Are eco-friendly cat litters truly good for the environment?
By Wendy Bedwell-Wilson
A decade ago, who would have thought cat owners would use anything but clay in their pets’ litter boxes? Clumping bentonite or the traditional zeolite or diatomite clay once dominated the cat-litter category, but clay’s reign is slowly diminishing. Alternative litters made from plant fibers or recycled materials have claimed their own retail shelf space—and more of it.
At Arcata Pet Supplies in Arcata, Calif., for instance, floor manager Jeremy Barney stocks three types of clay cat litter—and nearly triple the number of biodegradable or recycled alternatives. He says the alternatives are just as popular as the traditional clay-based varieties.
“The biodegradable, eco-friendly and clay litters are pretty even across the board,” he says. “Among the environmentally friendly brands, they’re all pretty equal in sales, as well.”
Although statistics from American Pet Products Association’s 2007-2008 National Pet Owners Survey indicate the majority of surveyed pet owners used clumping or clay litter in their cats’ boxes (that’s 70 percent clumping litter and 29 percent traditional clay), alternatives such as wheat, corn and pine pellets are gaining ground, and not just in the United States.
“Our sales have tripled over the last three years,” says Cindee Kohagen, director of sales for PlanetWise Products in Pine Bluff, Ariz. “In the United States, people are certainly becoming much more aware, but internationally, a lot of other countries are much more green than the U.S. Canada and Europe, for instance, are very green, very environmentally conscious. So we’re selling very well there, faster than the U.S.”
How They’re Made
The manufacturing processes for most alternative litters use products from the human-waste stream. Companies intercept corn cobs, wheat tailings or pine shavings before they wind up in landfills, says Steve Bolkan of Church & Dwight Co. Inc.’s research and development department in Princeton, N.J.
“If these materials weren’t used, they would just be thrown out into a landfill or left on the field,” he explains. “We’re taking that waste stream and turning it to a secondary use for value in an area that’s needed.”
Here are just a few examples of how alternative litters are derived:
- Corn: Corn-based litters typically originate from the livestock-feed, ethanol-manufacturing, seed-production and human-food markets, says Ray Brown, director of home care, research and development for Church & Dwight Co. Inc. After the nutrients are depleted, companies use what’s left over—usually the cob fiber—to make the litter.
- Wheat: Also derived from naturally processed, nonfood-grade waste from the agriculture industry, wheat-based litters contain wheat—and that’s it, according to Mark Hughes, general manager for Pet Care Systems in Detroit Lakes, Minn. He adds that the litter biodegrades almost immediately.
- Wood pellets: Using the leftover pine sawdust from lumber-mill floors, wood-pellet litter manufacturers dry the shavings in a 212-degree Fahrenheit oven to destroy naturally occurring acids in the wood and maximize its absorption capability, says Sean Berzenski, marketing assistant for Nature’s Earth Products in West Palm Beach, Fla. They’re then compressed into pellets.
- Soybeans: Scott DeWaide, president of The Organic Farm Store in Spokane, Wash., says cat litter made from soybeans starts out in soybean-oil manufacturing plants. The dry meal is then sorted and screened to remove oversized parts, and mixed with a granulated potato starch that causes the litter to clump.
- Green tea: Makers of green-tea-based litters combine bacteria-inhibiting green tea with scrap wood from furniture makers and the construction industry, says Stan Yamamoto, president of Next Gen Pet Products in Laguna Niguel, Calif. Rather than compress the mixture into a dense pellet, the manufacturer keeps it light and fluffy to aid in urine absorption and clump formation.
- Paper pellets: Manufacturers of paper pellets use recycled newsprint and other paper materials to create highly absorbent litter that controls odor, says Julie Kahn, marketing representative for Nestlé Purina PetCare Co. in St. Louis.
Good for the Earth?
Manufacturers market alternative litters as renewable, biodegradable, compostable and even flushable, compared to mined clay. But when looking at the products’ entire life cycles, how green are they, really?
“Unless you do a really comprehensive life-cycle analysis of these alternative litters, and understand from the actual beginning to the end of its life, all the steps, all the energy, the transportation that’s used, it’s hard to make a blanket statement,” Brown says. “But for the most part, they do seem like they would be better for the environment.”
