The Environmental Impact of Waste Disposal Units

Do you use a waste disposal unit to get rid of leftover food and other bits of organic matter?

What you might not know is that waste disposal units, also known as garbage disposals, can have a seriously negative environmental impact.

According to an article in Slate Magazine, garbage disposals might not be as environmentally friendly, or as safe, as you think. The author cites an Australian study that claims these devices have almost three times the environmental impact of sending the same waste to a landfill.

Naturally, the exact environmental impact of using a garbage disposal versus a landfill depends largely upon where you live in relation to the landfill.

Today, we’re going to look into both the environmental impact of waste disposal units as well as the other risks and problems associated with these devices in greater detail.

What Is a Waste Disposal Unit?

To adequately understand the environmental impact of a waste disposal unit, you must first understand how exactly these devices work.

The purpose of a waste disposal unit, or garbage disposal, is to grind up leftover food into small pieces that will then pass into the plumbing without clogging the drains.

Most of these devices are electric powered and are installed directly into a home’s sink. They sit right between the sink’s drain and the sink’s trap.

Generally, they are designed to catch large pieces of food while letting water and smaller pieces of food flow through without stopping.

You then must turn on the machine to grind up the caught food while running water to flush the material down the drain.

Though waste disposal units are found around the world, they’re most common in the United States. According to a 2009 American Housing Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau, over 50% of American homes contained these units.

In addition to their widespread use in homes and apartments, waste disposal units are even more common in bars, restaurants, and other food service businesses.

Benefits of Waste Disposal Units

Despite concern for their environmental impact, there are undoubtedly some major benefits of waste disposal units.

The tricky thing is weeding through the studies funded by waste disposal companies and other groups that have their best interests in mind.

Not that these organizations are intentionally skewing their results, but it’s important to keep the natural bias in mind while reviewing the studies.

After reviewing the available data, the five main benefits of waste disposal units include:

  •       Affordable – These devices reduce the money spent on garbage collection and can actually improve the lifespan of your plumbing, according to Lifehack.
  •       Easy to Use – Waste disposal units make disposing of trash very easy. Just dump food into the sink, grind it up, and flush with water.
  •       Limits Odors – DoItYourself.com claims that these devices limit odors because decomposing food trash is no longer stored in garbage cans in your home.
  •       Low Impact on City – One of the top reasons waste disposal units were introduced in the first place was to reduce the impact on city garbage collectors.
  •       Some Environmental Benefits – Despite the environmental concern, Houzz.com states that these devices do have some environmental benefits, such as limiting the

Problems with Waste Disposal Units

There are definitely a lot of great benefits to waste disposal units, but there are also some serious problems.

The five main problems with waste disposal units include:

  •       Smell – These devices can help eliminate smell, but they also trap rotting food that can become seriously smelly without regular cleaning.
  •       Break Down – Best Pick Reports states that waste disposal units will almost always eventually break down and require expensive repairs.
  •       Clogging – Perhaps the most common problem is clogs that must be unclogged for resumed functioning.
  •       Safety Issues – You must select a waste disposal unit that’s highly rated for safety, especially if you have young children, according to Best Garbage Disposals.
  •       Environmental Impact – A number of studies, including this one from InSinkErator, show that these devices can have a serious environmental impact, mostly from the amount of water they require to dispose of food.

What Clogs Waste Disposal Drains?

It might seem like you can dump just about any food product down your waste disposal drain.

That couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, there are dozens of different things that you should never put into your waste disposal unit.

Not only are these items harmful to the garbage disposal itself, but putting them down the drain can have a seriously negative environmental impact.

Here are the top six food items you should never put down your waste disposal drains.

1.     Egg Shells

Egg shells are a type of granular waste that decomposes slowly and greatly contributes to other forms of hazardous waste. It’s best to keep them out of your garbage disposal. Luckily, egg shells are easily recyclable and can easily be composted.

2.     Coffee Grounds

Few food items cause as many clogs and other plumbing issues as coffee grounds. It’s best to empty the grounds out of coffee cups and coffee makers before washing them. Conserve Energy Future states that coffee grounds are excellent for composting.

3.     Cooking Oil

According to Hunker, another major drain clog offender is none other than cooking oil. Avoid putting cooking oil down the drain to minimize the risk of serious plumbing issues. Consider storing your oils for reuse.

4.     Rice

It might not seem like a big issue, but rice can cause major blockages in kitchen drains. The reason for this is largely its high semolina content. Invest in a quality drain filter to catch rice before it enters your home’s plumbing system.

5.     Pasta

Huffington Post states that you should absolutely never, under any circumstances, put pasta down your drain. It’s harmful for the same reasons as rice: the semolina content. Scrape pasta off of dishes before washing. And consider trying organic types of pasta that have far less semolina.

6.     Pits and Rinds

It might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many people attempt to dispose of pits and rinds in their waste disposal unit. E.R. Plumbing Service says that pits and rinds will almost always clog drains. Your best alternative is recycling.

