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Where Does It All Go?: The 411 on Garbage Disposals

Posted on Thu, Mar 14, 2013

Written by Amy Garbis
Have you ever thought about what happens to your food scraps at the end of a meal, after clean up? Where does it go? What happens to it?

kohler crevasse prep sink1

For many urban as well as rural dwellers, food is scraped directly into the trash can and is then hauled off to a landfill.

For most suburbanites, plates are scraped and food scraps are dumped into the sink to be churned and processed into bits in the food waste disposer, also called garbage disposal or garbage grinder.

In urban areas, some people are lucky enough to have garbage grinders. Recently, some large cities, after years of either banning garbage disposals for fear of tainting the water supply, or allowing unrestricted installations, now limit the numbers of homes allowed to have food waste disposal units; however, many larger cities now completely ban the units from commercial businesses such as restaurants and hospitals.

There are two good reasons to not use a garbage disposal, and both, not surprisingly, relate to the immediate impact on our environment.

First, a water treatment plant that has incoming food waste must use extra enzymes and chemicals to treat and purify the water. Although most water treatment plants are equipped to handle this, extra energy is required for this process.

Additionally, there is also some emerging evidence that if any of the waste makes its way back into streams or into the soil near water sources, the aquatic life and water quality are compromised.

A garbage disposal also requires use of water both while the unit is grinding food into pulp and, following, to flush out the food waste. In areas that are experiencing water shortages such as the case in Texas, the use of garbage disposals is likely to be outlawed. And, water becoming more scarce and expensive to consume should also be taken into consideration.

So, once the solids are filtered out, they must be either incinerated (energy use), trucked to a landfill (energy use), or, two somewhat better options, condensed into fertilizer, or digested by microorganisms. The last two options are more beneficial as they allow waste solids to be changed into a much more useful product: fertilizer.

According to the National Resources Defense Council, rotting food in landfills accounts for 16 percent of America’s methane emissions, a major contributor to greenhouse gases. And methane is 25 times more effective at contributing to climate change. But some states are taking measures to control methane emissions. “The EPA requires that new and modified landfills designed to hold 2.5 million cubic meters install gas collection and control systems and California has this requirement for all new landfills” (treehugger.com).  This means that methane can be turned into electricity or even piped into the natural gas pipeline as a fuel source rather than being released into the air, a much more environmentally friendly approach.

As of now, the best option for disposing of table scraps is to compost as much as possible. Even in the coldest winter climates, composting is possible. NatureMill has an indoor/outdoor composter that comes in three sizes, the smallest being perfect for an urban apartment. And it claims to eliminate odor, a necessary feature for anyone who does not want to offend guests or family with the odor of rotting and composting food.

Ultimately, if you want to really make a positive impact on your food bills and the environment, the answer is to waste less food:

  • Buy and prepare only what is needed for weekly meals;

  • Understand that the ‘sell-by’ dates are manufacturers recommendations (they get to sell more!), and the food is safe to consume a while after the date;

  • Blanch and freeze vegetables before they rot in the refrigerator. Frozen vegetables are great for quick, weeknight meals, and

  • Find out if your local food bank accepts nonperishable or unspoiled fresh fruit and vegetables.

Amy Garbis is new to blogging, but has been writing for years. She has written PR and news updates for Arlington-Lexington Hadassah. She has also taught freshman writing at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and now teaches a private writing course and tutors one-on-one. Amy is devoted to philanthropic work and has recently co-founded the Community Fund of Lexington. She is also committed to trying to create an environmentally friendly lifestyle for herself and her family.