get Info.
  • Click the Locked checkbox.

This will unlock the file and allow you to delete it. Again, you can do this by clicking the Blank button. Alternatively, you can right-click the file and click Delete Immediately.

How to Empty the Trash When Your Disk Needs Repair

There may be a problem with the hard disk to prevent Emptying your Trash. You can run a test for this by launching Disk Utility and using the First Aid function.

Follow these instructions to complete the process:

  • Press Cmd + Space to launch Spotlight.
  • Type Disk Utility and hit Return.
  • Select your hard disk name. Make sure it contains the file you want to delete.
  • Click First Aid, then select Run.

The First Aid function will notify you if it finds errors, but cannot fix problems with your main drive while it’s running. You will need to reboot your Mac in Recovery Mode to fix disk problems in your startup drive.

Repairing your Mac’s disk is a good option when you have a problem and other steps don’t work. In most cases, disk repair will allow you to permanently delete items in the Trash.

However, if it’s not a disk issue that’s at the root of your problem, you may need to force the Trash to empty.

How to Force Empty the Trash

There are several ways to force empty the trash. If the file is locked and you can’t open it, you can try deleting it while holding down the Option key. Try holding Option while you click the Empty button.

Holding Option, your Mac will bypass all locks on the file. This is especially useful if your Mac won’t let you unlock any files.

One final option is to use the Terminal command to force the Trash to empty. This ignores all locks on your files and deletes files that are still in use. It also resolves another error preventing the Trash from emptying.

Thus, it’s an effective way to permanently delete files. However, it’s possible that macOS is preventing you from deleting files for good reason. You might accidentally send something to the Trash that is essential for certain apps to run.

You should therefore be careful when using the nuclear methods described below:

  • Press Cmd + Space to open Spotlight.
  • Type Terminal and hit Return to launch it.
  • Type sudo rm -R and press Space. This is the command to force delete files.
  • Return to the Trash and drag the files you want to delete into the Terminal window.
  • Press Return.

Enter your Mac administrator password to authorize the command. It won’t show when you type it, which is a security feature.

Press Return to confirm and run the command.

This will immediately delete the files you dragged into the Terminal window. You can finally rest assured that your Mac is a bit cleaner.

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