Garbage Disposals Bad for the Environment?

Garbage disposals may be one of the most overused items in the kitchen and could be having a huge impact on our environment. Are garbage disposals really that bad for the environment and is it really the worse option?

Garbage Disposal
Photo by cwinters.

How Do They Work?

It is an electronically powered device in below the sink drain to shred food into tiny particles. Food scraps end up being approximately 10-20% of our total waste. This can really be a huge burden on water treatment plants if most of those scraps end up down our sinks. There are those who feel that some positives come out of putting scraps down the sink instead of throwing them out is that. Landfills are already overfilled as is and water treatment plants are better equipped to handling small scraps. Garbage disposals can also help eliminate large food scraps from making their way down our drains.

I wanted to see what a large garbage disposal company like InSinkErator would say about the environmental impact of their products. Here is what they had to say:

Food waste is mostly water (70%) so it makes sense to grind it up in your disposal and send it to municipal waste water treatment plants. Methane, the biogas created during the processing, can be captured and used to generate renewable power for the plant or municipality. Many modern wastewater treatment plants do that, and the number is growing. The biosolids that result from treatment can be processed and sold as fertilizer and soil conditioner. This in turn, reduces the need for energy intensive fertilizers. And you don’t have to worry about disposals’ water and electricity usage. They average less than 50 cents a year in electricity to operate and account for about one percent or less of a household’s total water consumption.

This does seem to paint a nice picture for how water treatment plants handle food waste. They also claim that it is much worse to send food scraps to landfills because they produce methane because of the rapid decomposition. The fact is that 30% of the waste is filtered out and sent to local landfills anyways. On top of that, many of the water treatment plants throughout North America and Europe do not have a way to catch biogas.

What to do?

Whether you throw food waste in the trash or use a garbage disposal to send it to water treatment plants, there seems to be negative environmental impacts. Home Composting is a great alternative to burdening our already over taxed water and waste systems. Not only is it far less taxing on the environment, but you can save some real cash on buying expensive soil additives at local garden nurseries. Compost really makes a huge difference in your garden and you are producing it for free. Even if you do live in a urban setting and a compost bin doesn’t make sense, there are indoor composting bins that produce no odor and are just as effective as outdoor models.

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  1. Interesting! My family never used the disposal growing up so I never thought to use it on my own. But my husband does use it every once in a while. Hadn’t really thought about it’s environmental impact, but I agree that composting would be a better bet for any food scraps that make it to the sink.

  2. The garbage disposal company’s mention of biosolids as a plus for garbage disposals made me think of the chapter in Garbageland about waste water treatment and biosolids. According to that book, the fertilizer made from biosolids contains some toxic chemicals (because of industrial waste mixing with the water and people pouring toxic chemicals down the drain). So the fertilizer cannot be used on any plants that we eat, and I’m not sure it’s a good idea to use it on anything.

    I do use a garbage disposal, but I’m planning on getting a worm bin going soon. But really, I think the solution is that cities should collect food waste like they collect recycling, and the food waste should be put through an anaerobic composter that collects the methane gas to use for energy while producing good quality fertilizer.

    • Pays to Live Green
    • April 22nd, 2009

    That is a great point Erin. It would make it far easier to recycle food waste for those who live in an apartment or don’t have an area for a composting bin. Cities in my area currently make their own compost from leaves collected from home owners, why not also collect food scraps? They could sell the compost and generate more revenue.

  3. Well this is quite interesting even thought here in panama and Central America we don’t used to have this kind of artifacts so that’s great, I always been seen this kind artifacts in movies and also when I was living in the US, and believe me that almost every single house over there have one of it at least in the area that I was living. I never thought that this artifact will affect so much the earth and if it’s do it well people will stop use this, here in Panama we are not used to have this kind of artifacts and we are well without then so is not an indispensable tool for the kitchen.

  4. On my blog, Reduce Footprints, we recently had a challenge to NOT use a garbage disposal. Your post was suggested by one of our readers (EcoGrrl). I’ll be wrapping up the challenge tomorrow (3/9/11) and will link to this post … hopefully a few more people will read it and learn some new information.

    One of the issues that I believe needs to be addressed (and focused on) is food waste. If we didn’t have anything to toss down the drain, then using a disposal vs. not using one would become a moot point.

    Thank you for a very informative post!

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