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Are in-sink garbage disposals eco-friendly?

A Nightline viewer emailed us, asking, "What is wrong with using the garbage disposal in your sink to get rid of your scraps? I rent and am not sure that composting is an option." We've received tons of emails from people who rent or live in apartments and condos who question whether they can successfully compost in their homes. (See yesterday's post on composting resources for ideas.) So what about those grindingly-loud garbage disposals? Are they an eco-friendly option?

Before I get in to all of this, I need to say that a lot of you will get frustrated with the answer, because it isn't clear-cut. There are some things that should not go down the disposal ever, like fats and oils -- that is something concrete you can use. Making eco-friendly changes in your lifestyle is a process, and some changes are easier than others. This might not be an easy change, particularly if you can't compost. Please, don't get frustrated. If this seems overwhelmingly difficult, then just don't work on it right now. Try easier changes, like using reusable shopping bags or weaning yourself off of paper napkins. When you knock down some of these easier green living changes, you'll have the confidence and motivation to tackle the harder ones, like what to do with food waste.

So, about those garbage disposals. I'm no expert on the subject, but I did a little online research. There is no 'right' answer. Most of the country's infrastructure just hasn't caught up with what is truly a 'green' solution. Every municipal water treatment system is different. There are some systems that capture the sludge (including human and food waste) and turn it into fertilizer, so food in the disposal would end up as a useful product. I would guess that most systems aren't doing this yet. So, if you really, really want to know what's happening in your treatment plant, I'd call your water bureau.

Slate magazine wrote a good article about the pros and cons of using the garbage disposal versus putting food in the garbage. Again, it all depends on whether your landfill is harvesting the methane released from food in the landfill, or if your water treatment plant is harvesting sludge.

Here is my take:

  • Composting food scraps is the best solution.

  • Garbage disposals waste a lot of clean water.

  • Use your garbage disposal sparingly.

  • Never put oily or fatty foods down the disposal. They gunk up the whole system.

  • If you find yourself with a lot of food waste, try to figure out why that's happening. Is your food rotting or expiring before you can eat or cook it? Then you are probably buying too much food. Are you cooking more than your family will eat? Are you saving leftovers? Oftentimes, you can avoid food waste examining what you are throwing away and changing your practices. It takes work, but it will be worth it.

I have a garbage disposal, and I do use it on occasion. While all of our fruit and vegetable waste goes into the compost bin, there are times when I appreciate the disposal. Like, when my son won't eat all of his milk-soaked granola. Into the sink. Or when my daughter leaves a sad mash of chicken and veggies at the bottom of her soup bowl. Into the sink. Generally it's the more liquidey-type stuff we dump. Meat goes into the trash, but we seldom have any meat waste. (If we do, I keep it in the freezer until my once-a-month garbage day so it doesn't stink up the trash.)

Sorry if you are no clearer now than before. This doesn't help the apartment dweller who has nowhere to compost potato peelings and carrot tops. It would be great to hear from people about how they manage their food waste. Do you have access to a community garden where you could set up a composting system? Are you composting compactly in a rental or condo? Use the disposal? Into the trash? Any other wisdom to share?

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