How to Clean a Garbage Disposal

When was the last time you cleaned your garbage disposal? Out of sight, out of mind, right?

If you can’t remember when you last cleaned it (or know you never have), it’s time to add a little line to your to-do list!

When a garbage disposal backs up, more often than not, you’ll first notice the unpleasant odor (or that floating soapy lettuce leaf — yikes). We’ll show you how to clean it, so you never have to deal with the mess and hassle of it malfunctioning.

If your garbage disposal is struggling, we’ve also included a few ways you can troubleshoot to get it back to tip-top shape.

Keep reading, and you’ll also find a list of things to avoid putting down your disposal and regular maintenance hacks once it’s all sparkly clean!

How Does a Garbage Disposal Work?

Here’s a brief overview of the main mechanisms involved in a typical garbage disposal unit.

Contrary to popular belief, not every garbage disposal on the market has blades. The inner wall of the shredder ring has tiny sharp grooves. These grooves act as a grinder, chopping up whatever flows down the drain and ends up inside the grinding chamber.

The unit itself lives underneath the sink. It has a small motor connected to a power source via a plug or hardwired into your home’s electrical system.

When turned on, the motor rotates the impeller and chops up whatever’s in the grinding chamber (a.ka. — the spot you never want to put your hand).

It cuts food waste into tiny bits, usually 2mm or smaller. The impeller and plate system direct the itty-bitty pieces down the plumbing pipes with the water flow.

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The Pros of Regular Cleaning

The good news is:

Regularly cleaning your garbage disposal is easy and requires little-to-no elbow grease.

Create and stick to a cleaning schedule. The cleaning methods required aren’t very labor intensive at all. Perhaps every time you clean your kitchen or fridge, add the garbage disposal to your list.

Regular scouring helps eliminate the accumulation of buildup and gunk, which interfere with how well your garbage disposal functions. If left too long, both your garbage disposal and pipes can end up severely backed up.

Regular cleaning also eliminates odors — you’ve probably experienced the unpleasantness of a smelly garbage disposal. Plus, it cuts through the greasy grime and rotting food that can gather there, out of sight, while you’re busy doing other things.

As with other kitchen appliances, a little TLC will prolong the lifespan of your disposal, saving you money and the hassle of replacing it.

 Related: How to Clean Your Home Air Filter

DIY Hacks to Getting a Clean Garbage Disposal

kitchen sink with garbage disposal
Here we cover dealing with a clog that has your kitchen sink full of water — plus how to get your disposal as good as new again.

If this is the first time you’ve cleaned your garbage disposal, you may need to dedicate a little more time to the task, as it’s probably overdue for a deep clean.

Once the big scour and scrub are out of the way, the cleaning you do as part of your regular schedule will be less involved because your unit will be gleaming after following these steps!

Clogged Garbage Disposal?

If you’ve got a kitchen sink full of standing water on your hands, you’ll need to deal with that before you can get to cleaning.

Make sure you turn off the power to your garbage disposal. You can do this via the breaker panel or by unplugging it, depending on how it’s connected to a power source.

You can scoop out the water in the sink and put it into a bucket. Or use a flat plunger (different from those used for toilets, called “flange” plungers) to try and unclog the pileup.

Once the water is gone, use tongs or pliers and stick them down into the drain. Feel around, and try to grasp whatever’s there that’s blocking the grinding chamber and impeding the movement of the impellers.

Sometimes it helps to train the beam of a flashlight into the drain. That way, you can see what’s causing the issue and better understand what you’re working with.

Deep Cleaning Your Garbage Disposal 

Once you think you’ve cleared the blockage, remove and clean the rubber splash guard. Pull it out through the drain, and use an old toothbrush or scrub brush and dish soap to remove all the built-up grime and “yuck.” When it’s all clean, set it aside.

Now it’s time to get to work cleaning the garbage disposal.

Here’s a simple and effective solution you can mix yourself from ingredients you may already have.

Homemade Cleaning Solution for Garbage Disposal

You just need two household staples:

  • ½ Cup Baking Soda
  • 1 Cup of Vinegar

Pour the baking soda and the white vinegar down the sink drain, put a stopper over the drain, and allow the solution to sit for 20 minutes. The plug will help concentrate the “fizz” action from the mixture, allowing the reaction to eat away at some of the accumulation and buildup.

After 20 minutes, unplug the stopper, run the faucet on the hot water setting, or pour in boiling water, allowing the water to drain.

Next, carefully reinstall the splash guard, and reconnect the power to the garbage disposal.

How to Clean the Blades

Take a few cups of ice, and put the ice cubes down the drain. Add a half cup of rock salt, and turn on the garbage disposal while running cool water.

Salt and ice provide the perfect abrasiveness, scrubbing off whatever last stubborn food particles or grime remain.

If it still isn’t draining properly, this could mean that your pipes are clogged. In this case, try using a drain cleaner and follow the instructions listed on the bottle.

If that still doesn’t work to clear the obstruction, you may need to call a plumber.

Finishing Up

Once those steps are complete, you can scrub the sink and drain area. Get in and around the drain’s underside, and clean the remaining gunk around the drain.

