Home Ownership

Rethinking garbage disposals

11/13/19  |  Ellie Botshon

I grew up believing that kitchen sink garbage disposals harm our septic and sewage systems. Now I wonder if that's still true.

I grew up believing that kitchen sink garbage disposals harm our septic and sewage systems, and my fellow home inspectors usually agree, even today. But I’ve been reading some conflicting information recently, and now I wonder if that’s still true.
In the 1970s, New York banned disposals altogether, arguing that the added food waste would overtax the water-treatment system, compromise the aging sewer systems, and pollute nearby rivers. And having spent my first 10 years in New York City, I internalized this argument and have never used a sink disposal. This article in Slate, published over 10 years ago, matches my initial thoughts on the hazards of kitchen disposals.
Meanwhile, appliance manufacturers—along with homeowners and restaurants who prefer getting rid of food through the drain—have argued that the disposal is actually a green machine, reducing the amount of trash sent to landfills and thus providing a net benefit to the environment as a whole. Furthermore, New York City removed the ban for residential garbage disposals in 1997.
So, garbage disposals are good now, right?
Not in every case, it turns out. Ground up food waste does indeed put more pressure on sewage treatment systems; and because a good deal of water is required to use a disposal correctly, communities with water shortages are adversely affected by disposal use.
However, Americans waste 30-40% of all the food they buy. Yes, that number is correct. Eliminating the extra garbage trucks (and the fuel they guzzle) that would otherwise haul everyone’s food scraps to the landfill, or to the city’s compost piles, is a strong argument for using disposals.
Here’s how to approach this issue without getting overwhelmed:
Waste less food
Plan your meals out, buy only what you need, and eat your leftovers! If we don’t waste food, we don’t have to wonder what to do with it.
Compost if possible
Many cities in the Boston area have composting programs that even provide a composting can for you. Alternately, you can hire a private company to take your scraps away and compost them for you. If you have a bit of outdoor space, get your own compost bin and do it at home! All you need is a 5 x 5 plot and you can make your own soil.
Use your disposal correctly
When you have food waste that you can’t compost, opt for the disposal instead of the trash. But never, ever, ever put these down your disposal:
  • fibrous foods such as pumpkin pulp or celery
  • fruit pits
  • starchy foods: potato peels, pasta or oatmeal
  • large hunks of food such as a whole mandarin orange
  • animal bones and eggshells
  • grease or oil
  • nuts or coffee grounds
After all is said and done, there’s a good chance I’ll add a disposal to my sink the next time I update my kitchen. But until then, I’m going to waste less food, compost what I can, and spread the word about the pros and cons of kitchen sink disposals. How do you reduce food waste in your home? Contact us and share your tips.

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