People in North America love the companionship of pets. But they have a big impact on the planet. The good news: what you feed your dog or cat and how you look after it can help reduce your environmental “paw print.”
In Canada, there are about 8.2 million dogs and 8.3 million cats. During the COVID-19 pandemic, anywhere from three to ten per cent of Canadians (an additional 900,000 to 3.7 million) adopted, purchased or fostered a cat or a dog. Pet numbers are much larger in the U.S. — about 80 million dogs and 60 million cats.
One study found “cats and dogs account for 25 to 30 per cent of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the United States, and are responsible for creating approximately 64 million tons of carbon dioxide each year.”
They also produce millions of tonnes of poop every year, much of it individually wrapped before being sent to landfills. And some poop contaminates waterways with bacteria, viruses and parasites.
Choose sustainable pet food
When shopping for pet food, choose those with a good source of protein and other essential nutrients but with fewer environmental impacts. Look at ingredient lists and certification labels for sustainability, responsibility and traceability. (Also look for pet foods that offer free recycling programs for their packaging.)
Several companies, including big ones like Nestlé-owned Purina, sell pet foods made with insect protein. HOPE, an Ontario company, uses a mix of black soldier fly protein, chickpeas, yeast and algae.
Black soldier fly larvae are rich in protein, calcium, phosphorous, iron and zinc and are easy to raise. Combining them with other ingredients results in a pet food that’s healthier overall than meat-based products, with far fewer environmental effects — and it has spinoff benefits, such as diverting waste to feed the insects.
Insect farming requires much less land and water than livestock, has lower greenhouse gas emissions and produces protein efficiently. A U.S. company claims “an acre of land can produce about 192 pounds of beef annually, or 265 pounds of poultry,” but can yield “65,000 pounds of cricket or 130,000 pounds of black soldier fly larvae.”
Bonus! Insects are also a healthy protein source for people worldwide and are gradually gaining greater acceptance here.
The scoop on poop
Always pick up after pets! Leaving it to nature means poop may:
- Contaminate waterways (where it’s carried by stormwater) with bacteria.
- Deplete water oxygen levels (because it’s so nitrogen-rich), hurting fish and other wildlife.
- End up (unpleasantly) on anything that steps or rolls over it.
Check how your region handles pet waste. Visit its website and search for “waste” or “garbage.” Maybe you’ll find a solid waste management plan. Each municipality will have a variety of suggestions and preferences (see this short list).
Using a biodegradable poop bag can be a “green” choice. Given correct conditions, these will perform as promised.
Avoid “degradable” (as opposed to “biodegradable”) bags made of formulated polythene. They don’t biodegrade but fragment, leaving tiny bits of plastic that can enter waterways. Compostable bags require the heat of a compost pile to break down.
Note: Remove as much air as possible before knotting the bag to prevent poop explosions on workers or passersby when the bag is squeezed by the truck’s compressor.
Here’s the hitch.
The anaerobic (no oxygen) conditions in landfills prevent organic material from decomposing. Poop in landfills can also contaminate water and produce methane gas, which is why some have a no-feces (dog or otherwise) policy. Some regions permit small amounts of well-wrapped or double-bagged pet waste in the garbage, especially in areas without green bin collection. That’s not the best-case scenario, though.
Four responsible ways to keep pet waste out of the landfill
First check with your municipal waste management department. Many municipalities strongly discourage flushing cat litter down the toilet (it is often clumping and can clog the system).
If flushing dog poop, don’t flush baggies — not even biodegradable bags. Even those labelled “flushable” will clog plumbing or sewers.
Empty bags or scoop the poop directly into the toilet, being careful when handling.
Never deposit pet waste down storm sewers, which often flow to waterways (e.g., creeks and streams).
On a septic system? Check with the installer or manufacturer.
Municipalities, including Toronto and the Region of Waterloo, encourage pet waste disposal in the green bin. (Be sure to wrap waste according to local specifications first.) More municipalities are making this change. Check with your municipal waste management department or request the change.
Comparative Analysis of Dog Waste Processing Methods for Metro Vancouver examines whether dog waste can be safely composted — turned into nutrient rich soil without harmful pathogens.
- B.C.’s regulations say, “animal excreta from pets is suitable for composting.”
- Pathogens can be eliminated in commercial and industrial facilities.
- Composting can produce nutrient-rich soil given specific conditions and testing for pathogens.
- Responsibly composting dog waste requires effective treatment temperatures to reduce pathogens. The United States Department of Agriculture recommends 60 C while industry standards say 55 C for a minimum of three days for safe and effective compost.
- Compost is not recommended on edible gardens (use it for landscaping only).
Can you compost pet waste in your backyard?
While there are a host of methods, a commitment to pathogen testing and knowledge of the temperatures necessary to do it safely is a must. Application-wise, dog waste compost should be kept separate from other compost and is best used on ornamental — not edible — gardens, and kept well away from streams, groundwater or vegetable and fruit crops.
Here are some recommended methods for composting pet waste. Make sure you learn about effective treatment temperatures and pathogen-testing first (start with this report).
- Compost pit — about one metre deep by one metre wide, with a cover.
- Dog poop compost bin — available at pet stores and garden centres.
- Vermicompost — create a separate worm bin for the red wrigglers that eat your organics.
- Digester — buried in your yard and works similar to a composter. Available at local stores or make your own.
Private pet waste collection services
A good option for multi-unit residences (townhouses or apartments) where a group of pet owners share costs. Look for red collection bins for dog waste. In Vancouver, it’s a private dog waste collection company in action. Poop goes to the sewage treatment plant.
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