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Garbage Disposal: Do You Really Need One?

Do you really need one?

Garbage disposals seem like the ultimate convenience–drop your banana peels, pizza crusts, and other leftovers down the drain, turn on the tap, flip a switch, and away they go. Problem is, when it comes to waste, whether it’s food or anything else, there is no away. Any “waste” that can’t be put back to use–either through reuse, recycling, or composting–becomes pollution that’s expensive to deal with and takes its toll on the environment.

Garbage disposals do keep food scraps out of landfills. That’s important because when materials like food, paper, or plant waste decompose in landfills, they produce methane, a greenhouse gas that is 23 times more potent than CO2. But garbage disposals don’t really solve the waste problem; they shift it to wastewater treatment systems instead. Food waste in wastewater increases levels of nutrients like nitrogen, which are great when added to the soil but harmful in our waterways. To deal with excess nutrients, municipal water utilities have to add expensive systems to their treatment plants.

Moreover, it takes resources for your disposal to send your food scraps on that unnecessary journey. It doesn’t require much energy, but in a year’s time you’ll be sending more than 900 gallons of water down the drain. “Waste,” as green architect William McDonough likes to say, “is basically stupid.” The greenest way to deal with food scraps is to compost them and nourish plants with the nutrient-rich results.


Top Tips

At home

  • Make less waste. Buy only what you need, in quantities that you can eat before it spoils. It’s easier than trying to find eco-friendly ways to get rid of waste.
  • Compost! As the bumper sticker says, “Compost happens.” Check out these ideas on how to make it happen at your home.
  • Remove the disposal. If your kitchen has a disposal and you don’t want to use it, take it out so it won’t get smelly if any food waste settles there. Removing a garbage disposal is a relatively easy DIY project. If you keep the disposal in place but don’t want to use it, make sure the sink has a strainer basket to catch food scraps before they go down the drain.
  • Or install an aerator. If you decide to keep and use the disposal, you’ll waste less water if you install an aerator on the kitchen faucet.

Other Considerations

  • Garbage disposals also increase the amount of grease that goes down the drain from fatty foods. A buildup of grease causes blockages in home plumbing and municipal sewer lines. Some cities discourage or prohibit garbage disposals for this reason. Garbage disposals also add extra volume to septic tanks. If you have a septic system, having a disposal may increase the size of the tank you need or require you to empty it more often.
  • If you don’t have the space or ability to compost, contact your local elected officials and let them know you support a municipal “green waste” recycling program that accepts food scraps as well as yard waste. San Francisco is one of a growing number of cities that collects its citizens’ green waste. On garbage day, residents put out three bins–for recycling, compostables, and trash. The green waste is taken to a facility where it is turned into rich, black compost that local farmers use to recondition their soil.

Benefits…

…to your health
Not having a garbage disposal will make your house a little quieter. If the kitchen is used by a person in a wheelchair, it may also improve accessibility by keeping the space under the sink clear so that the wheelchair user can scoot in closer.

…to your wallet
You can save the $60 to $300 purchase price of a garbage disposal by not having one, or not replacing it when it breaks down. Don’t expect big energy savings, though. Running a ¾-horsepower unit for one minute a day costs less than a dollar a year.

…to the Earth
Sending 900 gallons of water down the drain every year seems more than a little silly. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that water managers in 36 states expect water shortages in the next 10 years, even under normal, non-drought conditions.


Common Mistakes

Using hot water. Operate a garbage disposal only with cold water. Using hot water wastes water heating energy.


Getting Started

Reduce your food waste and start composting. If your old garbage disposal breaks, try living without one. Once you break the grinding habit, you may find you never miss it.

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