So, you got up one morning, looked in the mirror, and vowed to reduce your carbon footprint. That backyard composting project you’d been putting off for years? Definitely time. The stack of newspapers by the kitchen table? Going to the recycling center this week, you swore. And then your cat rubbed against your ankles, asking for her breakfast. You opened the box of cat food and shook the last of the kibble into her bowl, and tossed the empty box into the trash. The noise brought your dog into the kitchen, looking for a walk and his breakfast, too.
While you were driving the few miles to the dog park, you hit the drive-through espresso place, your engine idling while you waited your turn. You sat on the bench at the park watching your dog play with other dogs, sipping a latte and chatting with other early-morning dog walkers, maybe about your newfound resolution to be a better environmental citizen.
You called your dog, hoping he’d pooped while you were otherwise distracted, threw your empty coffee cup into the trash can, and headed back home. You didn’t stop at the bank or post office because it was too warm to leave the dog in the car, so you’d have to make a second trip later that day.
When you got home, you opened a can of dog food and mixed it with some kibble. You threw the can away, and then dumped your cat’s litter into a plastic bag, and threw that away, too. Then you got back in your car to do those errands you’d had to put off when you were out earlier with the dog.
This isn’t a lesson in spotting hypocrisy, nor even a subtle message that people who let their dogs poop without picking it up are jerks. (Although they are.) It’s really nothing more than a checklist of a few of the ways humans impact the environment with the decisions we make about caring for our pets.
Let’s consider the environmental impact of pet ownership, some of which is fairly obvious and some of which most of us rarely consider.
From that not-so-fragrant pile on the sidewalk to the cat litter box hidden in the laundry room, the biggest piece of the pet pollution puzzle is poop. Whether you dispose of it in the trash, flush it or leave it where it falls, it’s a problem.
America’s roughly 73 million dogs produce around 10 million tons of dog poop per year. The litter from America’s estimated 90 million pet cats results in around 2 millions tons of cat litter being sent to landfills each year. Making the problem worse, clay-based litters aren’t biodegradable, as they’re already in their final state of decomposition.
While there are regional composting operations that accept dog and cat waste, getting rid of used cat litter and dog feces is one of the most difficult challenges for the green-minded pet owner. Feces left in gardens, parks, empty lots, and on the streets will run off into storm drains and waterways, contaminating them with bacterial waste that can cause human and wildlife diseases.
Compliance rates on canine pooper-scooping vary wildly from community to community. Some areas actually hire commercial poop removal services because local dog owners aren’t picking up after their pets, while many dog parks are self-policed to such an extent that before your dog has finished squatting, six people are hollering at you: “Clean up after your dog!” But even the most conscientious poop-scooping dog owners might be picking up their dog’s feces with a plastic bag, creating serious problems as the degradable poop is sealed inside a non-degradable bag that will spend something close to eternity in the landfill, along with a couple million tons of similarly-enshrouded cat litter.
While dog feces can be safely disposed of in the toilet, used cat litter should never be flushed. Modern waste treatment doesn’t kill a pesky organism known as toxoplasma gondii. When water containing this parasite enters the ocean, it sickens and kills sea otter populations. Toxoplasma also causes disease in humans, especially the immune-compromised and pregnant women.
Disposing of used cat litter is only half the problem. The other half is figuring out what to use as litter in the first place. Clay-based cat litters are not a by-product of the manufacture of something else, but produced by strip mining. The clay, known as bentonite, is found under several layers of soil, which are removed in the mining process. The first few inches of clay are discarded, and the final clay is removed and processed into cat litter. When it comes to “green” products, you don’t get much less green than that.
In addition to the difficult problem of pet waste, there’s also the stuff that creates the waste in the first place: pet food. Just as with human food, pet food is the tip of the iceberg on a whole host of environmental challenges.
It can also be harder to “buy local” when using commercial pet foods. Even companies located nearby might manufacture their foods in plants in other states, using ingredients shipped in from all over the world. Nearly every vitamin supplement used in this country is made in China and, as the recent pet food recall taught us, so are many of the raw ingredients of pet foods. The environmental cost of packaging, shipping, storing, and distributing those sacks and cans of pet food has to be tallied, along with the convenience of using them.
Speaking of packaging, how do you dispose of the empty containers? While dog poop might make up 4 percent of a city’s solid waste, product packaging makes up one-third of the stuff sent to landfills. Boxes, bags, and food containers make up the single largest segment of that sold waste stream, although there are no statistics indicating what percentage of that is from pet food. But every pet food can, box, pouch or sack tossed in the trash ends up in a landfill. While some pet food manufacturers are switching to post-consumer recycled packaging, and some packaging, such as cardboard boxes, is easily recycled, pet food product packaging unquestionably makes a bad situation worse.
