The Kitchen Sink Is Not A Garbage Can

permalink         categories: general         originally posted: 2006-03-16 09:50:56

In the movie Bachelor In Paradise, Bob Hope is the only person in his suburban community with a garbage disposer in his kitchen sink. As a result, his neighbors often drop by with large bundles of garbage which he laboriously feeds into his kitchen sink.

Silly? Sure. In truth it's a plot contrivance, a device used in the movie to get characters together so they can interact. But it got me reflecting. I grew up with a lot of seemingly-arbitrary rules about what should and should not go into the garbage disposer. It didn't make any sense. Why should some things always go down the disposer, and other things always go into the trash?

Let's go back to first principles. What is that sink in your kitchen there for? Sure, it can be used for lots of things—to wash your hands, as a miniature bathtub for washing pets. But the fundamental reason it's there is so you can wash dishes.

What does a garbage disposer have to do with washing dishes? It helps dispose of food that ends up in the sink. If you don't have a garbage disposer, you have to scrape your dishes very thoroughly before you bring them to the sink. Otherwise the food either gets caught in the strainer—which is messy to clean—or it gets flushed down the pipes—where it might get caught and cause a clog.

In 1927 John Hammes invented the first garbage disposer. (He went on to found the In-Sink-Erator Corporation, which nearly eighty years later still sells millions of garbage disposers every year.) The Wikipedia article states its purpose very clearly:

The function of the garbage disposer is to grind food waste (e.g. chicken bones, fruit, coffee grinds, meat) so that it can be sent down standard household plumbing without clogging.
It seems clear: the point of a garbage disposer is to cut down on clogs and messy strainer cleaning. Of course, presumably in order to sell more garbage disposers, the In-Sink-Erator also touts benefits like "it disposes of smelly garbage immediately, instead of leaving it in your kitchen where it can attract flies." But is this a worthwhile use of the garbage disposer?

As the Wikipedia entry points out, the use of garbage disposers adds enormous strain on water treatment plants. Water treatment is a time- and resource-consuming job. Its goal is to get the water clean enough for use or reintroduction back into the environment. Garbage disposers add so much organic matter to waste water that they have forced communities to get larger, more expensive water treatment plants. (Garbage disposers are outright banned in some communities because of this extra load; for instance, you couldn't install a garbage disposer in New York City until 1997.)

And for what? I recently watched an episode of Dirty Jobs where poor put-upon Mike Rowe worked at a water treatment plant. While he was there, they showed Mike what they do with all the solids they remove from the water: they pack it up and send it to the landfill.

That's right! By pushing garbage through your sink, instead of simply throwing it in your garbage can, you've introduced a whole extra series of costly, unnecessary steps to the process. You've mixed your garbage with water, dirtying the water which is costly to clean. Yet the end result is the same— your garbage winds up in the landfill. All you've really done is given it much more expensive and time-consuming trip.

So, do Bob Hope and your local water treatment plant a favor. Throw your garbage into the garbage can. Scrape your plates into there too. And only use your garbage disposer for what's left.

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