More than food scraps go down the drain with a garbage disposal

EARTH MATTERS AT HOME

October 24, 1990|By Susan McGrath | Susan McGrath,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Just about every kitchen sink in America has a garbage disposal, it seems. And they are pretty convenient little gizmos. You don't have to worry about tea leaves and coffee grounds clogging up your drain. You can scrape dirty dishes right into the sink. And you carry less garbage out the back door every day.

On the other hand, disposals run on electricity, an expensive commodity that creates air pollution and contributes to the greenhouse effect. They use a lot of water. And they are one more appliance to buy, pay to have installed and pay again to replace when you feed it that one watermelon seed too many.

In the general scheme of things, the question of whether or not to use a garbage disposal isn't something that keeps the best minds at the EPA working late into the night. It is, however, an issue over which you exercise more control than, say, whether Congress will allow drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And it is a question that a lot of people ask, believing, perhaps, that it is in the accumulation of these small gestures that we can each make a difference.

The answer to the trash versus garbage disposal dilemma is, of course, neither. The best thing to do with kitchen scraps is to compost them. You can do this in a simple open compost bin, or, where rats and raccoons are a problem, in a worm bin.

The advantages of composting are many: The city doesn't have to drive your scraps away in a truck and fit them into an already overflowing landfill. You recycle nutrient-rich organic matter. And you don't have to buy potting soil, peat moss or manure. To name just a few.

If you don't want to compost, the next question is: Does your house rely on a septic system to treat waste water? If so, skip getting a garbage disposal. Adding food waste to your system can overburden the bacterial processes it relies on and clog up the works.

Water is the next variable. Does your community experience water shortages, seasonally or perennially? Places as diverse as Manhattan and Tucson, Seattle and Los Angeles do. Garbage disposals slurp down a lot of water to cool the motor and flush the ground food. If water is at a premium in your area, forgo the disposal.

Economics are a second way to look at garbage disposals. You buy the contraption and have it installed. You pay for the water and electricity to run it. The water treatment plant removes your food slurry by a variety of processes and pays to have it hauled away with the rest of the sludge.

On the whole, it seems that dumping the stuff straight into the trash yourself saves everyone a lot of fuss.

However, if you love your garbage disposal and think that the relatively minor costs it incurs are well worth it -- by all means, use the darn thing. If you are buying a new one, buy a good brand that will grind food effectively and last a long time. Partially ground food can clog your drains.

Many disposals balk at stringy or fibrous food such as onions and watermelon seeds. Pitch these in the trash. And take care not to wash bits of plastic and metal down the drain. If they make it through your pipes, they can foul up the works at the treatment plant.

Oh, yes. There is one other option when it comes to kitchen scraps. How about a nice fat pig?

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