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Are Garbage Disposals Eco-Friendly?

#2 Eat Low on the Food Chain. Another change you can make that has an enormous impact is eating as low on the food chain as possible, as often as you can. Aside from having fewer bones to dispose of, you also will save massive amounts of water and energy. While figures vary wildly on the relative water and energy use of animal products vs. vegetable products, there is unanimous consensus that eating more vegetarian and vegan meals saves water (and reduces water pollution, air pollution, energy use, and much more).

It’s hard to find trustworthy figures (many groups have an agenda either for or against meat, independent of environmental impact) but the FAO’s “Livestock’s Long Shadow” and the Water Footprint Network’s (WFN) reports have really rigorous calculations. WFN comes up with beef requiring about 9 more gallons of water than soybeans as one example (634 gallons of water for a single hamburger). This is just a global average—in the U.S. our intense factory farms typically have a much higher impact.

I highly recommend anyone interested in greening their diet to check out Just Food by James McWilliams, as he critically evaluates all of his existing beliefs about green eating (organic, local, vegetarian, etc.) and comes up with some surprising results (including a great summary on grass-fed beef).

But even if the difference between the garbage disposal and the landfill is tiny relative to the impact you can have by wasting less food and eating less animal products, it’s still a question worth answering. Fats should definitely go in the garbage, as they can cause plumbing problems. For the rest, while it can vary significantly depending on where you live, in general the garbage is also preferable.

Here’s why:

1) As you noted, it takes a lot of water just to wash your scraps down the drain, and takes even more water and energy to filter the scraps back out. This is especially critical if you live in a dry area or are having a drought.

2) In many municipalities, the solid waste removed from the water goes to the landfill anyway. In some areas it’s used as crop fertilizer or to generate energy.

If you want to be 100 percent sure of what to do, I recommend finding out whether your local landfill or water treatment plant captures methane to produce energy. If the landfill doesn’t, and the water treatment plant does, that makes the garbage disposal a more attractive option.

Either way, if you can cut down on how much food you waste—why not use those leftover chicken bones to make stock for soups?—and/or cut back on your consumption of animal products, you can probably cross the garbage disposal off your list of big issues to worry about.

Jon Fisher is a data management specialist for The Nature Conservancy, the world’s leading conservation organization. He has studied forestry, environmental biology, stream ecology, environmental engineering and how technology and spatial analysis can improve wildlife management at airports. He also loves to cook delicious vegan food. Opinions expressed here are the personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

(Image: Leaves in kitchen sink garbage disposal. Source: Flickr user steveluscher.)

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41 comments

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1:13AM PST on Nov 9, 2014

Thank you!

5:34AM PST on Feb 12, 2014

thank you for sharing

2:18AM PDT on Apr 5, 2012

thank you for info..

2:20PM PST on Feb 26, 2012

We have compost pick up where I live (isn't that awesome!?!?) and all food and yard waste is allowed. Even bones. YAY

12:15PM PST on Feb 8, 2012

We have a garbage disposal that was installed before we moved in, but it isn't friendly to our septic system, so we don't use it.

9:05AM PST on Feb 8, 2012

DON'T HAVE ONE!

11:14AM PST on Feb 7, 2012

I'm in the planning stage of a kitchen remodeling - have been wondering if a garbage disposal was worth it or not - thanks for the info!

9:24AM PST on Feb 6, 2012

great!

8:12AM PST on Feb 6, 2012

Thanks Jon.

9:07AM PST on Feb 5, 2012

Thanks for all of the comments! It is true that even if you use bones for stock you still end up with bones, and as noted I'd say either just put them in the garbage or bury them deep in your outdoor compost pile if you're feeling brave (I know several people who do this, although I've also heard it can cause problems). It is also a good point that there are lots of foods which can cause plumbing problems when put down the garbage disposal: oils, bones or other hard materials, rice / pasta, egg shells, and fibrous vegetables. I was thinking more of the "green" aspect of it but it's good to keep in mind that you can damage your plumbing if you're not careful what you put in your disposal!

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