How to clean garbage disposal units safely in three easy steps

They're incredible at dealing with kitchen waste, but knowing how to clean garbage disposal units is essential for keeping them fresh and clean

Clear water running down a garbage disposal drain
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It's not the most glamorous task, we know, but learning how to clean garbage disposal units is luckily pretty simple. 

Undertaking a little regular maintenance will make your kitchen more hygienic, as well as saving you washing your hard-earned money down the drain by preventing the need for professional help later. 

Garbage disposals are super convenient, and a kitchen essential for many of us. They work by grinding up solid food waste into much smaller pieces, so that they can be disposed of more easily. Plus, they are more environmentally friendly than simply tossing food waste into landfills. However, to avoid costly repairs and premature replacement, you have to care for them properly. If you weren't fully aware that garbage disposal units even needed maintenance, don't worry—you're not alone. 

To make this kitchen cleaning task as painless as possible, we've compiled a simple guide on how to clean your garbage disposal in three easy steps.

How often to clean your garbage disposal?

If you're wondering how to clean garbage disposal units, the first question that might come to mind might be 'how often do I need to do this?' 

If you use your garbage disposal daily and generally pour a fair bit of food down it, then you should clean it once a week. If you use it less regularly, once every two weeks should be plenty. Luckily though, it shouldn't be too much of a chore as a weekly task.   

stainless steel sink

(Image credit: Getty Images)

How to clean garbage disposal units in 3 steps

Once you know the steps for how to clean garbage disposal units, you'll realize it's much easier (and more satisfying) than most people think. In fact, it only requires three basic steps.

Important: Before you begin, always make sure the power is off before removing any part of your disposal or inserting any tools into the drain.

1. Clean the splash guard

Since this area is where unpleasant smells can come from, this step is important when working out how to clean garbage disposal units.

The splash guard can be cleaned pretty easily; either wash it by hand using baking soda or dish soap in warm water, or simply remove it and run it through a dishwasher cycle. It'll come out sparkling.

2. Remove any food residue or stuck items

With the splash guard removed and the power still off, use a flashlight to inspect the inside of the disposal (from the top—no need to get under the sink!). Look for any chunks of food (or non-food) items that might be lodged in crevices or stuck on any of the internal parts. If you find something, use tongs or pliers to gently remove it. Never put your hands or fingers into the disposal no matter what; always use tongs or pliers to retrieve anything from inside the drain.

3. Grind the cleaning ingredients

Once you've cleaned the splash guard and removed any residue from the inside surfaces and parts, there's one last step in the how to clean garbage disposal units plan. And there are two options for this step, depending on which you prefer and what you have to hand in your kitchen.

Option 1: With the disposal off, we recommend you pour three thin slices of any citrus fruit (lemons work well), and a couple of ice cubes down the disposal. With the water off, run the disposal until you hear it finish grinding. Once that's done, keep the disposal on and run cold water for 30 seconds. You could also pour a little bit of bleach down it to get rid of any remaining food scraps.

Option 2: Alternatively, you could use the baking soda and vinegar trick. A great trick for also cleaning grout, experts suggest pouring a half cup of baking soda down the drain and leaving it there for about 30 minutes to absorb odors. Then add a cup of vinegar.

baking soda

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The mixture will then begin to foam, which will agitate any stuck-on food inside your disposal and will help to remove it. After a few minutes, you can run hot water to clear all the mixture out. This is also a great trick for learning how to unblock a sink, and for how to clean a stainless steel sink.

Experts also suggest grinding up two cups of ice and a cup of table salt in the disposal—this acts as an abrasive to thoroughly clean the blades. Finishing this cleaning combination with citrus peel adds a fresh scent, enhancing the sense of your disposal unit being truly clean.  

How to properly maintain your garbage disposal

As well as knowing how to clean garbage disposal units regularly, there are other things that you can do to ensure that yours stays in the best shape possible generally. Here are some things that are useful to know to help avoid unnecessary damage to your unit.

  • Don't put certain food items in it: Garbage disposals aren't designed to dispose of every item that passes through your kitchen—there are certain items you just shouldn't put into them, much like our dishwashers. Generally, it’s good to avoid putting shells, fats, oils, grease, artichokes, corn husks, large amounts of vegetable peel, or any non-food items into your disposal. Why? Because these things can cause damage, excess build-up of residue or even obstructions in your plumbing system. It’s also a good idea to not put large quantities of starch in your disposal; a little macaroni left on your plate after dinner is fine, but larger amounts of potato, macaroni, and rice should go in the trash instead.
  • Don't use commercial garbage disposal cleaners: Commercial cleaners may seem like the right way to go when cleaning your oven, but when it comes to cleaning your garbage disposal, the DIY method is recommended by experts. This is because some cleaners contain chemicals that can actually damage the disposal's metal parts, and this will later cost you money to replace. 
  • Run cold water every day: During daily use, it's good practice to run the cold water for a few seconds before, during, and after putting your disposal to work. Once it stops, give it one final flush—using cold water solidifies any fats so they won't gum up the works. While this may seem excessive, a Consumer Reports Lab experiment using clear pipes found that food particles tend to float in the water then settle when the disposal stops, meaning they can be trapped inside the unit. The final flush takes care of it by rinsing them through the system.

There you have it: how to clean garbage disposals in three easy steps! Following this guide on a weekly basis should help keep your disposal running like a dream for years to come.