How To Clean Your Garbage Disposal: 10 Easy Steps

Your straightforward guide to a clean and odor-free garbage disposal–plus tips for keeping it that way!

Ah, the garbage disposal. It’s kind of like...magic. Have any food waste you’d rather never see again? No problem! Throw it in, grind it up, and you never have to give it a second thought!

Well, that is, until something in your kitchen starts smelling not so great. If you’ve already checked to make sure it’s not coming from your fridge or your dishwasher, that odor just might be the result of built-up slime, gunk, and bits of food waste that didn’t quite make it all the way down the drain and into the grinding chamber (ooof). To make matters worse, the dark, moist climate of your garbage disposal is the perfect breeding ground for bacteria, which is most definitely not what you want in your kitchen of all places!

Why it’s important to clean your garbage disposal

Your garbage disposal therefore requires some routine maintenance to keep it both fresh and functional. The good news is that—as unpleasant as cleaning out your garbage disposal might sound—it’s actually surprisingly easy. All you need are some basic household items and about 20 minutes. The icing on the cake? For the majority of those minutes, you just have to let your cleaning mixture sit and do the work for you while you scroll through your phone or take the dog out for a quick jaunt around the block.

How often to clean your garbage disposal

So how often are you supposed to be cleaning your garbage disposal anyway? It depends on how much use your garbage disposal gets, but assuming you’re in the habit of using it relatively often (like most of us are), you should really aim to clean it weekly (or at least bi-weekly). A good rule of thumb: if you have a smell coming from your garbage disposal, you’re not cleaning it enough.

Products you’ll need to clean your garbage disposal

To get started, all you need are a few items you probably already have lying around the house (we told you this would be easy!). Here’s a list:

  • A pair of tongs or needle-nose pliers
  • Baking soda
  • Rock salt
  • Ice
  • Vinegar
  • A mild dish detergent like Dawn
  • A scrub brush or toothbrush
  • Lemon (citrus) peels

Got them? You’re ready!

How to clean your garbage disposal

  1. First, disconnect the power to the garbage disposal. Seriously, do this. A clean garbage disposal is not worth losing a finger. Garbage disposals are typically plugged into the wall somewhere beneath the sink. If you can’t find the outlet that yours is plugged into, you can always just turn off the circuit switch that generates electricity for the sink area instead. Whichever option you opt for, double check that the power to the disposal is deactivated by flipping the on/off switch before attempting to clean.
  2. Clean your splash guard (also known as the baffle or shield). This is the round rubber piece between the sink and disposal itself that helps keep water and the bits and pieces you wash down the drain from splashing back up again when you run your disposal (and helps muffle the noise, too). To clean your splash guard, pull it out from the drain and scour with a scrub brush or toothbrush and a mild dish detergent like Dawn. Alternatively, a paste made of a mixture of vinegar and baking soda also works like a charm. Be sure to get the underside of the splash guard, too! When you’re done, set it aside.
  3. Next, shine a flashlight down the drain and into the garbage disposal to check for miscellaneous objects that may have become lodged in the impellers (e.g., chicken bones, bottle caps, silverware, wedding rings). Please please please: do not stick your hand into the disposal. We know, you turned the disposal off, but it’s still very possible to accidentally nick your finger. Instead, use a pair of tongs or needle-nose pliers to remove any objects trying to hitch a ride down the drain.
  4. To clean your disposal, dump a full tray of ice cubes and ½ cup of rock salt into the drain. Restore power to the garbage disposal and run the faucet and disposal at the same time, making a salty drain smoothie that will knock the grime free from the disposal’s impellers. Steer clear of ready-made cleaners. Store-bought garbage disposal cleaners aren’t necessarily all that effective and can actually contain chemicals that are corrosive to your garbage disposal. Moreover, when you run your disposal after you’re done cleaning, you risk these chemicals spraying back up into the air and all over the area around your sink–and you really don’t want potentially unsafe chemicals contaminating the space where you prepare and eat food. Instead, stick with vinegar and baking soda: they’re natural, eco-safe, cheap, and plenty strong enough to get the job done. They also happen to be excellent at neutralizing odors.
  1. Cut power to the disposal again. Yes, we made this its own step. It’s that important.
  2. Add one cup of vinegar and ½ cup of baking soda into your drain, which will cause a fizzy reaction. Let this mixture sit for about 15 minutes and work its magic. It’ll help kill any bacteria that might be growing in the drain and disposal.
  3. Mix some more vinegar and baking soda into a paste and, using a toothbrush or a scrub brush, scour all rubber parts of the garbage disposal’s neck. Bacteria can just as easily live here as in the grinding chamber itself. While you’re at it, check the splash guard once more to make sure it doesn’t need any extra love.
  1. Replace your newly clean splash guard, making sure you’ve positioned it correctly.
  2. Restore power to the garbage disposal. Plug the drain and fill your sink ¾ of the way full with warm, soapy water. Then unplug the drain and run the disposal while the water drains.
  3. As a final touch, send some citrus peels down the drain while running the disposal for a fresh, zesty aroma. This step’s particularly useful if you have an especially pungent odor you’re trying to eliminate.

Tah-dah! You’re done. That’s all there is to it!

A few more garbage disposal tips

As easy as cleaning your garbage disposal is, now that you’ve been through the process, we’re guessing you’ll want to minimize future build-up, clogs, and/or repairs. To that end, we have a couple pieces of parting advice for using and caring for your disposal:

  1. Run the water whenever you use the garbage disposal. Most of us know we’re supposed to do this, but we’re reminding you because it really is important. Turn the faucet on before grinding and keep it on until after you’ve turned the disposal off. Doing so will help ensure that all of the food waste you just washed down the drain fully exits the disposal and that partially ground pieces don’t get stuck there.
  2. Watch what you put down your garbage disposal. We know, it’s tempting to just wash anything and everything down there. But you really don’t want to do that. Even garbage disposals–invincible as they may seem–have their limits. Do your best to avoid using them for the following:
  • Fats, oils and grease. Sure, they’re liquid now, but these guys congeal over time, making a clog nearly inevitable.
  • Bones, seafood shells, and fruit pits. This one’s probably pretty self-explanatory, but bones, shells, and pits are HARD and they can push your disposal well past its limits. If you’re not in the market for a new garbage disposal and want yours to last, throw away animal bones, seafood shells, and pits instead.
  • Nuts. Toss a bunch of nuts down your drain, add some water, and grind them up. What do you have? Yep, peanut butter. In your garbage disposal. Which is going to make the work your disposal is supposed to be doing next to impossible.
  • Really fibrous vegetables. Vegetables and vegetable peels are kind of the bread and butter of garbage disposals, so to speak. But some vegetables or parts of vegetables–think corn husks and rhubarb–have fibers that can easily get tangled around your disposal’s impellers.
  • Coffee grounds. They probably seem innocuous, but coffee grounds basically turn into sludge and make clogs waaaayy more likely. Your compost bin is a much better candidate for disposing of them.
  • Pasta, rice, and bread. Weird, right? But all three of these expand when they get wet...which they absolutely will in your garbage disposal. So yeah, you’re looking at a big ol’ mess if you get in the habit of washing these down your drain.
  • Potato peels. We’re sorry to be the ones to break this to you, but potatoes peels are a no go for your garbage disposal. They can miss the impellers entirely (and potentially get stuck somewhere down the line) OR get ground up like they’re “supposed to” and turn into a starchy paste...and then you’ve basically got the same problem posed by pasta, rice, and bread.

So there you have it! Follow these guidelines–and add cleaning your garbage disposal to your regular cleaning schedule–and you should have a happy, odor-free disposal for years to come.

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