What You Can and Can't Put Down Your Garbage Disposal

Smartphones, blue tooth devices, back up cameras, voice activated assistants, doorbell security—with all these fancy gadgets in our homes, it’s easy to forget the mundane appliances we depend upon daily, like the fridge, the dishwasher, and the microwave. And then there's that one workhorse of the kitchen with a misleading name that does its job with the flip of a switch—the garbage disposal. Perhaps a more accurate moniker would be "food waste disposal," to remind you not to put trash like styrofoam, metal, plastic, or paper into it.

While the lowly garbage disposal may rarely be considered a major ally in your kitchen arsenal, it’s important to remember that whatever goes down it could affect its performance and function, not to mention what it could potentially do to your pipes. And just because it can also be called a food waste disposal doesn't mean you can put just any food into it.

Here are some do's and don'ts to help keep your garbage disposal running at peak performance.

DO Put These in Your Garbage Disposal

Most Vegetable and Fruit Scraps - Stems and other vegetable ends, raw or cooked fruits and vegetable scraps, seedless cores, anything that can be easily pulverized to flow freely through the drain is okay, though you may want to be careful with those that are excessively fibrous or stringy.

Citrus Rinds - After squeezing a couple of lemon slices onto your grilled fish, toss the rinds into the disposal and grind them up with cold running water. This can be performed as part of regular maintenance to keep the drain and your kitchen smelling fresh.

Cooked Meat Scraps - Bits and pieces from leftover dinner are fine, as long as it’s not a large amount, and not in huge chunks. Large pieces are difficult for your disposal to handle, and may also cause problems further down the drain.

Sauces - Most liquid flavor enhancers are ok, as are yogurt, creamy soups, applesauce, and any other soft food. They can generally be poured down even a regular drain without any issues.

Coffee Grounds - In small amounts, this is fine, like when rinsing the coffee filter in the morning. It’s best to avoid putting large amounts of coffee grounds down the drain at one time, since they can accumulate and cause clogs.

Cold Water - Any time you use the disposal, run some cold water to flush the chopped bits of food down the drain. Cold water coagulates fats as they pass through the disposal, helping them flush through the drain better. Let the water run until you hear a slight purring sound, then continue to let it run about 15 seconds after you turn the disposal off.

Ice Cubes - Tossing a tray of ice cubes into the sink and grinding it down with running water helps extricate some of the debris that can build up inside the disposal, and can assist in sharpening the blades. Do this as part of a regular maintenance schedule.

ice cubes

DO NOT Put These in Your Garbage Disposal

Paper, Wood, Glass, Metal, Plastic, Etc. - Don’t put garbage in your garbage disposal! Plain and simple. If it’s something you’d put in your trash can or recycling bin, put it there instead. These items do not grind up well, and you run the risk of ruining the machine.

Oils or Grease - Inevitably, small amounts of oil or grease will end up going down the drain when washing dishes, or as part of leftover food waste from your plate, but it’s important to keep large amounts of it from making its way into your pipes. Never pour containers of oil or grease into the disposal.

Fibrous Fruits or Vegetables - This includes items like celery, corn husks, onion skins, pumpkin pulp, edamame peels, artichoke leaves, asparagus stems, and banana peels. The fibers can get wrapped around the blades, and can cause strain on the motor, eventually causing it to burn out, requiring repair or replacement.

Bones - It may seem like chicken bones would disintegrate in the grinding process, but they're more likely to be chopped into chunks that could cause a clog. If the bones are large, the trash can is a better receptacle.

Pasta and Rice - Steer clear of anything that can potentially expand inside a drain. Small amounts that sneak past you shouldn’t be a problem, but if you throw half a pot of spaghetti carbonara and week-old shrimp-fried-rice down the disposal, there could be consequences.

Hard Rinds, Seeds, and Shells - They may be biodegradable, but your disposal is unlikely to be able to handle coconut shells and watermelon rinds without suffering negative impact. Unpopped popcorn kernels and stone fruit pits are equally as tough, and putting them in the disposal is just asking for trouble.

mussels in a basket

Other Options for Food Waste

Rather than dumping food scraps into the garbage disposal, there are ways to use them so they're not wasted.

Make Vegetable Broth - Creating a healthy broth from veggie scraps is easy. Save your clean scraps in a container in the freezer—when the container is full, it’s time to make broth that can be used for soups and other recipes.

Put them in a large pot, soften them up with some olive oil over high heat for about five minutes, then add water and simmer slowly for about 45 minutes. Then, strain the veggie waste out and either use the broth to start a soup, or freeze it for later. By now, the scraps should be soft enough to feed into the disposal.

Create Compost - If you have a compost pile, adding vegetable scraps will give you more great nutrients and minerals for your garden. It will also keep biodegradables out of the disposal, and out of the landfill, putting those nutrients back into the earth.

If you don’t have a compost bin, some cities offer compost services that either pick up from your home, or provide a location where you can bring your food waste. Either way, composting reduces wear and tear on your disposal, and provides a way to use what would otherwise be wasted.

Plant a Garden - If you’re looking for a budget-friendly way to add more greenery to your garden or home, there are some vegetables and fruits that regrow from your store-bought groceries.

Ginger, onions, and garlic that have sprouted can be planted in a pot or outside, depending on the weather. Pineapple tops can be planted and treated like a houseplant. Avocado pits and papaya seeds sprout easily from seeds. While a harvest from these plantings would be an added bonus, you might have to wait a long time for it. In the meantime, be joyful that they have been given another life and did not end up in a landfill, or destroying your disposal.