As any cat owner knows, having a litter box and keeping it clean is just a fact of life. Every day, you’re crouched next to it, sifting little pellets through a slotted scoop to withdraw that day’s deposits in the Bank of Cat. And, because of a lovely parasite known as Toxoplasma gondii, it ends up in the trash rather than being safe to compost or flush.
So, given that scooping cat poop is a fact of life, how can we make it less wasteful in a way that doesn’t cost a lot of time, money, or physical energy? Thankfully, there’s only a few pieces to this puzzle.
While it may sound like buying a used litter box would be the best way to go to reduce your waste footprint, you’ll need to make sure it’s properly sterilized before you start using it. Use plastic-safe ammonia-based cleaners to make sure you kill off the widest range of hitchhikers.
When buying a new litter box, pay careful attention to the hinges or clasps if it has any, the height of the walls, the overall size of the box relative to the size of the cat (bigger boxes are better), and the thickness of the plastic. You don’t want a box that will prove to be too small, or one that develops a crack within a few years of use. Clasps can wear out over time and will break if poorly designed, but you don’t want them too sturdy or you might not be able to undo them easily. Buy it to last, and buy it once.
There’s nothing more annoying when cleaning a litter box than having to use a flimsy scoop. Over time, plastic scoops wear out or break, impacting how well they do their job and how easy it is for you to clean the box. Thankfully, they’re not that much of a consumable, otherwise this would be a bigger problem.
The best buy-it-once option to replace plastic litter scoops is a high quality metal scoop. Emphasis on high quality; cheaper metal scoops aren’t high-grade metal, and the welds can break from the force of tugging the scoop through a deep layer of litter. DuraScoop is the best one I’ve tried, with an all-aluminum construction and slightly larger slots than most other scoops. The increased durability and leverage is definitely useful if you have a cat that makes large clumps, or use a particularly dense litter.
The main downside to using a metal scoop is that you’ll need to be mindful of not gouging a hole in the plastic surface of your litter box, since this will give bacteria a perfect breeding ground or even potentially risk leaks. DuraScoop is also larger than most plastic litter scoops, so it may not fit in the opening of smaller size pet waste bags. It does fit into Earth Rated pet waste bags, though.
Once you have the waste scooped out of the litter, it’s time to dispose of it. There’s several options, including reusing bread bags and other single-use plastic bags of the correct size, buying single-use conventional plastic pet waste bags, and buying biodegradable pet waste bags.
Whether you opt for conventional plastic or biodegradable material instead depends on how the full bag is handled once put in the trash. In most common landfill systems, biodegradable bags may not be the right choice since they won’t have enough oxygen to help them break down, and you want to make sure they can get all the way to the landfill without breaking down. If your pet waste goes inside of a larger bag like a park trash can’s bag or your home trash, then biodegradable bags are a much more appealing option.
If you decide to go with conventional plastic, look for brands that try to offset that in other ways. Earth Rated uses recycled materials for their packaging, and they have a compostable option for people that have commercial compost facilities available that accept pet waste. Please note: do not compost your pet waste in your garden! Backyard compost piles don’t reach the temperatures needed to kill off pathogens and parasites that can infect your food.
Regardless of what material you choose, make sure that it’s the right size for your needs; too large and you’ll waste plastic, too small and you won’t be able to fit the litter scoop or all the waste inside it.
As far as disposing of the litter itself goes, the safest option is to put it in the trash. Toxoplasma gondii oocysts are not only resistant to bleach, they often can’t be killed off or filtered out at most sewage treatment plants; this can make it easy for the parasite to enter the drinking water supply. Add to that, cat litter flushed down the toilet can clog drains and sewer pipes, and isn’t always safe for septic systems. Cleaning your litter box and litter scoop with bleach won’t truly disinfect them; use ammonia-based cleaners and boiling water.
In California, the risk is twofold, since sea otters are more susceptible to toxoplasmosis. The sea otter population is already endangered; let’s not add to the challenges they have to face. If your cat poops in the toilet, at the very least you should get them regularly tested for infection. The test is, in most clinics, very rapid and inexpensive. The ideal fix is to retrain your cat to use the litter box, unless a litter box simply isn’t a viable solution for your household.
In this case, the dangers of attempting to reduce the waste footprint of your cats are almost certainly outweighed by the dangers of playing fast and loose with parasitic infections. It’s truly safest for everyone involved if litter box waste gets scooped, bagged, and thrown in the trash.
That being said, there may be ways to decrease waste in other parts of your cat litter consumption. If you’re using a clay-based litter, consider switching to one made from more sustainable materials, such as wheat, corn, walnut shells, or wood.
One of the perks of Ökocat’s formula is that not only is the litter made from sustainable materials, the box itself is recyclable. The only end-consumer waste (aside from throwing away your cat’s used litter) is the plastic fiber strap handle on top of the box.
Feline Pine is another wood-based litter, but rather than using a clumping formula like Ökocat, they use non-clumping pellets that break down over time to absorb waste. Depending on how much waste your cat(s) produce, this may involve throwing away less litter over time, therefore reducing how much you need to buy.
And, finally, the last part of the puzzle: the litter packaging. If you’re feeling brave or are having a high-spoons day with plenty of upper body strength, you could attempt to ecobrick the plastic packaging. Manufacturers may start offering packaging return programs in the future, but I’m not aware of any that exist at the moment. Your best bet is to buy the largest size bag or box that you can safely carry and store, to minimize your packaging to litter ratio.
Wrapping Bagging it up
Living a zero waste lifestyle is nigh on impossible; that’s why I encourage a minimal waste mindset instead. It’s more achievable and flexible, allowing for individual circumstances. Throw pets into the equation, and those circumstances become even more complicated. Toys, beds, litter waste or dog poop… you’ll never be able to truly zero out your pet’s waste footprint. But you can minimize it, with a few relatively simple swaps. Make changes where you can, so that it has less of an impact where you can’t.