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After many inquiries from our users, you will find instructions on the subject of “Recycle bin backups cannot be emptied and deleted”. Here’s how to fix it.
While Time Machine is a remarkable solution for simple backups, some Time Machine users may encounter a particular problem that prevents the Mac OS X Recycle Bin from being emptied when the backup drive is connected to the Mac. This usually manifests itself as follows: a user tries to empty the Recycle Bin, refuses to empty the Recycle Bin, or gets stuck on “Preparing the Recycle Bin …” which has up to several hundred thousand (or more) files. Leaving the Recycle Bin alone sometimes clears it after a few hours of counting files, but it goes so slowly that you can literally wait a day or more for the Recycle Bin to be removed – hardly practical.
This is obviously a quirk or bug, and it seems to happen when someone tries to manually delete backups to free up additional space on a hard drive, or when an old backup gets corrupted while Time Machine is trying to do the household chores . This issue was supposedly fixed in a previous Mac OS X update, but it continues in Mountain Lion, Mavericks, Sierra, El Capitan, etc. possibly because the files causing the problem are often much older, mostly from Mac OS X Lion and earlier.
OK, enough discussion of the problem and some background information. Let’s move on to the solution so that you can empty the trash again and remove those old stubborn Time Machine backups once and for all.
Manually empty the Recycle Bin if the Time Machine backup files get stuck
This requires using Force Delete from the terminal, which makes it a little more advanced. If you don’t know what you’re doing or are uncomfortable with Terminal, you can skip this altogether and instead just wait for the incredibly long garbage disposal via the Finder. Proceed at your own risk.
Make sure you are entering the commands correctly. Otherwise, you may accidentally delete files that you do not want to delete. This is very important because the terminal does not ask you for approval or confirmation, it simply deletes everything.
- Connect the Time Machine drive to the Mac and stop (temporarily) existing Time Machine backups
- Open the Terminal at / Applications / Utilities / and enter the following command to change the Active Directory to that of the Time Machine backup disk:
- Confirm that you are in the correct location by listing the contents of the .Trashes / folder. This will usually reveal a 501 subfolder that contains the persistent Backups.backupdb files. You can use sudo ls to check that you are in the right place:
- Now delete the contents of the .Trashes 501 folder with the rm command. Make sure you are using the correct syntax here or you could accidentally delete something you don’t want. The rm command doesn’t ask for confirmation, it simply removes files.
- Let the terminal do its thing, there is no visible activity but typically files are deleted in 2-15 minutes at most. Exit the terminal when you’re done
- Make sure the Trash is working as intended by emptying it in the Mac OS X Finder as you normally would
cd / Volumes / (backup drive name) /. Garbage can /
For example, if you wanted to change the folder to a backup drive called Mac Backups, the command would be:
CD / Volumes / Mac Backups / .Trashes /
sudo ls 501 /
Note: Under certain circumstances, folder 501 does not exist or is renamed. Sometimes .Trashes also contains the backupdb files directly. If you can’t find the 501 / folder, just delete the contents of .Trashes /. We’ll focus on .Trashes / 501 / to be as comprehensive as possible and to reduce errors with the rm command.
sudo rm -rf 501 / Backups.backupdb /
Enter the administrator password when prompted to delete the .Trashes / 501 / Backup.backupdb / files
For advanced users only: Shorter version of the syntax for stuck Time Machine backups in the trash
A much shorter version of the above process can be achieved by eliminating some of the precautionary measures used in the above steps. Only use this command if you are familiar with the terminal and replace “BackupDriveName” with the name of the affected hard drive:
sudo rm -rf /Volumes/BackupDriveName/.Trashes/*
For advanced users only: use tmutil to remove stuck per-terminal backups
You can also optionally use the tmutil command line tool to back up Time Machine. Just replace “DRIVENAME” with your Time Machine drive name and “BACKUPTODELETE” with the appropriate backup determined by the date. This requires using the Terminal, which means it only applies to advanced Mac users:
sudo tmutil delete /Volumes/DRIVENAME/Backups.backupdb/BACKUPTODELETE
sudo requires an administrator password to complete the task.
Now we’ve discussed several ways to work around this problem, and one will definitely work for you.
If the reason you’re trying to delete old backups is to free up space for other media, partition your backup disk so that one section is dedicated to Time Machine and the rest is available for direct file storage. This avoids having to manually delete the Time Machine backups to make room for files. Hopefully this problem never occurs.
Also note that if you are using redundant Time Machine backups, you may need to perform this process on both backup drives.
Deleting Time Machine backups when System Integrity Protection prevents you from doing so
Another scenario that can occur on newer Macs with newer Mac OS versions is an error when deleting the Time Machine backup, stating, for example, that Recycle Bin items cannot be deleted due to system integrity protection. The solution to this error is to temporarily disable SIP on the Mac, discard the Time Machine backup files, and then enable SIP again.
Which method worked for you? Share your own experiences and solutions in the comments section below.
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Tutorial Summary: Can’t Empty and Delete Trash Can Backups? Here’s how to fix it
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