With the holidays coming up, your garbage disposal is going to be working overtime. With all that food prep and plate scraping, it’s important to know the proper operating instructions for your garbage disposal unit (also known as a waste disposal unit, garbage disposer, or in Canadian English a garburator).
The day after Thanksgiving is the busiest day of the year for plumbers, usually due to things like broken garbage disposals and clogged toilets and drain lines.
If you want to spend your Black Friday shopping or relaxing, go over these garbage disposal maintenance tips and learn what you should and should not put down your disposal unit. Share these garbage disposal tips with your household so everybody’s on the same page.
How to Use a Garbage Disposal
- Make sure the sink stopper is removed. Double-check there is no metal, plastic, paper, or other non-food items in the sink.
- Run cold water (it helps harden left-over oils and fats) and leave it running.
- Turn on the wall switch to start the disposal.
- Insert food slowly, not all at one time. Avoid large amounts of anything.
- After food is completely ground up (the sound of the disposal will change), turn the disposal off and leave the water running for another 10-15 seconds to flush the drain line.
To help clean and deodorize your disposal unit, grind some ice and citrus wedges/peels ever 2 weeks or so. You can also use a disposal cleaner, degreaser, or deodorize as necessary.
For cleaning, troubleshooting, and repair instructions, consult your owner’s manual
What You CAN Put in a Garbage Disposal
If you do have a garbage disposal, you know it’s a convenient and sanitary way to dispose of everyday food waste, but keep in mind that some items can cause major problems for your disposal and septic system.
What can you actually put down your disposal? While disposal units come in varying degrees of quality, most should be able to handle the following items. Check your owner’s manual for instructions specific to your unit.
The key to maintaining a clean and working disposal is to follow the manufacturer’s instructions and schedule annual plumbing inspections.
Everyday Food Waste
It would be hard to list all the food items you can put down the garbage disposal because there are so many of them. Basically, you can grind up any biodegradable food product, except for the categories listed below.
Most garbage disposals can quickly and easily dispose of small amounts of everyday food waste:
- Fruits and Vegetables (some restrictions apply, see below)
- Citrus Rinds
- Small bones
- Fast food
Again, always follow the manufacturer instructions and avoid putting in too much food waste in at one time. Make sure you keep the water running after you turn off the disposal. This helps ensure the food gets washed. Otherwise, you may be calling pest control.
Large animal bones (beef, pork, etc.) should get thrown in the trash. Small bones, however, should be fine. Most garbage disposals can handle a few small bones, such as small chicken and fish bones. To be safe, it’s probably best to throw all bones in the trash.
What You CANNOT Put in a Garbage Disposal
What you can and cannot put down a garbage disposal unit will depend on the type of unit you have, but no matter what, you should NEVER put any fats, oils, or grease down any drain.
Fat, Oil, or Grease (FOG)
Never put fat, oil, or grease down your garbage disposal, or any pipe for that matter. This include butter, lard, and any leftover fatty liquids. While they look like they should flow down any pipe easily, after they solidify, they can easily clog pipes and cause septic issues.
While small amounts may get in, it’s important to empty leftover cooking FOG into a glass, ceramic, or stainless steel container and after it’s cooled, dispose of it in the garbage. You can also filter out food from leftover grease with a coffee filter or cheesecloth and save it in the fridge for later. Leftover bacon grease is great for seasoning things like green beans, fries, and almost anything else.
Always run cold water while your garbage disposal is on to help solidify and break up any FOG that may have entered the unit.
Hands and Fingers
This sounds obvious, but you don’t want to accidentally cut or mangle your hands and fingers. If you must reach into the unit to remove a blockage, first make sure the unit is turned off at the source. This could be unplugging the unit from an outlet or turning off power at the electrical panel.
Even when a disposal unit is turned off, it is still receiving electrical power. To be safe, make sure the switch is off and unplug the unit (or turn the corresponding breaker off).
Before reaching into the unit to remove the clog, put on safety gloves to avoid getting cut by the sharp blades.
