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How to clean a garbage disposal and get rid of that smell

A kitchen sink with a garbage disposal filled with vegetable peelings
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Everyone should know how to clean a garbage disposal. This hidden appliance can be found under the kitchen sink and is built with convenience in mind. Once you’ve finished your meal, you simply tip the scraps down the drain, turn on the tap, switch on the power, and the garbage disposal takes care of the rest. The remains are ground down, then rinsed away, saving you from dealing with a smelly trash can. 

The thing is, as food is flushed through the system, small pieces can get caught up in the unit. These decay and rot over time, resulting in a smelly sink which you can’t seem to rinse away. The solution isn’t as simple as knowing how to unclog a drain, but it’s still possible to clean a garbage disposal. Here, we will take you through what to do step-by-step, so you can get your sink smelling fresh again.  

How to clean a garbage disposal 

What you'll need

Dish soap

Sponge

Flashlight

Tongs (optional)

Protective gloves

Microfiber cloth

Long-handled scrubber brush

Ice cubes and kosher salt or

Baking soda and white distilled vinegar

Citrus peels (optional)

1. First of all, you’ll want to disconnect the power. Switch off the unit and flip the circuit breaker to your kitchen — this is to stop the garbage disposal from accidentally switching on while you’re cleaning it. Be sure to check it's switched off before starting to clean it. 

2. Next, remove the baffle and wash it thoroughly using warm, soapy water and a sponge. If it’s dishwasher safe you can also run it through a cycle. Leave the baffle removed for now. 

3. Shine a flashlight down into the unit to see what you’re dealing with and to check for blockages. If you spot a blockage, you’re going to have to remove it manually using a pair of tongs, such as the Winco Stainless Steel Utility Tong ($5.15, Amazon (opens in new tab)). Just be sure to keep your distance from the impellers as you do this and wear protective gloves if possible. Do not reach in to pull out the blockage yourself, as this could be dangerous.  

A hand holding a pair of stainless steel tongs

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

4. Next, you can clean the ceiling of the unit by wiping a damp microfiber cloth around it from the underside of the drain. This will be a bit awkward, but it takes care of any food which may have splashed back while being ground down.

5. Now, if you noticed that the impellers were covered in food earlier when you used your flashlight, you can clean these yourself, but you must do so very carefully. While wearing protective gloves and using a long-handled scrubber brush, such as the OXO Good Grips Deep Clean Brush Set ($10.90, Amazon (opens in new tab)), you can scrub the impellers clean with warm, soapy water. Try to hold the flashlight over the drain as you do this, so you can see what you’re doing clearly, and make sure you keep your distance from the impellers once again.  

6. Reconnect the power, replace the baffle, and flush your garbage disposal unit through with some hot water while running to wash away any residue. Do this for about 20 seconds. 

7. You now have a couple of options for the next step.

Salt being poured down a garbage disposal unit

(Image credit: Shutterstock)
  • Fill the unit with ice cubes until they reach the brim and tip one cup of Kosher salt on top. Then run cold water through the system with the power on until the ice is processed. This will help scrub the impellers clean. 
  • Alternatively, you can pour down ½ cup of baking soda, then leave it to sit for 30 minutes or so. This will help deodorize the drain. Once time is up, pour ½ cup of white distilled vinegar on top. The two should react and start to fizz, removing any blockages they come into contact with. Wait for a few minutes for the fizzing to stop and then rinse away while the disposer is running.  

8. If your garbage disposal still smells at this point, cut up some citrus peels, such as lemon and lime and feed them through gradually with running water while the unit is switched on. This won’t do anything in terms of cleaning, but it will refresh the fragrance. 

A garbage disposal unit with citrus peels down it

(Image credit: Future)

Your garbage disposal should be looking, and smelling, like new again by this point. If things still don’t smell right, you can repeat from step 7 as necessary, but if there’s still no luck, you might have to call in a professional as the blockage may be deeper.

How to keep your garbage disposal clean 

  • Make sure you leave water running for as long as necessary to fully flush through any foods. The water should still be running for about seven seconds once the grinding has finished. 
  • Always feed food through a garbage disposal gradually and don’t grind too much food in a single session. 1-2 cups is enough.  
  • Don’t leave your unit running for longer than necessary. Follow the manual’s guidance for maximum run time — this is usually about 30 seconds to one minute. 
  • Don’t put the wrong foods down your garbage disposal. This includes celery stalks, coffee grounds, egg shells, grease and oil. 

When should I clean my garbage disposal? 

Most people forget to clean their garbage disposal and only realize it needs cleaning when it starts to smell. A smelly drain is indeed a clear indicator that you need to deep clean your garbage disposal. However, you should also keep an eye on the baffle as this will need cleaning more regularly. Remove and check it for food debris every week and clean as necessary.  

Katie looks after everything homes-related, from kitchen appliances to gardening tools. She also covers smart home products too, so is the best point of contact for any household advice! She has tested and reviewed kitchen appliances for over 6 years, so she knows what to look for when finding the best. Her favorite thing to test has to be stand mixers as she loves to bake in her spare time.