Back to the grind: How to clean your garbage disposal

Tyler Lacoma

Your garbage disposal is a handy tool in the middle of cooking projects, but overtime they start to grind your gears: Disposals can grow slow, get filled with gunk, and start making the kitchen stink, especially when used frequently. When this happens, your disposal needs a good cleaning. Fortunately, this is an easy DIY process, and you probably already have everything you need to get rid of those smells and invigorate your disposal performance. We’ll show you how to do it in six quick steps!

Required items: Ice cubes, salt, white vinegar, baking soda, reliable scrubbing brush

Total time for cleaning: About half an hour

  1. Prep work

Garbage Disposal Impellers
Garbage Disposal Impellers

Flickr | picasso1387

Start by turning off power to the garbage disposal – a process that may differ based on what type of disposal you have. If you have a plug-in disposal under your sink, you can simply unplug it. If your garbage disposal is a bit more built-in, then head over to your breakers/electrical panel and shut off power to the kitchen. This is a little more annoying, but safety comes first. You may also want to grab rubber gloves, a few towels, and a couple scrubbing tools — we’ve found that narrow, long-handled kitchen brushes and toothbrushes work well for later steps.

Now, take a closer look at your impellers to see if there are any obvious problems. Grab a flashlight, pull back the flaps, and peer inside to take a look at what’s going on. It’s useful for two reasons: First, if there’s anything large or inappropriate in the disposal (trapped fibers, pieces of metal, etc.) you can see them and work on digging them out before you begin cleaning. Try using a pair of pliers or similar tool to pry any unwanted objects out — and never, ever stick your hand fully down that drain, because we’ve all seen those horror movies.

Second, use the flashlight to take a look at the impellers: It’s probably not what you expected, right? Many people picture spinning blades down at the bottom of their disposal. Actually, most disposals use a series of grinding plates to work their magic. Seeing this in person is useful when practicing proper disposal behavior and understanding what happens when things go wrong. Remember, if any serious problem is interfering with disposal maintenance, contact a plumber or other professional. Even a thorough cleaning can’t fix every problem.

  1. Ice and salt

Ice Cubes
Ice Cubes

Flickr | Barta IV

You can turn your garbage disposal back on for this step. Start by applying an ice and salt combination. Take around 10-15 ice cubes and pour them into the disposal. Measure out about half a cup of salt and pour it in after the ice. Many people prefer to use rock salt, but don’t worry if you only have table salt to work with. Now flip on your garbage disposal and let it run for a few minutes. This is going to be loud: Don’t worry, the ice won’t damage your disposal, but it will need some time to grind it all up.

The ice helps grind and break apart any bits of matter that may have become stuck in your disposal. (There’s also a theory that the cold temperatures help make those particulates more brittle and easier to break.) The salt helps melt the ice down a little and, to a lesser extent, also scours the inside of the disposal.

  1. Vinegar and baking soda

vinegar
vinegar

patrickhastings/123rf

We all remember this trick from building classroom volcanoes or experimenting in the kitchen. Vinegar is acidic enough to help wear down stains and kill germs, while baking soda acts as a scouring agent that also deals with bad smells. Combine them, and the resulting chemical reaction creates foam that helps drive the vinegar deeper into the crevices of your garbage disposal. Start with half a cup of baking soda down the drain, and then slowly pour in a full cup of vinegar (preferably white vinegar). If this still makes you giggle like a kid, you can add some more.

It’s worth noting that some people like to use as much vinegar as possible to ensure a fuller cleaning. This includes freezing vinegar as ice cubes from our second step. If you have the time, vinegar, and curiosity, you can try that out. If not, don’t worry about it.

  1. Scrub

Kitchen Brush
Kitchen Brush

Flickr | David K

Don’t rinse out that vinegary foam! Instead, take your scrubbing brush and toothbrush and go to work. Scrub down the rubber folds of your garbage disposal and all their related crannies, rinsing out when necessary. Clean all the grime away, and then clean any other parts of your disposal that your brush can reach. If you need additional cleaning agent, add a little more vinegar and baking soda, this time in your sink, and use the resulting paste to help your scrubbing efforts.

  1. Flood

Kitchen Sink
Kitchen Sink

Flickr | Dean Hochman

Finally, it’s time to wash it all away. Plug up your garbage disposal (if you do not have a plug that fits in your disposal, you can usually find a plastic dish that will block it safely for this step). Fill your sink mostly full of hot water. Add a drizzle of your dish soap while the sink is filling up to create some suds. Then unblock the drain and let the water flood through the disposal all at one time. The water should carry away any bits of debris, leaving your disposal clean and smelling much better.

  1. Maintain

Disposal Garbage
Disposal Garbage

Flickr | Rhonda Fleming Hayes

Run your garbage disposal frequently to help keep it clean. Every couple of weeks or so, pour some dish soap down the disposal, or add a few lemon peels and let it run with cold water to help deal with any unpleasant smells. Remember, we tend to use our garbage disposals more around the holidays, so more frequent maintenance may be necessary if the disposal is seeing a lot of action.