How to unclog a garbage disposal – 4 easy steps to a quick fix

Don't let a blocked garbage disposal distract from an otherwise perfect kitchen. Below, experts advise on how to unclog yours

Garbage disposal
(Image credit: Alamy)

Knowing how to unclog a garbage disposal quickly, safely and without professional help is a real bonus, because when your garbage disposal is blocked it can make even the simplest of tasks a problem, from doing the dishes to draining your morning tea or coffee. 

For this reason, it's important to maintain a clean and clear garbage disposal, and to learn how to unclog it, fast. 

How to unclog a garbage disposal

Like unclogging a toilet, being able to remedy a blocked garbage disposal is a skill worth having. The first sign that you need to unclog might be that you have unsuccessfully tried to unclog a dishwasher. If the water standing in the bottom of your dishwasher isn't draining, it might be not be down to a blockage the dishwasher itself but in the garbage disposal, with dirty water backing up. 

Or, perhaps your sink just won't drain and your garbage disposal needs attention? Here's what to try first.

1. Turn off the garbage disposal

The first step is to turn off your garbage disposal for your safety. Never put your hand or any kitchen instrument or tool into it when it is switched on. 

2. Break up the blockage

With the garbage disposal turned off (and double checked), try to manually turn the blades of your garbage disposal to break up the clogged material. This will also help you identify where the blockage is. Lose objects can be pulled out with tongs.

Use a plunger to see if this loosens the last of the blockage.

3. Try ice to clean the garbage disposal

Yes, you can use ice to clean a garbage disposal.

Simply empty a tray of ice into it and set it to run, says Jake Romano, the Manager at John the Plumber (opens in new tab). 'As the garbage disposal is running, you may notice all sorts of grime and gunk rise up from the drain. That's perfectly normal; in fact, it's good. It means that the ice is breaking some of that matter out.'

4. Use baking soda and vinegar to unclog a garbage disposal

If this doesn't work, turn the garbage disposal off again. Now, you may need to resort to chemicals to unclog your garbage disposal. Instead of using harsh chemicals that can be use to unclog a sink, which can damage the plastic components of your garbage disposal, you can make a garbage disposal remedy from a simple concoction of baking soda and vinegar. 

As we know, cleaning with baking soda and cleaning with vinegar in combination not only unclogs blockages, but can de-grease your garbage disposal and remove bad odors, too.  

Start by pouring a cup full of baking soda into the garbage disposal, then follow this with a cup full of white vinegar. Wait for around 20 minutes (there should be a fizzing sound), then pour boiling water down into the drain to wash any debris away. 

If it doesn't drain immediately, use the plunger again, then remove any standing water into a bowl and repeat the process.

How to unclog a garbage disposal with standing water?

A blocked sink full of dirty dish water is not as easy to unclog with chemicals as they can't directly target the garbage disposal when mixed with the water in the sink. So before you can use the soda and vinegar mix, with the garbage disposal off, use a plunger to loosen enough blockage for the sink to drain. 

Simply cover the drain completely with the plunger, creating a vacuum. Pump the plunger upwards and downwards without breaking the seal for around 20 seconds. If this doesn't work keep plunging for longer. 

This should loosen food stuck in the garbage disposal, just turn on the cold water tap and the water should drain with ease. 

If this doesn't work, you will need to bail out the sink water with a cup into a bowl. Then you can use the vinegar and baking soda combination to dissolve the blockage.

If this doesn't work, use a drain snake to remove the clog (Amazon sells this highly rated one (opens in new tab)) . 

How to unclog a garbage disposal that won't drain?

Garbage disposal

(Image credit: Alamy )

If nothing else is working, we recommend calling in a plumber. However, if you need a DIY option, you can follow our simple steps, many of which you will be familiar with if you have ever had to change a kitchen sink drain.

You will need:

  • A bucket
  • Pliers
  • A scrub brush or wire

1. Remove the P-trap

Before removing the P-Trap, turn off the garbage disposal and place a bucket under the garbage disposal's drain, then using the pliers disconnect the slip-nut fittings on the drain trap to remove it. Some water may come out after the trap has been disconnected, this is completely normal and what the bucket is for.

2. Unclog and clean the trap

Using a torch, check if there are any blockages in the trap, checking the bend in particular. Experts recommend using a wire or a brush to unclog and clean the inside of the drain. However, if there is no clog in this part it may be in the trap arm (which is the horizontal drain that connects the trap and the branch drainpipe which goes into your wall).

3. Clean the trap arm

Remove the arm trap by loosening the slip nut in between the trap arm and the vertical branch drain, the simply take out the trap arm. Check for blockages and clean.

4. Reassemble the garbage disposal

Reassemble the pipe components and the slip nuts. Run the drain for a few minutes to flush out any left-over debris. If everything is running smoothly, put a drain cover over your garbage disposal and fill your sink with hot water before removing the cover. Hopefully your garbage disposal is unclogged and the water will drain cleanly.

Why is my garbage disposal backing up?

There are a few reasons your garbage disposal may be backing up, causing a blockage. This can be down to hard foods that can't be broken up by the garbage disposal, but also objects that can interfere with the mechanism to prevent it working or simply block the passage of food and water.

Items that the garbage disposal can't break up include:

  • Bone;
  • Pits;
  • Ice;
  • Seeds;
  • Other hard objects, including cutlery that has slipped down there mistakenly.

Food that can interfere with the effectiveness of the garbage disposal include:

  • Stringy pasta;
  • Asparagus;
  • Banana peel;
  • Celery.

Objects that will prevent food and water running smoothly through the garbage disposal include:

  • Grease, fat or starch from vegetables which may harden;
  • Coffee grounds;
  • Eggshells.

Can boiling water unclog a garbage disposal?

Boiling water can unclog a garbage disposal if what is clogging it is dissolvable with hot water. This might include solidified fats. You can try pouring boiling water down into the garbage disposal first before trying other methods. 

Lola Houlton
Lola Houlton

Lola Houlton is H&G's long-term intern. Currently student of Psychology at the University of Sussex, she began writing content for Real Homes around the subjects of children's and teenagers' bedroom, in particular covering the psychology of teens and their approach to tidiness. From there, Lola expanded her knowledge of a broad range of subjects and now writes about everything from organization through to house plants while continuing her studies.