The Monster Under the Sink

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Jasper Davidoff (field tape): Good morning. Driving through… Well, it looks to be more or less Downtown Jasper, heading over to my first interview…

Roman Mars: That’s reporter Jasper Davidoff reporting from Jasper, Indiana, which, admittedly, is a little confusing. 

Pat: And you’re James? 

Jasper Davidoff (field tape): Well, Jasper. 

Pat: I was going to say. With a name like Jasper, you had to come to Jasper.

Jasper Davidoff (field tape): Yeah. Well, exactly. I mean, I’m excited to be here. 

Jasper Davidoff: I was in Jasper, the place, this past fall because I wanted to talk with a guy named Jim Thyen. 

Jim Thyen: My name is Jim Thyen. With my wife, Pat, Jasper is our home. I was born here. 

Jasper Davidoff: Jim’s dad, Herb Thyen, was the mayor of Jasper back in the 1940s and ’50s. And when Jim was about seven years old, the town did something kind of radical–something that no other city had done before. They made garbage illegal. 

Jim Thyen: As of August 1st, 1950, they drew a bright line and said that if you were in the city, they would no longer collect any garbage. 

Jasper Davidoff: Although the city was still collecting stuff like plastics, soup cans–a lot of what you might recycle today–it was no longer picking up organic waste or what the city called “the garbage.” That’s stuff like yard trimmings or the yucky things that people typically throw out, like chicken bones, rotten fruit, eggshells… 

Roman Mars: And this sanitation vanishing act was made possible by a relatively new appliance–one that would soon make its way into kitchens across the country. The garbage disposer. 

Jasper Davidoff: The garbage disposer is that little grinding machine at the bottom of a lot of kitchen sinks. Most people call it the “disposal” with an A-L or the “Insinkerator” or even the “Garburator.” But to keep things simple and avoid brand names, we’re going to use the generic “disposer” with an E-R. I know it sounds a little weird. 

Roman Mars: If you live in the United States, you either have a garbage disposer in your sink, or you at least have a friend or relative with one in theirs. According to the 2013 American Housing Survey, nearly half of all households have a disposer. In other countries, these machines aren’t nearly as common. 

Jasper Davidoff: And until recently, the most I ever really thought about a disposer was as a kid, when my mom got mad at me for throwing cherry pits in ours. But over the last couple of months, I’ve become a little obsessed with the monster under our sinks and how, despite the awful sounds it makes, the disposer quietly managed to become a staple of the American kitchen and changed the way we think about our food waste. 

Roman Mars: The story of the garbage disposer starts long before Jasper Indiana’s experiment. It even starts–you could say–before the invention of garbage. 

Susan Strasser: It used to be that people didn’t have much garbage. They didn’t create much garbage. If something broke, you would take it back to the person who made it to get it fixed, or there would be people who specialized in repairs who would fix things. 

Jasper Davidoff: Susan Strasser is a historian who studies consumerism, domesticity, and–yes–garbage. She says that up until the late 1800s, people were just much less wasteful. 

Susan Strasser: People eat food scraps. If you read books about how to run your household, people are advised to, when they clear the table, save food. And the expectation was that good food would be eaten by people. 

Jasper Davidoff: Food scraps weren’t thought of as a burden but as an opportunity–a way to save for another meal or to repurpose into candles and soap. 

Susan Strasser: The idea of wasting food was really anathema to most people. Food that wasn’t quite good enough for the people could be fed to animals. There were pets, dogs, and cats. But also, many, many people kept chickens, even in urban and suburban areas. And chickens will eat pretty much anything and give you eggs in return. 

Roman Mars: But at the turn of the century, the commercialization of food made more of it available at a cheaper price, and that abundance made it easier for people to throw out their scraps. 

Jasper Davidoff: Around the same time, lots of people were moving from the countryside into U.S. cities. And all that food waste was literally piling up on the street, creating not only a smelly problem but a public health one. Back then, many still believed that diseases like cholera were spreading through noxious odors, including those emanating from piles of garbage. 

Anna Zeide: Garbage being a pretty technical term at the time, it really did refer to perishable waste as opposed to rubbish that might have been less perishable products that were being thrown away. 

