I would like to personally thank the late John W. Hammes, an architect working in Racine, Wisc., who in 1927 invented the garbage disposal. What a brilliant idea. Is there anything more convenient in a kitchen than a garbage disposal? For me, it’s right up there with my dishwasher.
I’ve learned the hard way that there’s a lot we need to know about how to use a garbage disposal.
It took me a ridiculously long time to recognize the obvious connection between holidays, dinner parties, and emergency calls to the plumber due to hopelessly clogged drains. Why was it always on a holiday, always embarrassing with a houseful of company, always after hours, and always super expensive?
I’ll tell you why: Because that’s when I would do stupid things like peel ten pounds of potatoes, cram all of the peels into the garbage disposal and expect it to all magically disappear. Dittos with prepping artichokes. Or I’d throw a couple of whole lemons in there, thinking that would freshen up the thing before the guests arrive.
I’ve learned the hard way that a garbage disposal is not a trash can. There is a proper way to care for and feed a garbage disposal—rules that when followed will keep your garbage disposal in tip-top shape, functioning as a reliable member of your household team.
Learn from my mistakes so you don’t have to make them yourself. Clogged drains are a major inconvenience and garbage disposal repair can be a costly proposition.
Just because your disposal can grind up just about anything does not mean that your home’s plumbing—let alone your city’s waste system—can handle large amounts of food waste. A garbage disposal unit is intended for food scraps, those bits and pieces you scrape off before putting things into the dishwasher.
Do these things
1. Do run your garbage disposal regularly
Frequent use prevents rust and corrosion, makes sure that all parts stay moving to prevent small obstructions from accumulating.
2. Do run cold water
Always run a strong flow of cold water before you turn it on to grind food waste. Cold water will cause any grease or oils that may get into the unit to solidify so that they can be chopped up before reaching the trap.
3. Do grind bones and pits
Grind certain hard materials such as very small chicken and fish bones (never beef or pork because they’re too large) and very small fruit pits. Yes! These particles create a scouring action inside the grinding chamber that cleans the garbage disposal’s walls.
4. Do cut large items into smaller pieces
It’s hard on the machine if you force large pieces of anything. Put pieces into the garbage disposal a few at a time with the cold water running instead of trying to shove a large amount in all at once.
Don’t do these things
5. Don’t pour down grease, oil, or fat
Grease will slowly accumulate and not only stop the disposal from grinding up food particles—it will create drain clogs the likes of which you do not want to experience.
6. Don’t use hot water when grinding food waste.
Hot water will cause grease to liquefy and accumulate, causing—you guessed it—hopelessly clogged drains!
7. Don’t grind anything fibrous
Don’t grind anything that’s tough and fibrous like eggshells, corn husks, celery, onion skins, and artichokes. Fibers from these can tangle and jam the garbage disposal motor and block drains. Citrus peel, while touted by many as a great way to freshen and clean this appliance, are a problem just waiting to happen. Trust me on that!
8. Don’t turn off the motor or the cold water until grinding is finished
When grinding is complete, turn off the garbage disposal first. Let a strong flow of cold water continue to run for at least 15 seconds, flushing out any remaining particles. Then turn off the water.
9. Don’t put potato peels down the garbage disposal
The starches in the potatoes will turn into a thick paste and may cause blades to stick and oh boy, what a mess you’ll have. Do yourself a favor and put potato peels into the garbage can or compost pile.
10. Don’t put large amounts down all at once
If you must, feed food into the garbage disposal a little at a time with the cold water running; this will help the food scraps flow down freely through the drain pipes and plumbing. Stuffing, cramming are not actions enjoyed by any disposal or plumbing situation.
11. Don’t put in expandable foods
Don’t put things like pasta and rice into your garbage disposal. If it expands as you cook it, that’s what will happen in your pipes or the disposal itself. Result? Jams and clogs.
12. Don’t put coffee grounds down the garbage disposal
Even though coffee grounds won’t harm the garbage disposal and can actually help eliminate odors, the problem is coffee grounds can accumulate in drains and pipes, causing clogs. It’s best to just avoid it.
When you drop coffee grounds down your disposal, they clump–just like they do when you pour water on them in the coffeemaker. When coffee grounds clump together, they stick to themselves and everything around them. They stick to disposal blades and the sides of pipes. If you drop them into your drain they’ll make a big, gross clog in no time.
The more coffee grounds you pour in your disposal, the worse the clog will get. Throw out your coffee grounds in a garbage can; never a drain or disposal!
13. Don’t use harsh chemicals like bleach or drain cleaners
They can damage blades and pipes. There are much better ways to keep that drain running clean and clear.
14. Don’t put anything in that is non-biodegradable
Don’t ever (that means never) put anything in the disposal that is not biodegradable food. Your disposal is not a trash can. Don’t grind glass, plastic, metal, paper, or cigarette butts.
15. Don’t use your hand to retrieve
Never put your hand in the garbage disposal to retrieve fallen items. Turn off (unplug) the disposal first and then use tongs to retrieve any fallen items.
Keep it clean
16. Use borax
Routinely, clean stubborn odors from your garbage disposal by pouring 3 to 4 tablespoons of borax down the drain (like Twenty-Mule-Team Borax that you’ll find in the supermarket laundry aisle). Let it sit for an hour. Without running the disposal, turn on the hot water to flush the borax away. Borax is a natural sink cleaner and sanitizer that effectively works on odor-causing mold and mildew that accumulate in a garbage disposal.
17. Vinegar ice
Once or twice a month freeze vinegar in ice cube trays and toss a few of these into the disposal and run it with cold water flowing. This will clean the disposal, sharpen the blades and break up grease build-up which has accumulated while safely killing odor-causing bacteria.
A good rule of thumb is that when in doubt, toss it out (in the garbage) and not down your sink’s garbage disposal.
First published: 4-10-17; Revised & Updated 3-31-21