Other Items to Never Put Down Drains

In addition to the six food items listed above, there are several other items that will damage or clog your waste disposal drains.

Generally, it’s a smart idea to never put anything that’s not food waste into a drain. That’s not what garbage disposals are designed to do.

That said, here are six non-food items that you should absolutely never put into your waste disposal unit.

1.     Condoms

Attempting to dispose of condoms in a waste disposal unit, or even flushing them down the toilet, is seriously harmful to the environment. Not only does latex not dissolve, often being mistaken for food by animal life, but the human bodily fluids contained within are also harmful.

2.     Paper Towels

Some paper towels are marketed as biodegradable. And while this might be true, it doesn’t mean that it’s good to put them in your garbage disposal. Paper towels are a top leader of drainage clogs and blockages. An alternative is to switch to reusable cotton cloths.

3.     Motor Oil

It might seem crazy that anyone would dump motor oil into a waste disposal unit, but Conserve Energy Future suggests that it’s a fairly common practice. Motor oil in addition to other automobile fluids like antifreeze are very dangerous to the environment. Most cities have designated motor oil recycling centers.

4.     Animal Waste

Just like motor oil, animal waste is another surprising item that many people think they can flush down their garbage disposal. Not only will this practice cause major clogs, but it is also extremely unsanitary. Animal feces will attract bacteria, and sometimes even pests, to your home.

5.     Stickers

One or two of the tiny stickers commonly found attached to fruit and vegetables probably won’t cause a drain blockage. However, it’s best to get into the practice of removing these before disposing of these food items. InSinkErator claims that these will stick to the sides of your drains and plumbing.

6.     Medicine

Medicine is yet another non-food item that you should avoid putting down your drains or into your waste disposal unit. It doesn’t necessarily cause clogs, but it is extremely dangerous and also environmentally harmful. Your local pharmacy most likely has a medical waste disposal system where it’s free to take old and unused medicine.

Problems Caused by Clogged Drains

Drain blockages aren’t just annoying. They can cause a host of other problems as well.

Chief among the problems caused by clogged drains is a malfunctioning sink. When your drain is blocked, it becomes difficult to use your sink, garbage disposal, and drains until the issue is fixed.

Sometimes these blockages are minor and can be fixed by yourself. Other times, however, they require a professional eye to fix. You run the risk of dishing out hundreds of dollars in repair costs if you let your waste disposal unit become clogged.

Another major problem of clogged drains is odor. Accumulating water and rotting food will start to smell after some time. No one wants this smell in their home.

At the same time, water might start to seep out of the garbage disposal and into other areas of your home. This leaking water contributes to the growth of harmful mold and can even threaten the structural integrity of your home.

According to Jedi Plumbing, the excessive moisture and standing water from clogged drains serves to attract bacteria, mosquitos, and other pests.

Environmental Impact of Clogged Drains

Waste disposal units with clogged drains can have a serious environmental impact.

First of all, the foods and other items causing the clogs likely have negative environmental effects in their own rights.

You must consider that your garbage disposal and drains connect to a plumbing system which likely connects to the rest of your area’s sewer system. Any items improperly disposed of down the drain run the risk of ending up as part of the groundwater.

Clogged drains are known for causing leaks that attract bacteria and pests. This leads to a strain on your local environment and potentially escalating problems, according to Express Drainage Solutions.

Waste Disposal Units Environmental Problems

There is still a lot of debate surrounding waste disposal units and their environmental impact.

However, much of this debate isn’t actually centered on the problems they cause. Instead, it’s focused on the environmental effects of garbage disposals versus landfills.

While this comparison is necessary to consider, it’s also important to think about waste disposal units as a standalone issue.

The main environmental issue with these devices is that people tend to flush almost any old food, and even non-food, items down them.

Many types of food waste, and especially non-food waste like medicine and motor oil, are extremely dangerous for the environment.

Most waste disposal units are connected to a plumbing system which is in turn connect to the water treatment plant. Though these centers do a good job at getting toxins out of the water, a good amount still reaches the local water system.

These toxins and hazardous materials not only cause harm to plant and animal life once in the local water system, but they can also contribute to bacteria growth and algae blooms.

Furthermore, waste disposal units use a lot of water. They also use their fair share of electricity to operate.

And then you must also consider that these units are constructed from metal. Though the impact is minimal and indirect, it can’t be overlooked that the construction of waste disposal units has some environmental impact.

Final Thoughts  

The environmental impact of waste disposal units is unambiguous at this point – yet it still can’t be overlooked.

It’s important to always be smart about what goes down the drain. Take note of the foods that you should never put down the drain that we listed above. You must also never put any non-food items down the drain.

Try to compost or use reusable products whenever possible. The less you use your waste disposal unit, the better.

Waste disposal units aren’t the worst for the environment, but they must be used with care to mitigate clogged drains and minimize the overall impact on the environment.