Jasper Davidoff: Anna Zeide is a food historian at Virginia Tech. She says that unlike the catchall definition garbage has today, it used to refer specifically to organic waste, which, in case you haven’t already caught on, is how I’m going to keep using garbage for the rest of this story. 

Roman Mars: Around the country, there wasn’t much of an appetite by federal and state governments to take on the growing garbage problem. Instead, the job of waste collection fell to individual cities and towns. 

Anna Zeide: And so municipal regulations began to be developed in quite scattershot ways–very piecemeal in different localities–to try to address what was happening with this garbage. 

Jasper Davidoff: Some municipalities started collection services to haul their waste to a dump. Others demanded citizens split up their kitchen refuse from their other waste. The discarded food would get sent to local farmers, who used it as feed for their hogs. 

Anna Zeide: But there too a lot of problems for health emerged in that a lot of so-called uncooked garbage could carry various kinds of pathogens that caused widespread disease and in the pigs themselves, some of which was feared would carry over into any humans who were eating the meat that came from the pigs. 

Roman Mars: By the early 1920s, these haphazard systems of garbage collection were struggling to keep up with 20th century consumerism. Cities and towns were burning garbage, even throwing it in their local river. And so, into this maelstrom of detritus stepped the engineers at the General Electric Company. 

Jasper Davidoff: A few communities had started grinding up their garbage in these massive machines and washing it down into their local sewers. GE took this totally new concept–mixing sewage with food waste–and tried to expand on it. If you could use a large-scale grinder to get rid of the town’s garbage, could you build small household ones to eliminate garbage at the source? 

Roman Mars: So, in 1930, two GE representatives traveled to Schenectady, New York, to visit a sanitary engineer named Morris Cohn. He agreed to help GE conduct their research and even started experimenting in his own home, pulverizing food in a meat grinder, and flushing the results down the toilet. 

Jasper Davidoff: And before long, all that flushing yielded a result. They called it “The Disposall.”

Goodbye to Garbage: And here’s how coarse particles like corn cobs get the works inside a GE Disposall. In almost less time than it takes to tell you about it they’ll be whittled down to corn kernel size or smaller and given a one-way ticket down the drain…

Jasper Davidoff: By the late ’30s, people started getting very excited about garbage disposers. Scientific American predicted that the disposer would make the garbage can obsolete. An article in House and Garden magazine introduced readers to new garbage tech like rubber plate scrapers and waxed garbage pail liners. But its highest praise was for the disposer. 

Susan Strasser: You’re not going to have rats. You’re not going to have the smelly stuff in your kitchen. You’re not going to have the problems that come with food waste anymore because you’re going to wash it down the drain. 

Roman Mars: Even with all this hype, companies like GE still didn’t have what they really wanted: a test site–a place to prove that the disposer wasn’t just a benefit for an individual household but a bona fide improvement for an entire community. Jasper would soon change all that. 

Jasper Davidoff: I would? 

Roman Mars: Sorry, I wasn’t talking about you. Here’s what I meant. Jasper, Indiana would soon change all that. 

Jim Thyen: Dad was an original thinker. He was a creative person and a good problem solver. And he was very health conscious–very civic minded. 

Jasper Davidoff: That’s Jim Thyen again. His dad was the mayor of Jasper back in the ’40s and ’50s. At the time, Jasper was struggling with a ton of public health problems. Rats and flies were a common nuisance in town. There was an outbreak of swine cholera in 1947, which traced back to the garbage farmers had fed the pigs. 

Roman Mars: And this was followed quickly by the polio epidemic, which at the time locals felt might be related to the flies buzzing around open troughs of garbage. 

Jasper Davidoff: And so, one day, Mayor Thyen was walking with his wife in nearby Evansville when he stumbled on a solution to the town’s problems. 

Jim Thyen: He saw a Disposall in the Sears Roebuck display window. 

Roman Mars: The sign in the window read, “Say Goodbye to Your Garbage Can.” And in that moment, Mayor Thyen saw an opportunity to change everything. 

