How to unclog a garbage disposal

Need to learn how to unclog a garbage disposal? Although not the nicest job, it is possible to unclog it without needing to call a plumber. Here we talk you through the steps.

How to unclog a garbage disposal
(Image credit: Kitchenaid)

Looking for advice on how to unclog a garbage disposal? Sure, it's not a lovely job, but it is one you can usually do yourself without having to fork out to hire a plumber. We talk you through all the steps to get the job done quickly and efficiently right here. 

Garbage disposals work by breaking up food scraps before they reach the drainpipe, they do this with blades run by an electric motor that’s attached to the underside of your kitchen sink. Tempting as it may be, not everything can be put down - food scraps are fine – meat, fruit and veg, but some items that are fibrous can get tangled in the blades – onion skin and cornhusks for example.

Oils are also a no, as are fats like butter and grease. They can form clogs that will combine with other elements and cause blockages. Food that expands is also not recommended, like pasta and some vegetables and coffee grounds can cause a thick sludge. Bones are an obvious no as are any pits from avocado or fruit.

Other key points are to feed the garbage slowly which will give it time to chop up the scraps, and make sure you keep the water running as this will help everything to drain through naturally.

So don’t panic! We have some great tips below on how to help keep your garbage disposal running smoothly and how to unclog it should you ever need to.

1. Listen for the noise it's making 

Please don’t put your hand in the garbage disposal at any point, the first thing to do is to have a listen to your unit as it could indicate the problem. If there’s a humming/whirring noise it could be that an object like a bone for example has got stuck and it’s jamming the propeller plate. You can also reset the unit a couple of times to see if that drains the water. 

2. Give it a plunge 

Sometimes, the simple things can be the most effective. If you have a plunger and the water has risen then give it a go. Make sure you cover the sink hole completely and if you have a double sink plug the other sinkhole first. Give the plunger a good strong tug repeatedly and hopefully it will remove the blockage and the water will drain away. 

unblocking a sink with a plunger

(Image credit: Getty/AndreyPopov)

3. Try the natural way 

Before grabbing the chemical concoctions from the nearby store – which aren’t recommended for garbage disposal units however tempting, opt for the natural route. Start by turning off the power via unplugging or using the breaker panel - NEVER put your hand down your disposal unit as mentioned before.

Make up a solution of ¼ cup of baking soda and ½ cup of vinegar. It may fizz a little so pour it down your sink and leave for up to 30 minutes. After that, swill it down with hot water. This can clear the clog immediately, if not, repeat a couple of times.

4. Delve a bit deeper

Turn off the power if you turned it back on at any point and using a flashlight, look inside the opening to see if you can spy any blockages. If you can then use a tool to remove it – pliers are a good choice. 

If the water drains away then you’ll know you’ve dislodged it. Believe it or not, sticking a broom handle into the drain can also work at this point. Then, turn on your faucet and switch the power to the disposal back on and see what happens. 

5. The next option 

If the unit is still making an odd noise then the grinding mechanisms in the unit are blocked. Turn everything off again at the source. Most units can be opened using a hex-head key or an allen wrench. 

Place it in the shaped hole underneath the unit and twist it a few times. This will hopefully dislodge it as this socket is connected to the impeller hub and moving it can loosen stuck objects. Reconnect everything again and turn it back on to check. 

6. Reset and reset

Sometimes simply resetting the unit after each attempt can sort out the problem, a bit like with computers! The button is usually red and on the underside of the unit. Resetting acts like a circuit breaker so give that a go after every step.

7. Double test the disposal unit

Turn the disposal back on and run the faucet, hopefully by now at least one of the above will have worked and your unit will be sounding like it always does. If not, repeat the process to remove the jam inside. If all else fails, you may have to give a plumber a call, the motor may have broken and will need to be replaced.

8. Keep your disposal unit naturally fresh

You can keep your unit smelling pleasant by cutting a lemon in half and throwing half of it in the disposal. As well as deodorizing the unit, the lemon will help to prevent a build-up of residue within it and it will smell fresh and lemony. 

Sophie Warren-Smith
Sophie Warren-Smith

Sophie has been an interior stylist and journalist for over 18 years and has worked for many of the main interior magazines during that time. On the side, as well as being the News Editor of indie magazine, 91, Sophie has a passion for flowers and colour and has recently launched an online styling course, Style with Blooms.