I spent the morning before our wedding ceremony unclogging my parents’ garbage disposal unit in their sink. Someone (might have been me) tried to run what looked like—after I pulled it out—a combination of lemon peels and a whole two-day-old pizza down the sink. Had I not been pondering greater mysteries in life, I probably would have wondered who came up with the idea of putting a blender in your drain pipe.
John W. Hammes of Racine, Wisconsin, developed the idea for the in sink food waste disposal in 1927 and is said to have spent around 10 years refining his invention. He obtained patents for the invention in 1935 and started the In-Sink-Erator Manufacturing Company to sell the machines in 1938. Wikipedia says the name is a pun on incinerator.
The idea was slow to catch on. Although dumping garbage in water had long been an accepted practice, municipal treatment of wastewater was becoming a concern. Eying treatment costs, municipalities were very reluctant to embrace an invention that might add to that burden. Indeed, it was illegal to own a garbage disposal in New York City until 1997.
However, the household garbage disposal promised to greatly reduce municipal solid waste by running a large portion of its organic content down the drain. As communities began to introduce curbside collection and discovered the unpleasant costs associated with collecting and disposing of garbage, they took a second look at the InSinkErator.
A gentleman named Morris M. Cohn of Schenectady, New York, author of Sewers for a Growing America, became a fervent promoter of the household garbage disposer. In 1950, the town of Jasper, Indiana installed garbage disposers in all the town’s household kitchen sinks and simultaneously stopped collecting wet garbage. According to the town’s mayor, this was progress. This became known as the “Jasper Plan.”
In 1992, Bill Rathje published a follow-up to this story, stating that he had contacted Jasper’s street commissioner. Jasper still declined to collect wet garbage and even fined those residents whose garbage was found to contain food slops; however, they had not been able to dispense with the curbside collection of non-wet garbage and their landfill needed to expand.
InSinkErators and other household garbage disposers undoubtedly reduce the amount of wet garbage put out for curbside collection. I imagine that this also increases the amount of sewage sludge produced by local wastewater treatment facilities, although I haven’t found any evidence to this point. Sludge is usually spread on agricultural land or converted into fertilizer pellets, and occasionally it is landfilled.
From our other research, it seems obvious that the more we can reduce the amount of food waste we put in our trash cans, the more sustainable we will be. Unfortunately, running your food slops down the garbage disposal seems to be one of the more inefficient ways to reduce the food waste in your trash can.