Robert Cox; Popularized Use of Garbage Disposers


Robert M. Cox, who changed garbage disposers from an unacceptable and unnecessary gadget into a must-have kitchen appliance required by many municipal sanitation systems, has died. He was 84.

Cox, who retired 12 years ago as executive vice president of In-Sink-Erator, died of cancer June 11 in his home near Lahaina on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

Born and brought up in Muncie, Ind., Cox worked his way up in business, joining In-Sink-Erator Manufacturing Co. in Racine, Wis., in 1948 as vice president of sales and marketing.


Until then, the kitchen garbage disposer invented by company founder John W. Hammes in the mid-1930s had found little favor with either government officials or homemakers.

Most cities in the country had actually banned the gadgets, fearing that the food waste the devices would pump into municipal sewer lines would cause overloading and problems in pipes and treatment plants. Homeowners considered them either an unaffordable luxury or a nuisance, and certainly an unnecessary item in a well-run kitchen.

Cox loaded a bunch of the appliances into his car and crisscrossed the country, determined to change minds. He sold the disposers at cost to anybody willing to try one. But more important, he called on city plumbing and sanitary inspectors and showed them test results demonstrating that disposers would not harm sewage facilities. On the contrary, he argued, a garbage disposer in every home actually made good sanitation sense for any local government.

Within a few years, most cities rescinded their bans, although New York City held out until 1997.

By the 1960s, Cox had become so persuasive that cities began changing their stances completely--passing ordinances requiring installation of household garbage disposers. The first to do so was the little town of Jasper in Cox’s native Indiana. Jasper officials soon found that requiring the disposers reduced the amount of raw garbage in trash containers, enabling them to cut trash collection from twice to once a week.

Dozens of cities followed suit, including Los Angeles, Detroit, Denver and Indianapolis.

Next, Cox went for the consumer. He first marketed the disposers through plumbing contractors, and got a boost when Southern California builders began installing disposers and marketing them to prospective buyers as a household convenience. Cox spread the word eastward by initiating a company-hosted free breakfast for everyone attending annual meetings of the National Assn. of Home Builders.

He also approached the Women’s Auxiliary of the National Assn. of Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors and quickly found allies.

“Bob had such a marvelous personality and gave us so many fine luncheons, scholarship programs and other things, that we simply told our husbands to begin installing In-Sink-Erators,” said Ethel Epstein, a past president of the group. “And they all did.”

In-Sink-Erator, now a division of Emerson Electric Co., had a very limited advertising budget in the 1950s and 1960s. So Cox aimed at the top--placing ads in upscale Vogue magazine, featuring a fashionable woman holding a bag of garbage. It was captioned, “Darling, you’re much too nice to carry out the garbage.”

News media reported on the unique ads. Cox built on that publicity by hiring comedian Phyllis Diller as company spokeswoman, having her tout garbage disposers as “The Leftover Lovers.”

Current company President Jerry Ryder credited Cox with making garbage disposers a staple in the modern American household, with about 4 million now sold annually.

Cox served as chairman of the American Home Appliance Manufacturers Assn. in 1984, and had a long association with the American Society of Sanitary Engineers.

He is survived by his second wife, Phyllis Watkins Cox, and her two daughters and three grandchildren.