Jasper Davidoff: A week later, the mayor bought his very own garbage disposer. The appliance and the installation ran him about $125 or about $1,500 today. And like the highly technical, sophisticated sanitary engineers that came before him, the mayor just started chucking things down his disposer to test the results. 

Jim Thyen: We put a Disposall in our house. I believe it was in ’48. Dad felt we had to lead and show the way in, so we put one in just to be able to show people that it worked. 

Jasper Davidoff: Mayor Thyen liked what he saw and started putting together what would come to be known as The Jasper Plan. The mayor envisioned a Jasper where every home had a disposer, where the city helped residents buy a disposer, and where the disposer solved Jasper’s garbage problem once and for all. 

Roman Mars: No other city in the country had ever tried to systematically install disposers partly because the household disposer was still relatively new and actually pretty expensive. 

Jasper Davidoff: But also, partly because nobody knew what would happen after this much food made its way down the drain. 

Susan Strasser: You know, this is something that had to be worked out between the companies making garbage disposers and the municipal engineers. And the reason was that the municipal engineers were not sure that the sewers could handle the products of the garbage disposer. 

Roman Mars: Sanitary engineers were often split. Some towns were confident that their sewers could handle ground up garbage. But engineers in older, denser areas like Philadelphia and Boston had reservations. There was a fear that the disposer would clog pipes and lead to expensive repairs. And so, some places, including New York City, actually moved to ban these newfangled machines. 

Jasper Davidoff: But Jasper was willing to try and prove them wrong. The city council was confident their disposer plan would work because they were already planning to build a new wastewater treatment plant. They could just amend those plans and upgrade Jasper’s sewers to accommodate for all this new incoming garbage. 

Roman Mars: And civic leaders weren’t the only ones backing the Jasper Plan. After the son of a local newspaper editor contracted polio, he began using the Dubois County Herald to praise Jasper’s garbage disposer idea. He hailed it as, quote, “a boon to city sanitation,” the results of which would be, quote, “the beginning of a great national movement.”

Jasper Davidoff: While it may seem silly to us now to think that a garbage disposer might help eradicate polio, at the time people were understandably scared. It wasn’t yet common knowledge that the disease mainly spreads from person to person. 

Roman Mars: Nevertheless, the Jasper Plan was a chance for the city to do something big–to become the only place in the country to put an end to garbage. 

Jim Thyen: The city council voted unanimously to do it. The city council, the mayor, and the head of the sanitation–they all volunteered to put Disposalls in their home. And I can remember the day when dad took me to the town square, when a semi-truck pulled up and had a little over a thousand garbage disposals on it. 

Jasper Davidoff: Here’s the thing about the Jasper Plan. It was billed as an option for residents, but in practice it was effectively a mandate. The city was going to refuse to pick up any trash with organic waste in it and banned garbage cans altogether. So, people would more or less have to buy a disposer. The city helped finance them and even got residents a discount. But each disposer still sold for $75 or close to $1,000 today. Jim Thyen recalls this being a slightly dangerous time to be the mayor’s kid. 

Jim Thyen: Once in a while, coming home from school, you know, some kids would confront us. And sometimes there was punches thrown or shoving here and there. I suppose that came from the conversation at their dinner table, you know, maybe, perhaps on the cost or perhaps on the fact that they were kind of being forced. 

Roman Mars: Still, by February 1950, enough people had opted in that the city was ready to execute the final piece of the plan: the garbage ban. And with that, the Thyen family became a media sensation. 

Jim Thyen: Just about every magazine and every major newspaper came to our house. Life Magazine and Look Magazine were big magazines back then. Post. They all came to photograph my mother and my sister, usually putting garbage down the Disposall. One of them, GE, touted the “durability” of their Disposall. And to prove that, they would put a Coke bottle down there. And this is when Coke bottles were heavy, glass Coke bottles. 

Roman Mars: Just a quick PSA. Don’t ever do this. Like, ever. 

Jim Thyen: And they’d put it down there and grind it up–grind it to show that the Disposall was very durable and there was nothing you could do to harm it. 

Jasper Davidoff: With the Jasper Plan in effect, nearly 95% of residents had a garbage disposer installed. And because of all the press coverage, Mayor Thyen became a sort of oracle for government officials looking to solve their garbage problems. Cities in Michigan and Illinois started hatching their own versions of a Jasper Plan. And eventually some 60 communities tried to go garbage-free. 

