Dear Dot: Garbage disposal or compost? Which is best for food waste?

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Dear Dot,

As I assess peels and skins and tops and petals and stems, I often wonder: Where should I put this? It’s equally easy for me to put most scraps in the compost or down the disposal. Which is preferable?

(And, a side note: My instinct is to just drop eggshells and coffee grounds down the disposal, because they are messy. But, I know those things can be used for compost. Should I make the extra effort to put them in the compost?)

Thanks!

–Elizabeth, Brooklyn, NYC

Dear Elizabeth,

When Mr. Dot and I purchased our first home, it came with a garbage disposal. I could drop in leftovers and spoiled food, flip a switch, listen to it chew up my waste, and then peer into my drain’s abyss, which was now beautifully empty. Where did all that stuff go? I had no idea. I cared only for the convenience of a magical switch.

Had I made any effort, I would have learned that my food waste was taking the same route to a municipal water treatment facility as the stuff I flushed down my toilet, which, as we all know, is food waste in a different form. I would have learned that it isn’t the what of garbage disposals that’s potentially problematic, it’s the how much. Americans throw out an extraordinary one pound of food every single day. Our wastewater infrastructure wasn’t designed to manage anywhere close to that volume. In fact, New York City was so concerned about what its system was being asked to handle that it banned garbage disposals for about two decades, from the 70s through to 1997. Vermont strongly discourages the use of garbage disposals but hasn’t gone so far as to ban them. 

(This issue is separate from the very serious and expensive problem of fatbergs — the grease and oils that can form blockages in city pipes. Never, under any circumstances, dump used cooking oil, grease, salad dressings, and so on down your drain.)

In the hierarchy of ways to dispose of food waste, Elizabeth, garbage disposals sit somewhere between throwing food waste in the garbage (almost always bad unless your municipality is capturing methane to produce energy!) and composting (unambiguously good!). You note it’s “equally easy” for you to compost your scraps so please do exactly that. Avoiding the use of garbage disposals eases the burden on our waste treatment infrastructure, which cuts costs and reduces the risk of potential issues. 

Better still, reduce your food waste entirely, by storing food properly so it doesn’t spoil, avoiding unnecessarily throwing food out, buying only what you will use, and trying recipes that use the entirety of ingredients

And you are right to single out eggshells and coffee as particularly beneficial, adding valuable nutrients to the compost. Compost is far more magical than any switch on a garburator, turning a banana peel, for instance, into rich, nourishing mulch. 

With mulch love,

Dot

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