If you cannot remove the blockage by hand, most units come with a hex key (aka Allen key or Allen wrench) that fits in a small depression at the bottom of the disposal unit. Follow manufacturer instructions, but usually all you have to do is fit the key/wrench in and twist it back and forth to free the blockage. Again, make sure there is zero power to the unit before attempting to unclog it.
Some Fruits and Vegetables
Fibrous and starchy fruits and vegetables should get tossed in the trash or compost, not the disposal. Fibrous foods can get wound around the blades and cause a stoppage. Starchy items can quickly thicken and create a paste that makes it hard to get through the disposal and into the pipes. While small amounts might be fine, try to avoid the habit.
Here is a list of fruits and vegetables to avoid:
- Corn Husks
- Broccoli Stalks
- Banana Peels
- Onion Skin
- Potato Peels
Pasta, Rice, and Oatmeal
Pasta, rice, and oatmeal will expand with water, not to mention the fact that they are extremely sticky. Expandable foods like pasta and rice can fill up the disposal unit or block the pipes. To be safe, keep these items out of your disposal.
While many disposal units can handle small amounts of coffee grounds, it’s better to toss them in the trash (or compost). While they may not harm your disposal unit, they could cause a clog in your drain line. It may not be immediate, but coffee grounds can cause clogs to get worse over time leading to a “slow drain” situation
We respond to hundreds of clogs caused by coffee grounds. It’s better to be safe than sorry. Instead of putting coffee in the disposal, consider adding them to your compost pile. Coffee filters can also be composted.
There’s a lot of debate on whether or not you can put eggshells in the garbage disposal. Like coffee grounds, eggshells may not damage your disposal unit, but they can cause a slow clog. Problems are more likely to arise if you have an older disposal or plumbing system.
Coffee grounds and eggshells can cause a thick sediment to build up over time that can cause a clog or “slow drain” situation. Avoid the problem entirely by throwing eggshells in the trash or compost pile.
Large Bones and Pits
Small, dainty bones shouldn’t cause any problems, but large bones such as racks of ribs, pork, beef, and turkey bones should get thrown in the trash. You also want to avoid hard pits and seeds since the machine won’t be able to properly chop them down.
Large bones and pits can break the blades or cause the motor to burn out. Despite impressive manufacturer claims of being able to grind avocado pits and large bones, it’s best to throw all large bones and pits in the trash. If you can’t cut it with a knife, it probably can’t get ground up by the disposal blades.
The term “garbage disposal” can be misleading for some. It’s not actually a garbage. Avoid putting any non-food items in the disposal:
- Rubber bands
- Twist ties
Peanut butter gets made by grinding up peanuts. When mashed, nearly all nuts create a sticky, thick paste not suitable for the disposal. Limit the amount of nuts that enter your unit.
Crab, lobster, shrimp, and oyster shells should be thrown in the trash. These shells are often too thick and dense to dispose of properly.
Plants and Flowers
Small amounts of plants and flowers can be ground up, but many times they are too fibrous for proper disposal. Throw plant remains in the trash.
Chemicals and Cleaners
Dish soap is obviously fine, but avoid any harsh chemicals such as drain cleaners, pesticides, paints, oils, and solvents. Not only do toxic chemicals add wear and tear on your disposal and drain line, they are also harmful to our rivers, lakes, and oceans.
Don’t put toxic chemicals down any drain. Instead, research drop-off areas for toxic chemicals in your location. Many times, these items can be recycled.
Large Amounts of Anything
No matter what you put in the disposal, always feed it gradually. Large amounts of anything can cause your unit to break down.
If you have ever thought twice about putting something into the garbage disposal unit, it’s probably best to go with your gut and throw the item in the trash.
Garbage Disposal Tips for Parties and Large Gatherings
If you are hosting Thanksgiving, Christmas, or any other large get-together, here are a few tips to avoid a garbage disposal setback:
- Clean and deodorize the garbage disposal before guests arrive.
- Consider using paper plates and plastic utensils to reduce clean-up.
- Do NOT overload your garbage disposal.
- Instruct guests to throw leftover food in the trash, not the sink.
Learn more garbage disposal do’s and don’ts.