For years, garbage disposals have been accused of wasting energy and lots of water. And while it’s true that composting food scraps is an excellent—perhaps the best—alternative option for disposal (the bonus is a healthier garden), electric disposals may not be as bad as they have been portrayed.
As proof, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) recently changed the Green Building Standard certification to include a point for installing certain types of food waste disposers. The standard sets and approves green practices for installation of new homes, assigning points to those practices homebuilders should strive to include.
It can be difficult to evaluate the environmental impact played by a garbage disposal vs. sending your food waste to the landfill. Here is some food for thought:
- An average garbage disposal uses less than 50 cents per year in electricity and accounts for only 1 percent (or less) of household water consumption.
- If food waste is sent to landfills, the materials may decompose in the open air at the landfill, releasing methane gasses. However, some landfills do capture the methane, so you may be “safe” sending food waste in that case. One other environmental consideration about landfills: When thinking about your carbon footprint, you must consider the fuel used and carbon emissions by a garbage truck to haul the trash there.
- Garbage disposals grind organic materials into fine particles that are then mixed with water and sent to the waste water treatment center. Some large wastewater treatment facilities are capturing the methane byproduct of this treatment and are turning it into renewable energy. Some also are recycling the biosolids coming into the facility and turning the waste into a compostlike fertilizer.
- In Sweden and under consideration in London, new building developments link disposals—not to sewer lines—but instead to a separate system for turning food scraps into methane, then burned for power.
If you do operate a disposal in your kitchen, be sure to take good care of it to ensure a long life (a typical life span is a decade) free of plumbing problems:
- Put it on ice—Sending a few ice cubes down the disposal periodically helps sharpen the blades.
- Freshen up—Grinding citrus peels eliminates odors.
- Keep it clean—Several sources say that soaking in vinegar and/or vinegar and baking soda will remove scale inside the disposal.
- Use only cold water—Run cold water down your disposal when in use. Not only is this more energy efficient than hot water, but it helps to solidify any grease or oils, helping prevent clogs.
- Listen closely—When the grinding sound changes to more of a “whir,” you can assume all material has been ground up. Turn off the motor and continue to run water for 5 seconds to allow all food particles to flow out of the pipe.
- Go slowly—Feed small amounts of material into the disposal at a time; this helps lower the risk of jamming.
- Avoid fiber—Don’t put fibrous materials like corn husks, lettuce, celery, and artichokes down your disposal. These materials have a tendency to wrap around the blades.
- Avoid some waste products—Coffee grounds and egg shells create very tiny granular waste that will stick to any sludge in the pipe and quickly create a clog. Potato peels form a starchy mass when ground up and can also clog your pipes. Grease can also clog drains, especially if you rinse it down the disposal with hot water.
Waste disposal alternatives
Composting is the traditional alternative to using a garbage disposal and is still a good option. Many food scraps biodegrade quickly and provide nutrients for your garden. Items that don’t grind well in the disposal provide excellent compost: banana peels, eggshells and coffee grounds. Collect food scraps in a coffee canister or ice cream tub with a lid, or try a more complex alternative, including:
- Various types and sizes of bins, tumblers and tubs. Some buckets are small enough to keep in the kitchen. Some systems include microorganisms that speed composting and help reduce odor.
- Making compost “tea” by grinding up scraps (using a food processor or grinder, NOT the disposal!), then adding water and microorganisms to move along the process.
- Worm Farms use a mixture of food waste and newspaper to feed red worms. The result is a rich compost for your garden.