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The Garbage Disposal: What Else Can It Do?
by Marjorie Dorfman

Have you ever wondered whether garbage disposals are good or bad? Do they do anything at all for us except pulverize the remains of our last meal? Read on for some grinding and halting answers.

Disposing of garbage has been a problem for mankind even before the star of the Sopranos television series became an executive in the area of "waste management." It became an issue around 1000 BC as people first began to establish permanent settlements. In 400 BC the first municipal dump was established in ancient Athens. Here, in all probability, thoughts of greatness mingled and rested on the smelly laurels of orange and lemon rinds, pomegranates, onions and grapes (sour and otherwise). In Medieval Europe as well as Colonial America, pigs roamed free through city streets devouring what was left of the blue and other color plate specials of the day. Pigs, however, also left their own waste behind and that coupled with thousands upon thousands of horse droppings turned some cities like New York into what many visitors described as "nasal disasters." On some streets the smell was described as "bad eggs dissolved in ammonia."

In 1657, New Amsterdam (New York) passed a law forbidding casting waste into the streets. Colonists in Virginia commonly buried their trash (that is, when they weren’t preoccupied with burying other colonists). Holes were commonly filled with building debris, broken glass or ceramic objects, oyster shells and animal bones. They also threw away hundreds of suits of armor that were sent from across the Atlantic by well meaning relatives to protect them from the slings and arrows of the native Indians who had the nerve to never be too happy to see them. Benjamin Franklin utilized slaves to carry Philadelphia’s waste downstream. (Weren’t they lucky!)? In 1834 Charleston, West Virginia, enacted a law protecting vultures from hunters because they ate the city’s garbage. The first incinerator was built in the United States in 1885 on Governors Island in New York harbor and, between then and 1908, 180 garbage incinerators were built throughout the country.

As far as this impromptu, incomplete and completely subjective study on garbage removal is concerned, you must forgive the digressions. The importance of history is always how it pertains to our own lives and, for me, that’s when the garbage disposal came into my life. At that time, it surely was a phenomenon to be revered. Coming from Brooklyn, New York, and growing up in an very old house, I never met a garbage disposal until I moved into my home in Pennsylvania about twelve years ago. Since the 1970s garbage disposals had been illegal in 70 per cent of New York and remained so until 1997. (They were only allowed in areas where storm and sewage drains were separate, in parts of Staten Island and small sections of the other boroughs. Someone up there finally made up their mind.)

One of my earliest memories of the wondrous machine was not first hand; it comes from an episode of the old Dick Van Dyke Show. One day Laura Petrie accidentally flushed a family heirloom down the mouth of a disposal. Lovingly bequeathed to her by her mother-in-law, the heirloom in question was a large, ugly brooch in the shape of the United States, with stones marking each state where a Petrie was born. The disposal eliminated just about everyone trying to get by from Maine to Florida, but I can’t be precise about all the states involved. Still, one wonders how this machine came to be anyway.

The garbage disposal has been with us since 1927 when a man named John W. Hammes, patented the very first one. Six years later, in 1935, General Electric began producing and marketing a Garbage Disposall. In 1948, the American Public Health Association predicted that the garbage disposal would cause the garbage can to "ultimately follow the privy and become an anachronism." In that same year Fresh Kills landfill opened in Staten Island, New York, and by 1986 became the world’s largest city dump. Fresh Kills and the Great Wall of China are, by the way, the only two man-made objects visible from space!

Whether or not disposals have environmental significance is an issue open to debate. The fact that we are a throwaway society, reminded one hundred times a day to buy things, but never to repair, reuse or give them away, makes the disposal a matter with philosophical and cultural ramifications as well. Some things are good and some are bad, just as in all classifications, animal, mineral, human or even vegetable. Consider the points below.

On the good side, disposals have reduced urban and landfill waste of organic material, which rots, smells, attracts flies and rodents and lends itself to disease transmission. The machines also offer considerable convenience in cleaning dishes and food preparation. Also, if you dump garbage into the trash, it usually stinks. If you put it in the disposal there’s no smell at all. (No fingers either, if you are not quick enough and don’t pay real good attention.)

On the bad side, disposals increase the Biological Oxygen Demand load to municipal wastewater treatment plants, thus increasing maintenance costs in these plants. (This is probably why New York City banned them and was so slow to bring them back). The disposal has made us lazy. I myself once made the mistake of flushing mussel shells down there and the mess caused me to send in the plumbers. (The clowns were there; they were me.) Almost everything that goes down the disposal could be used as either some type of animal feed (especially chickens and pigs) or could be utilized for composting. Disposals in rural areas for this reason are ludicrous. They also overload limited septic systems and utilize electricity and water resources that would otherwise not be used.

Safety aspects must also be considered. It makes as much sense to keep your hands out of the disposal while it's running as it does not to park on the railroad tracks. Still, there seems to be some question among the accident prone among us. One woman asked: "If disposals really were that dangerous, wouldn’t there be all sorts of safety advertisements and mandatory locking devices?" Well, running with scissors and riding upside down on a motorcycle are certainly potentially dangerous situations, but do we see any laws forbidding that? C’mon lady! Danger is as danger does, and it lurks everywhere when common sense is out to lunch.

Some argue whether potato peels and the like really should go down there. I do it all the time as well as onion peels and have had no problem, but others claim it makes quite a mess. (Those mussel shells always keep me humble, however.) Use your own judgement while deciding what to throw down or no, which if you are someone who runs with scissors or rides upside down on a motorcycle couldn’t be that good in the first place. Keep the machine fresh smelling too. I feed my disposal a lemon every few weeks and it works like Listerine. I’ve also heard that drizzling a bit of bleach once in a while does the job. Still another method involves a mysterious blue liquid I have heard about but don’t know where to buy. It comes in a pouch, I am told, and you drop it in the disposal, run the water, stand back and watch the foam. Eventually the tide recedes and all that’s left is a clean smelling disposal ready to do your bidding. (This option will appeal to the voyeurs among us.)

And so, when one wonders what else one’s garbage disposal can do, the answer, alas, must be nothing at all. So ask not what your garbage disposal can do for you, but rather what you can do for your garbage disposal A one-trick pony has its place in this world and consider that this pony is one you will never have to clean up after!

Long live the comfort and convenience of the garbage disposal!

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Copyright 2004