There’s nothing like sharing your home with a feline friend but, just like us, cats are not zero waste. One area in which it’s easy to improve the carbon pawprint of your furry companion(s) is the litter box.
Whatever you do, don’t flush!
Toxoplasma gondii is a particularly distasteful-sounding parasite that may be present in your cat’s feces. If your cat is an outdoor cat or goes outdoors from time to time, then it’s much more likely to carry this parasite. Regular wastewater treatment cannot remove toxoplasma gondii and so it can end up in our water supply.
The parasite can cause problems for people with weaker immune systems or congenital birth defects in unborn babies. If you’ve ever come across the recommendation that pregnant women steer clear of the cat litter box, now you know that the warning has a real medical basis! Toxoplasma gondii also contributes to the deaths of wildlife as the toxin gets into water sources such as streams and rivers.
You can get your furry friend tested for the parasite by a vet, but if you haven’t yet done this, the best course of action is to never flush cat litter down the toilet.
Whether we’re talking about using litter tray bags or not, at some point in the process some form of petrochemical bag is likely to rear its ugly head. There’s no perfect solution to this problem, but the best and most practical choice so far is to use biodegradable litter tray bags.
Go for ASTM 6400-certified biodegradable bags, most often made from cornstarch, in order to be sure that your bags will actually decompose. Oxo-biodegradable bags (ASTM D6954) are a much less clear-cut, plastic-based alternative that is best avoided.
P.S. You’re also likely to save yourself some plumbing repair costs by bagging rather than flushing your cat litter!
The truth about biodegradability
Remember that whether a “biodegradable” bag is made of cornstarch (good) or plastic plus additives (less good), biodegradability does not mean that you can throw a bag out and trust that it will magically dissolve into it’s surrounding environment.
The majority of biodegradable bags end up in landfill, where they are quickly covered by layers of other rubbish that deprive them of the sunlight and air they need to decompose. The only way to ensure an environmentally-friendly end for your biodegradable cat poop bags is to compost them (more about that below).
Many, ourselves included, fall into the trap of thinking that a litter box is just a rectangular piece of plastic. Sure, there are fancy litter robot systems out there that tend to look a little like something out of Encounters of the 3rd Kind, but most people opt for the good old plastic box. Plastic box owners have probably noticed though that boxes often begin to smell after six months or so due to plastic’s semi-porous nature and it can be hard to get off all residue, especially in scratched areas. That’s why it’s not uncommon to see people buying a new plastic box every 6–8 months. But there is a better way!
Stainless steel boxes exist and they are easier to clean, don’t suffer from odours, and help you avoid throwing more plastic out. Try the iPrimio Ultimate Stainless Steel Cat XL Litter Box or the Yangbaga stainless steel cat litter box.
Composting cat poop
First off, the golden rules:
- Cat poop compost is not suitable for growing fruits and vegetables, so don’t mix cat poop with your regular compostable kitchen materials
- Cat poop should not be sent to your community compost services (unless specifically stated that they offer such a service)
Other than that if you have suitable outdoor space, setting up a dedicated cat poop composting area follows many of the same rules as standard composting. It does take longer and the potential for unpleasant odours is greater though.
P.S. Don’t forget to use a compostable cat litter!
Environmentally-friendly cat litters
Regardless of which of these you choose, the best way to buy cat litter is in bulk, filling your own container each time you go to the store. Unfortunately far from all pet stores offer such a service, but they do exist. If you can’t find a bulk option, then look for simple paper packaging and buy in large packs.
1) Choose: Recycled paper
Recycled paper is a good biodegradable alternative to traditional litters. There’s no dust, it’s absorbent, clumps relatively well, and it’s light and easy to carry. However, it will need to be changed regularly.
2) Choose: Wood shavings
Completely biodegradable, compostable and with a pleasant, odour-masking natural aroma, if you can find them, wood shavings are a great choice for an eco-conscious cat. This type of litter may or may not clump, depending on the form, e.g. pellets don’t clump well.
3) Choose: Corn, wheat and grass
Corn-based litter is biodegradable, absorbent, and controls odour. However, corn allergy is one of the most common allergies in cats. In addition, it does tend to track a lot.
Wheat litter clumps, provides odor control, and is biodegradable.
Grass litter is relatively new on the scene, but it clumps, is biodegradable, and is lightweight. However, it may not be as easy to find as other biodegradable litters.
Types of cat litter to avoid
1) Avoid: Clumping clay
Clumping and non-clumping clay cat litters are cheap and ubiquitous. Their convenience however masks an awkward environmental truth: clumping clay is produced from a natural mineral called sodium bentonite, which is extracted from the ground in an environmentally unfriendly process called strip mining. This involves clearing whatever is on the surface of a mining site (trees, grass, plants, topsoil), digging a hole and removing the minerals.
Needless to say, strip mining is a highly destructive process that tends to leave land barren. Not only that, but clay litter is non-biodegradable – just think of all the pottery lining museum shelves – meaning that it will linger on in landfill.
There is also some anecdotal health concern due to the dust that accompanies clay litter. There’s little hard proof, but some people associate inhalation of this dust with feline asthma. More worrying though is that your cat could end up inadvertently ingesting the remnants of clumping litter when they lick their paws, potentially leading to digestive blockages as the clay expands upon contact with water.
Bottom line: Cheap but destructively mined and non-biodegradable, clay litters are best avoided.
What is clumping?
Clumping litter expands when it comes into contact with water. This helps it to create solid clumps that are easier to scoop without having to throw out the whole litter tray. Kittens especially sometimes ingest litter, so most vets recommend using non-clumping litter until they’re at least three months old.
2) Avoid: Silica gel or “crystal” litter
This type of litter is made from crystalline silica. It works in the same way as clay but is generally more absorbent, meaning less of it potentially gets thrown out. Nevertheless, since it’s essentially sand and that sticks around for a long time, we can’t really call this type of litter biodegradable in any meaningful way.
It’s also worth noting that, although definitive studies are hard to come by, we know that the dust from crystalline silica is a carcinogen that has been linked to lung disease and even cancer in industrial workers.
Bottom line: More expensive than clay, easier to carry since it’s lighter, but not much better for the environment.
Kitty knows best: cat preferences
A study by Dr. Peter Borchelt to investigate feline litter preferences found that fine-grained clumping litter was used by cats twice as often as its nearest competitor.
Whilst clay is clearly a bad option, knowing that a fine, coarse material is generally more appealing to cats should help you to select the best of the more eco-friendly options.
Anything with a floral or citrus scent should certainly be avoided. Many cats are also less than fond of odor control additives such as baking soda or carbon, which some commercial litters contain.