Garbage disposers: Trimming your waste
BOTTOM FEEDERS Garbage disposers grind food scraps in a chamber using spinning
or fixed blades before tap water washes the fragments down the drain.
Garbage disposers link the often disparate demands of convenience and
conservation by grinding up kitchen scraps and sending them down the drain to a
sewage-treatment plant or septic system for decomposition.
Besides eliminating messes and discouraging bugs and other pests, a disposer
shifts food waste from landfills to a waste-water treatment system. That
scenario has prompted some cities, such as Denver and Indianapolis, to require
disposers in new homes. Add in the many towns that charge by volume for waste
removal, and it's easy to see why nearly half of American homes have a garbage
Manufacturers are promoting their appeal as they try to distinguish these
basically similar machines. Indeed, just four companies make all garbage
disposers under different brand names, with In-Sink-Erator accounting for
nearly 80 percent of disposers sold.
Several models now include an auto-reverse mode that helps their spinning
blades clear jammed waste, the bane of many disposers. A model from Viking,
which is better known for its pro-style kitchen ranges, adds a
blade-oscillating “Jaminator” feature for clearing. As the Ratings detail,
disposers with a clearing device of any kind performed better overall.
Still other differentiating features you will see at the store may not deliver
the durability they imply. For example, the stainless-steel grinding chambers
on two 1-horsepower models from In-Sink-Erator and Kenmore were dented during
our tests by beef bones, an especially tough item disposers should rarely
swallow. We also found that some models with fewer features and a shorter
warranty cost more than relatively similar competitors.
Garbage disposers also have an ecological downside. Depending on where you
live, a disposer's additional water use and its extra burden on sewer and
septic systems may outweigh the landfill space it conserves (see Consider all
costs and "The downside of disposers," below, for details).
HOW TO CHOOSE
Some are decidedly better than others at resisting jams and chewing up tougher
stuff. Nearly all are noisy.
Consider all costs will help you determine whether a garbage disposer is right
for your kitchen. If you decide that it is, here’s how to make choosing one
Balance convenience with safety. Disposers fall into two basic groups.
Continuous-feed models are easiest to use, since you can push new waste in as
the old waste is ground up and washed down the drain. But their open filler
necks pose a greater risk to small hands and can allow bone shards and other
scraps to fly out. For those reasons, you'll need to mount the power switch in
a safe place and hold the supplied stopper at an angle over the drain as a
Batch-feed models cost more and can take more time to use, since you must load
them with waste before turning down the stopper to activate the blades. But
because the stopper keeps food in and hands out, batch-feed models are safer,
especially for families with kids.
Weigh warranty against price. Home garbage disposers typically last about 10 to
12 years, according to In-Sink-Erator, though not all last that long. A longer
warranty adds peace of mind. But it does not guarantee longer life and can make
some models cost more than otherwise-similar machines.
Consider your food waste. Even models with the least powerful, 1/3-hp motor can
handle softer waste such as carrots and corn kernels. But if your kitchen waste
typically includes tougher stuff, look for a more powerful, 3/4-hp or 1-hp
model. Those we tested ground bones fastest and finest, reducing the chance of
clogged plumbing traps.
Get help putting it in. Most garbage disposers have a quick-mount neck that
encourages do-it-yourself installation. But because most of the
best-performing, 3/4- and 1-hp models weigh from 16 to 30 pounds or so, putting
one beneath your sink may be a two-person job.
While the Waste King models we tested include electrical cords, others must
connect to your home's wiring. You'll also need an electrician to add a switch
for continuous-feed models. If you own a dishwasher, you'll probably want to
connect it to the disposer so that the dirty dishwater passes through it.
The downside of disposers
The varied response to garbage disposers shows how some products can address
one environmental problem while posing another, depending on your locale.
A case in point is New York City, which is considering whether to end a ban on
the machines for its roughly 23,000 restaurants and food establishments, as it
did for homes in 1997. Restaurants, which pay by weight or volume for hauling
waste, say disposers will save them money while reducing solid waste and the
mess, odor, and vermin that go with it.
But more disposers in homes and restaurants could create more costly problems,
according to the city's Department of Environmental Protection. Increased food
waste in the sewers would generate added nitrogen, which could rob the city's
harbors of life-giving oxygen, it says.
Estimated cost: $200 to $300 million for required improvements to meet federal
nitrogen-reduction mandates, plus another $30 to $40 million in annual
expenses. That compares with roughly $4 million per year saved from hauling
Grease is another disposer challenge facing New York and other cities. Austin,
Texas, requires grease traps in restaurants that use disposers. “The greatest
cause of sewer overflow is grease blockage, which can come from all the stuff
being washed down the drain,” says Laurie Lentz, a spokeswoman for the Austin
Water Utility. Austin discourages disposers in homes and restaurants, though it
doesn't prohibit them.
Los Angeles also blames grease for its ban on most restaurant disposers, though
it allows disposers in new homes, where grease is less of a problem.
“Everybody in California is trying to reduce what we send to landfills,”
explains Adel Hagekhalil, a waste-water engineering-division manager at the
city's Bureau of Sanitation.
Homeowners should weigh all of those concerns before buying a disposer. If you
have a septic tank, make sure it can handle a disposer's extra waste (see
Consider all costs). And consider composting your kitchen waste as an
Assuming you want a disposer and it isn't a problem where you live, here's how
to minimize potentially negative effects:
• Grind food waste only. Avoid grinding greasy or fatty foods, which tend to
clog sewer systems as well as home plumbing.
• Run cold water while the disposer is grinding to help move stubborn waste
while using less energy than heated water. Run water briefly after it's done to
flush out small scraps.
• Before using a disposer-connected dishwasher, clear the disposer to enable
the dishwasher to drain properly.