The Do's and Dont's of Garbage Disposals

A bowl of green lettuce in a stainless steel sink.

Garbage disposals: what a lovely invention. As long as they're maintained and used properly, they certainly do make things easier in the kitchen. When not used wisely, however, they can become exactly the opposite -- meaning you curse the day someone ever decided to invent it. Keep garbage disposals running problem-free and plumbing and draining issues at bay with the proper tips and tricks.

Garbage Disposal Do's

DO use it regularly: Run the garbage disposal frequently, even if you don't need to use it much. This will prevent it from rusting up and keep any items from getting stuck.

DO sharpen the blades: You may think grinding hard food items will harm your garbage disposal's blades, but to some degree it's actually good for it. Small chicken and fish bones and egg shells are all good for keeping the blades sharp, and will also help scour grease and other debris from the inside walls of the unit.

DO keep in mind that size matters: How you put the food into the garbage disposal and how much you add is important to keeping it running well and not clogging up. Toss any larger food pieces in the garbage or chop them small enough so they will grind well.

DO flush the disposal every time you use it: Whenever the disposal is turned on the water should also be turned on. Continue to run it for 15 seconds (or more) after it's done grinding and powered up so that it flushes the food down the drain.

A bowl of baking soda, a sponge, and a lemon.

DO clean it: Keep your garbage disposal clean. After each use, run a little dish soap through it and flush with cold water for at least 15 seconds.

Here's a few more cleaning tips:

  • Once a week add a ¼ cup of baking soda to the disposal and let it sit overnight. In the morning (or a few hours later) pour vinegar into the garbage disposal. It will bubble and clean the inside of the disposal for you.
  • Freeze vinegar in ice cube trays and place the frozen cubes in the disposal while it runs with cold water. This helps to keep the blades sharp.
  • Use 3-4 tablespoons of Borax for smelly garbage disposals. Allow it sit for an hour and then run hot water down the drain to flush the system.
  • Drop in lemon or orange slices to clean and deodorize. Run the water while the disposal chops these up.

Garbage Disposal Don'ts

DON'T use your garbage disposal as a garbage can: Your garbage disposal is for small table scraps, and not for large quantities of food. Adding too much food at once will cause it to clog. To keep this from happening, place small amounts of food in the disposal while the water and grinder are both running, allowing it to clear before adding more food.

DON'T grind large bones: Grinding small bones from fish or chicken will help keep the blades sharp, however, larger bones could break the blades or the unit, so be sure to toss those in the garbage and not down the sink.

DON'T grind the following items, ever!: glass, plastic, metal, cigarette butts, or paper. If one of these falls into the disposal, turn it off at the circuit breaker and retrieve it safely.

DON'T pour any grease in it: No oil, fats, or grease should be poured into your disposal. It will not drain right and will instead accumulate around the blade system and clog your drains.

A pair of elderly hands peeling potatoes with a knife over the sink.

DON'T put certain foods in it: Some foods are best tossed in the trash due to their fibrous material, starchy consistency, or expanding capabilities (with water they'll expand and clog your pipes). These include celery, corn husks, artichokes, onion skins, rice and pasta, and potato peels. You could grind potato peels a few at a time if you wish -- just don't put more than several down at a time as they're full of starch and will turn into a paste that will ruin the blades.

DON'T clean with harsh chemicals or coffee: Coffee grounds may sound like a good idea as they will make the unit smell nice and eliminate odors, but they're also hard to flush out and will back up in the drain and clog it. As for harsh chemicals, using bleach and drain cleaners can damage the pipes. (They also could splash back on you if you run the garbage disposal while they're in there.)

DON'T use hot water to flush: When you flush your garbage disposal, which should be done every time you use it, do not use hot water. It will cause the grease to liquefy and clog the drain. Instead, follow our "do" list and allow the cold water to run for at least 15 seconds and use other cleaning methods to help get rid of the grease build-up.

DON'T reach into the garbage disposal: Never, ever put your hands into the garbage disposal unless you turn it off at the circuit breaker. Even then, you should have protective gloves on to protect yourself from the blades. Alternatives to using your hand to dislodge something that got stuck inside of it include needle-nose pliers or even a bent coat hanger. Use those, or something similar, to pry out whatever fell in.

A hand with a wrench working on a garbage disposal unit.

DON'T call a plumber: Not at first, anyway. Usually whenever a garbage disposal stops working it's as simple as resetting it to get it back to working again. So instead of calling a plumber, first try resetting it by reaching beneath the unit and pressing the button. (It's usually red or black.) If that doesn't work, check to make sure it's still plugged in and receiving power. If the power is still flowing in, you can then try hand cranking it. Most units have a hole below it that will allow you to use a wrench to get it going again after you've un-jammed it.

There are perhaps more don'ts than there are do's when it comes to maintaining your garbage disposal and preventing issues. The biggest reason for this is that people use their disposal as a garbage can. Keep in mind that it's for small food scraps only, and you'll prevent a lot of problems.