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The Case for the Humble Garbage Disposal

From a waste-management perspective, the in-sink tool punches far above its weight.
These scraps could be put to work.
These scraps could be put to work.Dominic Ebenbichler/Reuters

In the 1970s, officials in New York City banned in-sink kitchen garbage disposals over concerns about aging sewer systems and discharge of raw organic refuse into nearby rivers. Paper-waste recycling programs dominated conservation efforts at the time, and a green-waste management solution seemed less urgent without the looming specter of climate change. Plus, disposers weren’t an easy sell: the pulverizing devices were noisy and costly to install, their blades the stuff of kitchen-sink horror. (In fact, garbage disposers don’t use blades at all: spinning “lugs” or impellers use centrifugal force to continuously force food particles into a grind ring, which then liquefies the waste and flushes it into the sewer system.)

According to a 1997 Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) report, only about 25 percent of NYC households had a disposer in 1971. Organic waste was “the next big frontier” for the city, explains former First Deputy Mayor of New York City Norman Steisel, who played a key role in the legalization of garbage disposers during the Dinkins administration (1990-1993), and who served as Sanitation Commissioner for many years. Though Steisel recognized that the city was dependent on landfills and emitting sizable greenhouse gases, the city was still sorting out the details of its recycling program.