How to Clean Your Garbage Disposal

Perry Santanachote

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Your garbage disposal has a seemingly magical way of making your leftovers disappear down the drain. But with each use, food debris builds up and eventually makes your sink stink. The good news? There’s an easy remedy using simple ingredients you probably already have in the kitchen.

Here’s how to clean your garbage disposal when odors develop, plus general best practices for everyday use that will help keep the smells at bay.

“Most odors that come out of the garbage disposal are coming from food buildup on the splash guard,” says Alyssa Wiegand, product manager at Moen. That's the removable black rubber panel that sits atop your sink's drain hole. You can scrub it with warm water and baking soda or simply toss it in the top rack of a dishwasher.

Food residue can also gum up the walls of the garbage disposal. A few common household ingredients can take care of that.

“Ice cubes help break up any food stuck to the disposal, while baking soda and bleach kill germs, and lemon provides a bit of freshness,” says Eric Schultz, director of product management at InSinkErator.

If you use your disposal daily, it's a good idea to follow these steps once a week to clean it:

Step 1: With the disposal and faucet turned off, put six ice cubes in the chamber followed by 1 tablespoon of baking soda, three thin lemon slices, and 1 teaspoon of bleach. Top it all off with six more ice cubes.

Step 2: Turn the disposal on without running water until you hear the grinding stop.

Step 3: With the motor still running, flush with cold water for 30 seconds.

What Not to Do

Schultz advises homeowners to avoid using commercial garbage disposal cleaners. “Many don't do much to clean residue, while some contain corrosive chemicals that can damage the disposal’s metal components,” he says. 

For the same reason, never put lye or chemical drain cleaners into a garbage disposal.

One major safety note: Although garbage disposals don’t have sharp blades (they have impellers that use centrifugal force to spin food up against a stationary grind ring), manufacturers caution against reaching your hands inside the disposal to clean it. You’re not going to slice off an appendage, but you could still nick yourself.

General Usage Tips

To keep gunk and odors to a minimum, make sure you’re always using the disposal with water—before, during, and after grinding food.

“Oftentimes, odors from the sink actually come from foods that haven’t fully exited the disposal or drainpipes,” says Wiegand. “You can't see it but you can probably smell it.”

Run cold water before you turn on the disposal, while grinding food, and then for about 7 seconds after you hear the grinding stop. These three stages of water flow allow food to thoroughly move through the pipes after it leaves the disposal.

In our tests, we found that one last flush of water, once the disposal is off, is also a good idea.

In the lab, we installed each disposal in a custom rig attached to clear pipes so that our engineers could watch for clogs. They noticed that during grinding, even tiny ground-up food particles stayed suspended in water flowing through the P-trap, the squiggly part of the drainpipe that prevents sewer gases from creeping back into the house.

“The particles settled to the bottom of the trap once we turned the water off,” says Larry Ciufo, garbage disposal project leader at CR. “Turning the water back on would flush the remaining particles away.”

Beyond proper usage and occasional cleaning, garbage disposals don’t require much else in terms of maintenance. But you can extend the life of a disposal beyond the eight- to 10-year average life expectancy if you’re careful about what foods you put into the disposal.

Best Garbage Disposals From CR's Tests

Here are five impressive garbage disposals from our tests, listed in order of CR rank. See our garbage disposal buying guide for more information, and for test results on almost 40 models, check our garbage disposal ratings.



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