Plant-based litters do biodegrade when exposed to air and water, but when they’re tossed in the landfill, they’re packed down into an anaerobic mass, unable to degrade the way they’re intended, explains Mark Klaiman, owner of Pet Camp Cat Safari, a cat daycare and boarding facility in San Francisco. Although many communities offer large biodegradation or composting facilities, most will not accept cat litter.
“For instance, in San Francisco we’re not allowed to compost cat litter of any type right now due to cross-contamination issues,” he says. “And if they go to a landfill, they don’t break down the way they were intended. The landfill’s not designed for biodegradation. That’s what compost facilities or biomass facilities are for.”
The solution, says Kim Hecker, owner of The Natural Pet LLC in Milwaukee, is to encourage customers to throw clumps and fecal matter in the garbage, but compost or mulch what’s left in their own yards.
“I don’t want to put any more in our landfills, lakes and rivers than we already have,” she says. “There are litters you can put down the toilet, but I have just decided personally not to go that route, and I recommend customers compost their used litter in their shrubbery or flower beds instead of throwing it in the trash.”
One company has bypassed the litter issue altogether. Steve Yampolsky, vice president of PetNovations Ltd. in Norristown, Pa., sells a litter box filled with washable plastic granules that rinses the urine and feces down the drain.
“When it comes to litter boxes, the real problem is the litter,” he says. “No matter what substrate you use, you still have to buy it, carry it and throw it away, like you do with paper plates. But you wash your plates and reuse them, so why can’t we wash and reuse the litter?”
As with any natural or alternative product, educating and communicating with customers is vital, says Amanda Adolf, manager of Best Friend Pet Food & Supplies in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada. When cat owners come in asking about litters, she shows them the different types and lets them make their own decision.
“When customers come in, usually they’ll ask our opinion on litter,” she notes. “We explain the different ones, what they’re about, and let them choose from there. When they find one they like, they keep coming back and buying it, even if it is more expensive.”
At Arcata Pet, customers want to know what alternatives there are to traditional clay litters, Barney reports.
“People are asking what their choices are,” he says. “Some people like the fact that they can just dump the litter in the backyard. In California, legislators recently mandated that stickers go on all cat litter, including flushable ones, saying that it’s not quite as benign as previously thought, and please do not flush any of your cat litter, even if it says it’s safe for septic tanks. So a lot of people do like the fact that they can use it as mulch instead.”
Most manufacturers recommend retailers create an alternative-litter section and use signage and shelf talkers to promote the benefits of plant-based or recycled litters, Berzenski says.
“Retailers should break their cat-litter sections into three different parts: regular clay litter, clumping clay litter and natural litter,” he says.
“It makes it that much easier for consumers who use clay litter to walk up and go right to that area. Or if they feel like changing to a natural litter, they can go right to the naturals and have their selection there.”
Barney notes that once people try an alternative litter, oftentimes they’re sold.
“Some people are predisposed to the clay ones, because that’s what a lot of them have either grown up using or might have recommended to them,” he says. “But it seems that once people try some of the alternatives and realize that something that’s made out of wheat grass or corn litter can be just as effective, they’ll change over.”
The United States Geological Survey reports that in 2008, an estimated 1.3 million metric tons of bentonite clay was mined to make the clumping type of cat litter alone. That’s a lot of clay.
To extract the clay used for cat litter, mining companies dig at or just beneath the earth’s surface to expose veins of the material, says Ray Brown, director of home care, research and development for Church & Dwight Co. Inc. in Princeton, N.J. Decades ago, the process, known as strip or surface mining, left behind a barren wasteland.
“Clay mining has gotten a bad name because years ago, that’s the way it was,” he says. “Companies went in there and strip mined and when they left, they didn’t restore anything. They just stripped away all the resources, and after they got what they were looking for they just left.”
But today, environmental influences and government regulations have changed that process. Mining companies now repair the earth when they’re done harvesting the clay—and often improve upon it. They’re required to get land rights from the government, conduct an ecological evaluation of the area, and be bonded to ensure the land will be restored after they complete the mining.
“The mining companies are just a lot more cognizant of the environmental impact they’re making, and how they have to leave those areas when they’re done,” Brown says.
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