What a Garbage Disposal Taught Me About Sustainability

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
Insinkerator garbage disposal photo
CC BY-SA 2.0. Chris Winters

Chris Winters/CC BY-SA 2.0

It's official. I've given up on my "rural elitist green living illusion" and moved into town.

And my new house has a garbage disposal. With that garbage disposal came a fancy leaflet (on recycled paper of course, with lots of leaf logos everywhere) explaining why garbage disposals are the greenest thing ever.
The Downsides of Garbage Disposals
Now Pablo has previously explained why garbage disposals may actually be extremely harmful, and John Laumer has also weighed in on the extreme cost burden that widespread garbage disposal use can have on municipal water treatment plants.

I don't intend to rehash those arguments. But it did strike me as I was reading the pamphlet that this was yet another example of individual action, and appeals to individual virtue, being almost meaningless unless also addressed at a community-wide context.

Context Is Everything
The manufacturer's claims that food waste becomes energy in modern water-treatment plants equipped to capture methane, for example, is seen in a slightly different light when you realize that most water treatment plants are not outfitted with such equipment. The claim that garbage disposals prevent food waste being trucked to landfill becomes equally dubious when, as we heard from John Laumer, the solids that accumulate at many water treatment plants are separated and trucked to landfill anyway.

The point here is not whether garbage disposals are, or are not, a green choice for the individual householder. Rather, it's that sensible environmental solutions require joined up thinking and a community-wide strategy. Only with an understanding of local context and long-term planning is it possible to really chart a path to genuine greener living. Just as "100% recyclable" means very little unless there are recycling facilities nearby, the greenness of a particular product is very much dependent on the context in which it will be operated/used.

Yes, Garbage Disposals Could Be Part of the Solution
In Stockholm, for example, the promotion of garbage disposals went hand-in-hand with a municipal effort to capture biosolids and produce natural gas in the process. In Durham, North Carolina, that seems like a long way off.

Time to go set up the compost bin and remind myself, yet again, that no waste is good waste. It's also a good time to remember that being a citizen means more than being a consumer.