Can't empty the trash on your Mac because an item is in use? Try this!

I empty the trash bin on my Mac at the end of every day. Every once in a while, I'll get a message that reads, "Operation can't be completed because the item [file name] is in use." How is that possible? I know it's not in use because I'm not using it. I deleted it. I threw it in the trash! I'm the boss of this process!

There are a few reasons that your Mac might think an item is in use when you know that it isn't, including the possibility that the program it was opened with thinks you are still using it.

Apple used to have this handy tool called "Secure Empty Trash" that coincidentally also trashed files that were still in use, but that was removed in El Capitan.

Don't worry, though. There is still an easy way to remove those mischievous files from your computer when emptying the trash bin doesn't seem to work.

How to delete an item in your Mac's Trash that claims it's still in use

  1. Double-click on your Mac's Trash bin in the app dock.
  2. Select the item you want to delete.

  1. Right-click on the item.
  2. Select Delete Immediately from the dropdown menu.
  3. Click Delete to confirm that you want to delete the item. You can't undo this action.

You can now empty the trash like a proper grown-up.

Any questions?

Are you still having trouble emptying your Mac's trash bin? Let me know in the comments and I'll help you out!

Lory Gil

Lory is a renaissance woman, writing news, reviews, and how-to guides for iMore. She also fancies herself a bit of a rock star in her town and spends too much time reading comic books.  If she's not typing away at her keyboard, you can probably find her at Disneyland or watching Star Wars (or both).

6 Comments
  • I still can't empty trash even after Select Delete Immediately from the dropdown menu from thumb drive.
  • holding down option as you empty the trash works for me when an item is thought to be in use - in fact, you used to be able to invoke secure empty trash by holding option when emptying the trash.
  • The problem is the Mail marks the image as "in use", even though you've already dragged it to a mail message and sent the mail message. Another way to resolve the problem is simply to quit Mail and launch Mail again when you need it.
  • Holding the Option key as tripm mentioned has worked for me on several occasions. When it hasn't, creating an empty folder on the desktop, then trashing, then emptying the Trash (sometimes with the Option key) has worked.
  • None of the suggestions is working for me. I continue to receive this message: The operation can’t be completed because the item “Macintosh HD” is in use. This is really bogging down my backup files. Any other possible ways to delete old trash?
  • You can't throw Macintosh HD in the trash because it is your internal hard drive. You will need to remove that from the trash and then find the offending culprit inside your Macintosh HD to throw away (aka, a corrupted file or app). I suggest posting your issue in our forums. Make sure to give details on what happens when you are backing up files. iMore Forums