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Volume Number: 18 (2002)
Issue Number: 10
Column Tag: Programming


by Ilene Hoffman

User Solutions to Pesky Trash Problems

How would you react if you tossed a bag of trash in the dumpster only to have it bounce back to your feet? Odd as this sounds, the inability to empty the Trash has been one of the more unexpected errors encountered all too frequently in Mac OS X. Web pages are filled with shareware solutions and instructions on how to drop into the command line interface to solve trash problems, but assuming you bought your Mac because you like the graphic user interface, let's look at some common problems and solutions to solving those annoying "can't empty the trash" messages.

First, let me caution you, the Trash Can should not be used to save files for later use. The Trash's function is to remove files from your drive. In fact, files aren't really deleted, but the pointers to the file (sort of like location coordinates) are removed, so that the hard drive space is made available for another file. This is why you can recover deleted files. That aside, when you put something in the Trash, you should delete it before shutting your computer down. Each user in Mac OS X has a separate Trash folder inside the Home folder. This folder is invisible to the user, but you can see files you put in the Trash until it is emptied.

If you are not sure you want to toss something, make a new folder inside your documents folder and call it Undecided, so that you can save it for later. You can drag the folder to the Dock, which puts an alias in your Dock for easy access.

To avoid the "Are you sure you want to remove the items in the Trash permanently" dialog, you can press Control and click on the Trash. Select this menu item to empty the Trash without the dialog. You can also press shift-option-command and the delete key to quickly remove a file. Some common errors and solutions are below.

Problem: Error Message:

"The operation cannot be completed because you do not have sufficient privileges for 501" or "The operation cannot be completed because you do not have sufficient privileges for some of the items."


501 is the numeric equivalent of the first user set up in Mac OS X; this means you in most cases.

Privileges refers to who owns the file, who can write to it and who can read it, and therefore, who has the correct permissions to throw the file out.

Possible Causes and Solutions:

    1. This may be caused by one of programs you've run incorrectly setting or altering the permissions on one or more of your files. An interruption in power, or an application freeze can also affect privileges.

    You can check and/ or change the permissions of the file. Click on the file once and choose Show Info from the File menu (or press Command and I together). In the pop-up menu, in the Info window, choose Privileges and check the file's permissions. You need Read & Write permissions to delete a file. If a folder is the problem, remember to apply the changes to enclosed folders also. If you can't change the file's privileges, you can use Apple's Repair Privileges Utility to restore Apple-installed programs to their default permissions. if you are using Mac OS X 10.1.5. (You can find the Repair Privileges Utility at: (

    If these solutions don't work, you can also start up from Mac OS 9, use Sherlock to find the file and delete it. You cannot delete a file from OS 9 while in Classic Mode though.

    2. Attempting to throw away a locked file can also generate the insufficient privileges message.

    Again, choose Show Info from the FIle menu. Unclick the Locked check box and move the file into the Trash again to delete it. Prior to Mac OS X 10.1.5, if a file was locked while in Mac OS 9, you would have to restart in OS 9 to unlock the file before you could toss it. This seems to have been fixed in 10.1.5.

Problem Error Message:

Can't empty the trash becasue ".trash items are in use."


Your computer thinks that a file is still open, and therefore cannot delete the file. Some of these problems may be fixed by upgrading to Mac OS X 10.1.5 or Mac OS X 10.2.

Possible Causes and Solutions:

    1. Check to make sure that the file is closed. Switch to the application used to create the file (click on the icon in the Dock). If you're not sure, quit the application used to create the file, then Empty the Trash.

    2. If you are in the Columns View and the file is "open" in the Preview screen, the system is using the file. Put the file away by (i.e. take it out of the trash). Close the Preview screen in the Column View and drag the file to the trash again.

    3. Some users have reported that waiting a while, and even tossing out another file and then emptying the Trash resolves this problem also.

If you want to resolve your trash problems by using other software, you can look at programs such as:

    BatChmod which changes file permissions and can empty the Trash, or

    Trash It! which is an AppleScript for emptying the Trash, or

    ToTheTrash which helps you manage your about to be trashed files.

You can search Version Tracker ( for other current Mac OS X utilities. You really shouldn't have to resort to using Terminal to empty your Trash.

Now, if you like typing, there are also solutions to fixing your Trash problems from the command line interface. In our next article we'll explore some of the those options for the geek in all of us.

Ilene Hoffman is the Community Director and Editor of MacFixIt Forums and a Contributing Editor for MacTech magazine. She stole her first Mac from her Dad in 1984 after asking him to buy a PC. She's not touched a PC since! She is also the mother of a budding jazz musician and two capricious dogs.


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