If the pet poop problem reminds anyone of the disposable diapers problem, then it won’t be a surprise to know that pets and kids share another issue: toys.
Imported plastic toys in bright colors fill the aisles of pet supply stores pretty much the same way they fill the aisles of toy stores. Manufactured in countries where environmental regulations are lax or irregularly enforced, shipped into and all over the United States, these cheap goods usually don’t last long. The broken toys end up in the landfill and we head back out into the stores in search of yet more cheap plastic crap.
Unlike children, who have their consumer desires fostered by a whole marketing machine aimed right at them, our pets really don’t care if they have the same cool stuff as the cat and dog next door. In fact, cats are usually much happier with a paper bag to play with, and our dogs can’t see those bright plastic colors in the first place. We’re buying that stuff for us, not for them.
We drive our pets to the groomer, the vet, the park, doggy day care. Their food, toys, combs, brushes, and other supplies are shipped from locations all over the country, or even all over the world. When you get right down to it, it’s all about the gas.
Of course, not every pet owner lives walking distance from a park, veterinarian, groomer, or doggy day care any more than they live near their children’s schools, their hairdresser or their own workplaces. Sometimes that twice-daily drive to the dog park is a necessity rather than a choice. And because it’s not a good idea to leave dogs in the car while we do other errands, particularly on warm days, it’s hard to bunch trips to the dog park with grocery shopping and returning the DVDs. Because dogs suffer more from heat than humans do and driving with the windows open isn’t always safe when there are pets in the car, sometimes we have to use our air conditioners more when transporting the dog.
But whether a matter of choice or necessity, all those miles of driving have a cost, one we pay for once at the gas station and again in environmental harm.
People rarely dispose properly of their own unused medications and garden pesticides, and this is no less a problem when it comes to drugs and chemicals used for our pets. Unfortunately, knowledge about proper disposal of chemicals or the waste of animals who are on certain medications is not widespread, and many people have simply never thought about the issue at all. But from the shampoo you cheerfully rinse off your dog in the backyard to the medications you flush down the toilet (or into the storm drain in your pet’s urine or feces) or the flea and tick control product containers you toss into the trash can, the contamination of the country’s water supply with antibiotics, pesticides, and industrial chemicals is a problem that, while not limited to pets, certainly includes them.
Because the indoor-outdoor cat debate is such a vast and contentious issue, let’s just say that whichever side in this unending battle is right, there’s no argument that free-roaming pet cats urinate and defecate in other people’s backyards, vegetable gardens, and planter boxes, and can have a strong localized impact on wildlife. Cats that are kept indoors have a much smaller carbon paw print than cats that are free to roam, but, depending on location and who you ask, half or fewer of all cats live indoors all the time.
All our decisions, including those we make about our pets, impact the planet in some way. There are many ways that pet owners can reduce the carbon paw print of their dogs and cats to help make the planet a healthier and better place for all species.
The Best Thing
We Can Do Is Just Think About It
It may seem that humans keeping and caring for companion animals put a strain on the planet. But the balance isn’t as unequal as it might seem at first glance. Sharing our lives and homes with animals has the potential to make us better environmental citizens–and better people, too. I know because that’s what happened to me.
Back in the 80s, this writer was the typical over-achieving workaholic. Lived in a big city, stopped every morning for my triple-shot latte, and spent the whole day indoors working, and most of my evenings in clubs, theaters, and restaurants. My main form of recreation was shopping.
And then I adopted my dog Tootsie from the Humane Society, and all of that changed. Every morning I went to the dog park or the beach, and every evening I walked her all around our quiet neighborhood. I started seeing things I’d never paid any attention to before. The stars. Flowers growing on the side of the road. Birds in the trees and the skies. On our trips to the county parks, we saw wildlife from coyotes, snakes,to jackrabbits. Once I even saw an owl off in the distance one evening. I began not just to see but to care about the natural world in a way I never had before.
Even if it can be challenging to reduce our pets’ carbon paw print, it could be argued that their net ecological impact is positive. That’s because in seeing the world through the eyes of our animals we come to both know and care about the natural world. The saying “God invented the cat so that man might caress the tiger” doesn’t only mean that we get to have a tiny bit of the wild in our laps at night; it also means that a little piece of our heart goes out into the wild.
Perhaps most importantly, the human-animal bond fosters compassion not just for our pets, but for all living creatures–other humans included. An open heart is never a bad thing, for us, for the planet, and for the other people and animals with whom we share the earth.
One last word about recycling. My dog Tootsie was one of the millions of second-hand animals who are waiting for a home in America’s shelters, pounds, and rescue groups. They say love is better the second time around, so if you’re ready to bring another pet into your home, perhaps you can practice some of what has been preached on an animal who needs a second chance.