Jim Thyen: I remember dad getting letters and phone calls from around the world–other mayors wanting to know, “How did you do it? Does it work?” and all of that.

Jasper Davidoff: And that’s the question a lot of people were asking–public health officials, newspapers… Everyone wanted to know what happened in the town that tried to make garbage disappear. 

Roman Mars: After the break, the results of the Jasper Plan and what garbage disposers do for us today. According to FBI property crime data, most home break-ins happen in broad daylight. I can hypothesize all kinds of reasons. Unlike at night, when you lock yourself in and batten down the hatches, in the daytime, all kinds of people are coming and going. Everyone is not as diligent about locking the door after themselves. But you know who is always diligent day and night? SimpliSafe. They’re looking out for my people and my stuff so I can stop worrying so much. Just named Best Home Security Systems of 2024 by U.S. News and World Report and recognized for the best customer service in home security by Newsweek, both experts and customers simply love SimpliSafe. Its advanced technology protects every room, window, and door of your home while cameras watch for suspicious activity 24/7. Protect your home today. My listeners get a special 20% off any new SimpliSafe system when you sign up for Fast Protect monitoring. Just visit That’s There’s no safe like SimpliSafe. Want to make your next trip unforgettable? Book a GetYourGuide travel experience. Choose from over 100,000 travel experiences in the U.S. and around the world with GetYourGuide. I love to travel. And you can do a little bit of reading and just show up at a place and get something out of where you are. But if you really want to connect with your destination–if you really want to find those under the radar gems and get that local history–you need a guide. You can make memories all over the globe with GetYourGuide’s locally vetted, expertly curated experiences. Discover and book your next unforgettable travel experience with This show is sponsored by BetterHelp. What’s the first thing you’d do if you had an extra hour in your day? Would you go for a run? Take a nap? Read a book? A lot of us spend our lives wishing we had more time. The question is time for what? If time was unlimited, how would you use it? The best way to squeeze that special thing into your schedule is to know what’s important to you and make it a priority. Therapy can help you find what matters to you so you can do more of it. If you’re thinking of starting therapy, give BetterHelp a try. It’s entirely online, designed to be convenient, flexible, and suited to your schedule. Just fill out a brief questionnaire to get matched with a licensed therapist, and switch therapists at any time for no additional charge. Learn to make time for what makes you happy with BetterHelp. Visit today to get 10% off your first month. That’s 99% Invisible is sponsored by Squarespace. Squarespace is the all-in-one website platform for entrepreneurs to stand out and succeed online. With Squarespace, it’s easy to create a beautiful website all on your terms. You don’t want to miss Fluid Engine, a next generation website design system from Squarespace with reimagined drag and drop technology for desktop and mobile. And with their new Asset Library, you’re able to manage all your files from one central hub and use them across the Squarespace platform. Get started with one of Squarespace’s professional website templates with designs for every category and use case. Then customize your look, update content, and add features to fit your unique needs. I made my website––a long time ago in Squarespace. It was simple. It was easy to do. It was exactly what I needed. Head to for a free trial. And when you’re ready to launch, go to to save 10% off your first purchase of a website or domain. The question of whether the Jasper Plan worked depends on who you ask. And that’s because different people have different ideas of success. 

Jasper Davidoff: So, for example, if you ask the folks over at General Electric, they definitely thought the plan worked. 

GE Jasper 1970: You won’t find many flies buzzing around Jasper, Indiana. Jasper got rid of just about two-thirds of its flies because Jasper got rid of just about all of its garbage–what a fly needs to live on. 

Jasper Davidoff: This is part of a larger advertising blitz GE undertook in 1970 to mark Jasper his 20th anniversary going garbage free. They ran ads about the town in time, Newsweek, and The New Yorker that fall. 

GE Jasper 1970: For 20 years now, General Electric has been grinding up Jasper’s garbage and starving out Jasper’s flies. Men helping man. General Electric. 