For this, you can use hot soapy water, dish soap is fine, and an old toothbrush or scrub brush with a handle. Start scrubbing around the areas that still look a little grubby. Using a tool with a handle is best, as it saves you from having to stick your whole hand down the garbage disposal. Not something you want to get accustomed to doing.

Lastly, take the citrus peels from one fruit — lemon, lime, or orange all work well — and grind them in the disposal. The fresh scent is invigorating, a pleasant reward for a job well done.

Regular Cleaning & Maintenance

Once the deep cleaning is out of the way, try to clean your garbage disposal at least every other week. Or, after masticating an exceptionally large volume of food scraps!

It may sound counterintuitive, but if the sink contents are greasy, run cold water. Cold water will solidify the grease, so it continues to drain and doesn’t gunk up the unit.

To keep your unit running well, use the baking soda and vinegar mixture every other week, and finish with some ice cubes and salt.

Some people use bleach to clean their disposal. However, this is not recommended, at least in a high concentration, as it can damage your water pipes.

If making your own cleaning mixture isn’t your thing, you can buy garbage disposal cleaners on Amazon or other retailers. Some have the bonus of deodorizing and protecting the unit.

Ready to clean and organize your entire home? Start here: Home Organization Ideas: A Room-by-Room Checklist for a Happy Home

What’s Safe to Grind: Dos and Don’ts of What to Put in Your Garbage Disposal

broken boiled egg shells in pan

Even if your garbage disposal can handle something, it doesn’t mean it won’t eventually lead to clogged pipes.

Take coffee grounds, for example. They don’t pose any harm to your garbage disposal. Yet, before long, your pipes will become packed as the used grounds from your morning coffee gather, and as a result, the water — and whatever’s in it — will back up.

It’s best to avoid putting starchy foods, such as potato peels, in your garbage disposal. When water hits them, they expand, and when you run the garbage disposal, it blends into a thick goop, almost like mashed potatoes. The thickness and viscosity may damage the garbage disposal motor.

Here are some other things you should avoid putting down the garbage disposal:

  • Eggshells
  • Corn husks
  • Avocado pits
  • Bones
  • Banana peels
  • Coffee grounds
  • Celery and other stringy, fibrous substances
  • Grease and oil
  • Onion skins
  • Dry powdery expandable things
  • Uncooked rice or pasta

Always consult the owner’s manual for a complete comprehensive guide.

Here are things that you can safely put through the garbage disposal:

  • Liquids
  • Soft foods
  • Chopped foods (as long as they aren’t any of the ones listed above)

Whenever you run your garbage disposal, make sure you’re also running water from the tap.

See also: 5 Items to Never Put Down Your Apartment Sink Drain

How to Fix Common Garbage Disposal Malfunctions

If your garbage disposal isn’t functioning, here’s a guide to help you troubleshoot some common issues.

The Impeller Plate Isn’t Rotating 

Your garbage disposal contains two oblong impeller plates whose job is to take the food bits and direct them to the shredder ring.

You’ll know they’re not rotating when you turn on your garbage disposal and hear a low humming sound.

The humming you hear is the sound of the motor running, even though the rest of the disposal is not working properly. In order to get them moving again, you will have to rotate them manually.

It’s easier and less dangerous than it sounds. You’ll start by turning off the electricity that powers the unit. Do this either by unplugging the disposal or shutting off the breaker if it’s hardwired into your home.

Next, you’ll need a garbage disposal wrench (you can find them at your local Home Depot or hardware store).

From the bottom of the unit underneath the sink, use the wrench to rotate the flywheel (the part that spins the impeller).

There should be a flywheel turning hole at the base of your unit. Rotate clockwise; this should free the impeller or flywheel and get it to turn again.

Alternatively, you can try to stick something, such as a handle from a wooden spoon, through the drain opening and try and free up the impeller and flywheel that way.

Stuck Blades

Food waste can accumulate when the blades get stuck, resulting in a clog and a sink that won’t drain.

Clear the water from the sink by bailing it out and pouring it into a bucket or using a plunger specifically designed for use in sinks.

If your garbage disposal has a water line from the dishwasher, use a clamp to pinch off the line and prevent a backfill of water from the dishwasher.

At the bottom of the garbage disposal, you’ll see what’s called a blade access hole. Using an Allen wrench, insert it in the bottom of the hole, rotating it back and forth to slowly break up the blockage and get the blades moving again.

Disposal Doesn’t Work

If you turn on the disposal and … nothing, you should first check the electrical connectivity.

There should be a “reset” button on the bottom of the unit, or the side, toward the bottom.

Press the reset button, then try once more to turn it on.

If it’s still not working, the wiring or another issue is likely the culprit and may require an expert.

If you’re into doing your own home repairs, read: AC Repair: Your Step-By-Step Troubleshooting Guide for Fixing AC Issues


We hope these tips helped and your garbage disposal is back to being a force to contend with: clean, sharp, and powerfully grinding through all the scraps.

Proper maintenance and a little understanding of how it all works make it much easier to maintain, diagnose, and troubleshoot.