By Kristie Snyder,
Tom Shelley has five cats. He’s also very interested in sustainability issues, and trying to reduce household expenses in preparation for retirement, so he was shocked to find that he was spending $400 a year on disposal of cat litter – 50 to 60 pounds a week, heading straight to the landfill. (He estimated this to be 80 percent of his household’s non-recyclable waste.)
Shelley knew there had to be a better way. According to Judd Alexander, in his 1993 book In Defense of Garbage, over two million tons of cat litter ends up in landfills annually. And most of it is made of bentonite clay, a non-renewable, non-biodegradable product strip-mined from the earth for the sole purpose of being, well, pooped in. Shelley began researching compostable litters.
There are currently four types of biodegradable litter sold—pine pellets, recycled newspaper pellets and litter based on corn and wheat. GreenStar carries Feline Pine, made from pine sawdust leftover from the lumber industry, One Earth Cat Litter, a clumping litter made from corncobs, and Swheat Scoop, a clumping litter made from wheat. All of these litters are healthier for the earth, and for your cats—they contain no silica dust, a component of clay-based litter that creates health problems when inhaled, no chemical additives, and, unlike clay litter, which can build up in a cat’s digestive system, these natural litters are safe if ingested during grooming.
While the production of these natural litters is arguably better for the earth, environmentally-friendly disposal is a challenge. While all of these litters are biodegradable, not a lot of decomposition actually goes on in the great plastic-bag-filled pit that is a landfill. Swheat Scoop says its litter is flushable, but most authorities on septic systems emphatically recommend that cat litter not be put into the system (though cat feces scooped out of the litter may be flushed).
Composting, while it needs to be done with caution, is really the only way to ensure that cat litter doesn’t end up in the landfill for all eternity. The reason for caution (with composting of any carnivore waste, including human) is potential pathogens found in feces, the most harmful of which in cats is the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which causes toxoplasmosis, a disease that can be fatal to infants (who acquire it congenitally from their mothers) and immune-system-deficient adults. Cats become infected with the parasite by eating infected rodents or birds, and then pass the parasite into their feces in the form of a micropscopic oocyst. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “kittens and cats can shed millions of oocysts in their feces for as long as three weeks after infection.” People can then be infected by accidental ingestion of oocysts after cleaning the cat’s litter box. The CDC estimates that in the United States 22.5% of the population 12 years and older has been infected with Toxoplasma (it is also acquired by eating undercooked, contaminated meat), though adults with a healthy immune system who become infected often do not have symptoms.
However, not all cats are Toxoplasma-infected (Shelley’s vet put the percentage at about 30), and indoor cats, who don’t consume prey, are not exposed to the parasite. Cats can also be tested to check for Toxoplasma infection. The only safe disposal for feces of cats infected with Toxoplasma is in the trash, in a sealed plastic bag. (And the feces should be scooped daily, before the oocysts “ripen,” or become infectious.) As far as other pathogen concerns go, Shelley, who is currently enrolled in Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Master Composter training, emphasized good hygiene practices that should be a part of any composting program—wear gloves when handling compost, wash hands thoroughly afterward, compost cat litter in its own pile, make sure the compost is well-aged, and only use it on ornamentals (non-edible plants). Pregnant women should never handle cat litter or waste, and households with a pregnant woman, infant or immune-compromised individual should probably forgo litter composting. Even with cats that are free of toxoplasmosis, flushing the feces or burying it separately (in a foot-deep hole, well away from wells, streams, veggie gardens, play areas, etc.) can reduce the pathogen load in the litter compost pile. (For more information about killing pathogens, check out Joseph Jenkins’ book The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure. It’s available online at http://weblife.org/humanure/default.html, and the Tompkins County Public Library has a couple of copies.)
Adam Michaelides, Compost Educator for the Tompkins County Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE), said that CCE does not recommend composting cat waste or litter, but that those determined to do it should “err on the side of caution,” and educate themselves about potential risks and good composting practices. “I do really applaud people’s efforts for trying to keep more out of the landfills,” he said. He recommended that anyone interested in composting pet waste check out the Cornell Waste Management Institute’s “Health and Safety Guidance for Small Scale Composting” factsheet, online at http://cwmi.css.cornell.edu/smallscaleguidance.pdf. He also encouraged anyone interested in discussing the topic to call him at the CCE’s “Rotline,” 607.272.2292, ext. 124.
My household, which has always composted our food wastes, has been composting our two cats’ litter for years. Our cats are indoor-only, we scoop and flush poops daily, and we compost the pine pellet litter that we use in a separate pile, away from our garden and the rest of our composting operations. With the addition of some green matter (grass clippings, food scraps) to counter all the sawdust, the pine litter produces beautiful, fluffy, dark compost, which we use on ornamental trees and in other areas that aren’t producing any food crops. We even composted our litter in the city of Ithaca for four years, in an Earth Machine composter (available at the Tompkins County Solid Waste office), and our neighbors were none the wiser.
So what’s Tom Shelley, who doesn’t have space to compost all that litter in his small city yard, going to do to reduce his waste flow? He’s switched to wheat litter, and he’s taking it to his friends Bethany Schroeder and Jon Bosak, who live outside of the city, and have their own pet waste compost pile. They recently adopted a cat from the SPCA, and they, too, decided they couldn’t live with sending the litter to the landfill. “Our only past experience was with clay litter, so finding the wheat litter, along with all the other options now available, was an almost overwhelming experience,” Schroeder said. They compost the cat litter in a pile that also contains dog waste and birdseed shells, waste and newspaper from their parrots. Like ours, their pile is located well away from the gardens and food waste compost areas, and they plan to use the finished product on ornamental plants.
For more adventurous folks determined to avoid litter altogether—teach your cat to use the toilet! Apparently cats really are trainable, and can be taught to go on the porcelain throne just like us—a quick Google search of “toilet training cat” yields pages and pages of advice, tutorials and even videos on the topic.
Using a strip-mined product for your pet’s toilet is pretty ridiculous, so whatever you do with it afterward, consider switching to a biodegradable litter. If you’re committed, you can turn what would have been trash into beneficial compost, and your cats will be healthier, too.
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