Jasper Davidoff: The city itself, however, wasn’t quite as confident as GE on the fly issue. Herb Thyen, who was by then the former mayor, told a New York Times reporter in 1974, “Let’s get it straight right now. There are flies in Jasper.”

Jim Thyen: There are still flies–just not as many. But that’s the thing that kind of caught on in the press–no flies in the city of Jasper. 

Roman Mars: But the fly issue was mostly a proxy for a much more ambitious goal of the Jasper Plan: to help stamp out diseases like polio and cholera. 

Jasper Davidoff: And you can probably guess the garbage disposer didn’t do that either. What really helped keep Jasper’s residents safe from getting sick were things like the polio vaccine and the construction of its wastewater treatment plant. Here’s Anna Zeide again. 

Anna Zeide: You know, disease and poor health comes from so many factors that are beyond simply open garbage bins and alleyways, that it’s hard to imagine how the disposer could have been a decisive factor. And so, I do think some of these larger campaigns, like the one in Jasper, built on and profited from concerns like the polio epidemic and these individual fears that consumers had about how rising levels of waste might contribute to them getting sick or their family members getting sick. 

Jasper Davidoff: In Jasper and around the country, the garbage disposer worked its way into postwar housing under the guise of public health and the elimination of garbage. But even if companies like GE couldn’t deliver on those promises, they were able to keep selling people on something else. It’s convenience. When I walked through the Dubois County Museum with Arthur Nordhoff, the local historian, that simplicity is exactly what he remembered. 

Jasper Davidoff (field tape): So, this ad says, “How did they work out? Ask the teenagers who never had to take out the garbage.” So, was that you? 

Arthur Nordhoff: Yeah. Sure. Because I wouldn’t have to take it out. And I lived in a regular house down by the hospital. And so, once a week, I’d have to take the garbage out to the garbage pail. 

Jasper Davidoff (field tape): But not anymore? 

Arthur Nordhoff: Not anymore! Not anymore. 

Roman Mars: These days, companies selling garbage disposers emphasize something else, too–that the appliance doesn’t only make cleaning up easier, but it’s actually a sustainable solution for the problem of kitchen waste. 

Claudia Fabiano: Yeah, I think that people have been led to believe that sending your food waste down the drain is beneficial and is much better than landfilling it. And sadly, the truth is that it’s not. 

Jasper Davidoff: Claudia Fabiano works on the sustainable management of food at the EPA. Last October, her team put out a report that firmly places the agency in the anti-disposer camp. 

Claudia Fabiano: Sending food down the drain–it ranks equally with landfilling and incineration of food/ and those are really to be avoided if you can. 

Jasper Davidoff: There are a couple reasons why the EPA would love it if you didn’t scrape your dinner plate into your sink. But what it really boils down to is that a lot of energy is wasted when food goes through the wastewater system. And all that ground up food emits a ton of methane. 

Claudia Fabiano: In addition to that methane being released in the sewers, sending food down the drain also introduces more fats, oils, and greases to the sewer systems, which can cause blockages and increase maintenance costs. And food waste in the sewer system can also cause pipe corrosion. 

Roman Mars: Today, there’s still a real fear about the effects of garbage disposers. Some countries have banned them, and others try to discourage their use. Even in New York City, which repealed its ban in the 1990s, you still almost never come across a disposer. While the city’s sanitary engineers say that the sewers could handle the ground up waste, it’s the pipes in the old buildings that people worry about. 

Jasper Davidoff: But despite a lot of these drawbacks, the disposer has managed to persist in a lot of American homes, especially in Jasper. 

Bud Hauersperger: And it’s still a requirement for people to put garbage disposals into any new homes being built or even existing homes. All of them have garbage disposals. 

Jasper Davidoff: This is Bud Hauersperger, Jasper’s current general manager of utilities. Bud told me that Jasper’s garbage disposer ordinance is still technically on the books to this day. But at some point, the city’s resolve on the whole garbage ban piece of it just kind of fizzled. 

Jasper Davidoff (field tape): Are you allowed to throw away, like, garbage or food waste these days?

Bud Hauersperger: Yes. I don’t think they inspect the trash bags. Basically, there’s some weight limits on how much a full trash bag could weigh and the size of the trash bag. But I don’t think anybody inspects what’s in there. 

