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The Green Life: Down the Drain: Are Garbage Disposals Greener Than We Thought?

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August 12, 2011

Down the Drain: Are Garbage Disposals Greener Than We Thought?

Garbage disposalWe know that in-sink garbage disposals make doing the dishes easier; just scrape, scrub, go. For that reason, more than 50% of American households use one. But controversy has raged over the appliance's environmental impact: It wastes the water needed to flush food down the drain and through the sewers. Plus, grease clogs damage municipal plumbing, costing public funds to fix.

But new research, sponsored by InSinkerator (in a clever marketing scheme, shall we add) shows that garbage disposals, on many levels, may be an eco-friendly choice. Using life-cycle analysis, a powerful tool to uncover the environmental costs and benefits of a product or process, InSinkErator researchers found that using a garbage disposal is greener than tossing banana peels into the landfill. LCA takes into account everything from “gate to grave,” from the bags you'd put in your trash can to the manufacturing of the garbage disposal unit itself.

The study concluded that if 30,000 households transitioned to in-sink garbage disposals from traditional landfill use, they'd reduce their community’s greenhouse-gas emissions by 2,100 tons, an amount equal to eliminating 4.6 million miles of car traffic. If your city happens to be progressive enough to integrate anaerobic digestion and co-generation into their waste-water treatment plant, like Milwaukee or San Francisco, liquefied food waste can be turned into fertilizer or converted to usable energy.

However, take all this with a grain of salt. This is a study done by a company whose livelihood depends on convincing you that a garbage disposal will save the planet. In truth, most cities do not have fancy waste-water treatment plants, and about 30% of the solid waste swirling down your drain will still end up at a landfill. Still, the moral of the story is that landfills are the worst place for food to end up. Composting is the best option, but if you can't fit a bin on your patio, then don't feel too bad about tossing that banana peel down the drain.

--Christa Morris

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