Jasper Davidoff: Jasper, like almost every other place in the country, hasn’t been able to escape the realities of garbage. But over the years, they built a system that works well enough for them and all of their disposers. 

Jasper Davidoff: On a walk through Jasper’s wastewater facility, Bud showed me two of the ways they tried to recapture some of the energy that’s lost when food goes down the drain. 

Bud Hauersperger: A couple things I didn’t talk about in the office were the anaerobic digester–that kind of dome structure over there. We collect the methane gas off of the waste, and we use that to cogenerate electricity…

Jasper Davidoff: And as we walked through all the tanks and machines, Bud pointed out where Jasper’s wastewater gets filtered and processed. And yeah, it’s not the prettiest site, but it was cool to see this up close. Once the remnants of Jasper’s organic waste are treated and separated from the water, it creates this almost compost-like mixture. 

Jasper Davidoff (field tape): So, I’m seeing kind of like a muddy green. But then it sort of basically kind of just looks like soil at the end or… 

Bud Hauersperger: Yeah. That’s right. Dark soil. I mean, it’s got a lot of nutrients in that soil. 

Jasper Davidoff: In sanitary parlance, this slurry of treated sewage and food waste is known as “biosolids.” But the more general term is “sludge,” which is also way more fun to say. And in a lot of places, sludge gets thrown into the local landfill–same as if you were throwing your apple core in the garbage can. In Jasper, though, they do something different. They use it as fertilizer. 

Bud Hauersperger: And they get it for free basically. The farmers do. And it kind of helps them so they don’t have to put as much nitrogen and other chemicals on the field where they can use something like this, which is a little more natural. 

Roman Mars: Even though that sounds great, researchers worry that applying sludge back onto farmland could introduce pollutants into the groundwater. At least one state, Maine, has actually banned the practice. The EPA also says that while anaerobic digesters are a good source of renewable energy, using them doesn’t cancel out all the methane that’s released in the sewers. 

Jasper Davidoff: Regardless, all of this sort of obfuscates a larger point. We spend a lot of time thinking about how to build machines or find new ways of dealing with the remains of what we buy. But there is a more effective way to keep garbage off the streets, out of the sewers, and out of the landfill. It’s figuring out ways to avoid creating food waste in the first place. 

Claudia Fabiano: You know, we have this desire to be good providers, right? We want to make sure that we always have enough food on hand for us, for our kids, and for the unexpected family that drops by and now, all of a sudden, I need to put food out for them, too. And I think being a good provider means make enough for everybody, but not so much that you end up throwing so much in the trash. 

Jasper Davidoff: But the concept of creating less food waste in the first place is hard. It requires all of us to take a second and think about what’s going to happen to our garbage next, which isn’t as easy as flipping a switch and watching it all disappear down the drain. 

Roman Mars: 99% Invisible was reported this week by Jasper Davidoff. Edited by Jayson De Leon. With additional production by Jeyca Maldonado-Medina. Mix and sound design by Martín Gonzalez. Music by Swan Real. Fact-checking by Graham Hacia. Kathy Tu is our executive producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. Delaney Hall is our senior editor. The rest of the team includes Chris Berube, Emmett FitzGerald, Christopher Johnson, Vivian Le, Lasha Madan, Joe Rosenberg, Gabriella Gladney, Kelly Prime, Sarah Baik, Neena Pathak, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. Special thanks this week to Martin Melosi, Ed Hollinden, Lily Geismer, Amy Vedra, and Suellen Hoy whose research on Jasper was a great resource for this episode. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM Podcast Family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. Home of the Oakland Roots Soccer Club, of which I am a proud community owner. Other teams may come and go, but the Roots are Oakland first, always. Congrats on winning your home opener, guys. You can find us on all the usual social media sites as well as our own Discord server. There’s over 2500 people there talking about The Power Broker, architecture, movies, and reality TV shows. It’s a really nice place to hang out. There’s a link to that as well as every past episode of 99PI at

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99% Invisible was reported this week by Jasper Davidoff; edited by Jayson De Leon; additional production by Jeyca Maldonado-Medina.

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