How to Dispose of Cat Litter... and why it matters to sea otters
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How to Dispose of Cat Litter: The Ultimate Guide to Eco-Friendly Pet Waste Management (Part 1)

When it comes to loving our pets, responsible pet owners know that a big part of that love is dealing with their waste. It is what it is.

There are, of course, many ways to deal with pet waste, some of which are astoundingly wasteful. For instance, have you seen those litter box subscriptions? An entire litter pan with litter shipped to your home and then you just bag up your old one and toss it. Erm. That’s a whole lotta packaging and fossil fuel used when you can simply… scoop? There are also chemical litters and robotic litter boxes and sprays and the list goes on.

How to Dispose of Cat Litter_ The Ultimate Guide to Eco-Friendly Pet Waste Management (Part 1)

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We’re over-complicating something that’s incredibly simple, all in the name of convenience. 

So, today, I want to dispel some myths around cat litter and share some ways in which we can make our litter boxes gentler on the environment–and, incidentally, gentler on feline and human health at the same time!

Your Cat’s Impact on the Environment

We’ve talked previously about our pets’ eating habits and their affect on the environment. Well, with input comes… output.

First things first: One of the best steps you can take toward lessening your cat’s carbon pawprint is to bring your cat indoors. I’m not here to discuss the merits of indoor vs. outdoor cats (though we here are all firmly indoor-cat-only believers for their safety), but since I’m here as a conservationist, I think it’s important to realize that your outdoor cats’ waste contaminates groundwater. If you’re truly dedicated to diminishing the eco-impact of your pets, bring ’em inside.

Next, never, ever flush litter. EVEN IF the box of litter says flushable, just don’t do it. For one thing, it’s terrible for sewer lines. For another, wastewater treatment plants aren’t designed to process what can be found in cat waste, further contaminating our water supply. And this, in particular, has a direct impact on the natural world. According to a Stanford University report on cat litter:

Pet owners in coastal areas should think twice about flushing used litter. Domestic cats may carry the protozoan parasite Toxoplasmosis gondii , and may shed active oocysts, or spores, in their feces. These oocysts are not eliminated by current wastewater treatments, and flushing simply speeds them on their way to open bodies of water. Sea otters are particularly vulnerable to T. gondii, and recent studies have found that sea otters from areas of high freshwater runoff were three times more likely to contain T. gondiiantibodies, indicating current or past infection. According to a study by scientists at the University of California at Davis,this parasite can kill sea otters. In addition, infected otters are almost three times more likely to suffer from cardiac disease, and are at a much higher risk of shark attack.

Don’t be responsible for a sea otter getting attacked by a shark! I say that a little tongue-in-cheek, but at the same time, there are much better eco-friendly options for disposing of your cat litter that don’t result in sick sea otters.

You can make litter decisions that have far-reaching, positive implications for pets, the planet, your family, and your wallet. We’ll cover a handful of easy steps you can take along the way, starting with this:

Ditch the Clay Cat Litter!

Seriously. If you do nothing else, do this one thing. Here’s why:

Nearly all bentonite clay mined in this country is obtained by strip mining. According to the United States Geological Survey, approximately, 25 percent — nearly 1,200 tons —  was used as a pet waste absorbent in 2005.

Strip mining is a surface mining practice with a long history of causing environmental damage. In the first stage of the mining process, engineers identify valuable mineral deposits that are 30 to 40 feet below the ground. Next, bulldozers remove any trees and bushes growing above the deposits, and excavate the topsoil and dirt down to the first rock layer. Vegetation, topsoil, and dirt are then dumped nearby. Depending on the type of mineral being mined, the next stage may be to drill small holes through the freshly uncovered rock. Explosives are put into the holes and detonated, breaking up the rock, which is also then dumped. Eventually, strip mining produces a series of pits from which mineral deposits are extracted, and a massive pile of discarded matter. (SOURCE)

Um. Is your cat litter worth all that?

Definitely not, especially considering how many safe and effective alternatives there are. I share some of my favorites below, but stick this thought in your mind: Ditch the clay cat litter to positively diminish your cat’s impact on the environment!

Can you compost cat litter?

Another reason to ditch clay: It can’t be composted. Many other litters can be, as long as you follow some specific guidelines and realize that you’re composting the litter not the waste!

  1. Ensure you’re using a biodegradable litter, one made from material like pine, recycled newspaper, or–my personal fave–grass seed. See the next section for more on this!
  2. According to PetMD, “Unless you’re using an enzyme to help break down waste or can guarantee that the compost bin is heating to over 145°F, you don’t want to use this fertilizer in a vegetable garden.” If you can’t meet those conditions, scoop the waste first and dispose of it in a biodegradable bag.
  3. Dump the remaining litter into your compost pile far from any growing food.
  4. In fact, because tiny pieces of waste will likely slip through your scooper, if you can’t ensure you meet the conditions in point 3, don’t plan on using this litter on or around edible plants. Instead, use it for decorative gardens far from food.

HOWEVER, going back to the litter-borne parasite issue mentioned above, if you live in a coastal area, skip in-ground composting altogether. It’s too risky that you’ll contaminate the water and, therefore, the marine life. You could probably compost in a bin or bucket if you could carefully manage the conditions, but just be aware.

Is cat litter biodegradable?

Many biodegradable litters exist already, and more keep hitting the market. We cat lovers know how particular our furries can be, so it’s important to test a few to find the right fit for your home and your cat. Consider these options:

  • Grass seed: This is first on the list because it’s my favorite and the one we stuck with after trying many others on the market. It controls odors well. It doesn’t spread dust, though you will need to sweep around your box because when my girls jump out they tend to have some stuck to their toes. It does, however, clump well, which is a big bonus for me for ease of scooping.
  • Newspaper: A popular, commonly-available option. We tried one brand and found that it didn’t control odors well, but remember that every cat is different so it might work for you!
  • Coconut: We’ve never tried this. It’s newer to market than some of the others, but it might be the one that appeals to your cat.
  • Wheat: A highly-rated, popular option made from renewable wheat. We did try this and felt like it tracked a bit more, but I’ve read a ton of positive reviews, so I’d be open to giving it another try if we decided to shift from the grass seed.
  • Pine cobble: Made from renewable pine, and the brand claims cats are naturally drawn to the material, which makes transitioning easy.

All these options can naturally biodegrade. FWIW, still another reason to ditch clay: It’s not biodegradable.

If you’re committed to changing your cat’s litter, we’ve never had any trouble with this formula: Replace 1/4 of your cat’s current litter with the new litter each week so that by the end of the month, you’ve fully transitioned. Newt isn’t picky about her litter (nor her food, actually!) and Ripley is picky about nearly everything, and this system worked for both my girls each time we tried something new. The only one they didn’t like at all was a popular corn-based brand, and I think it’s because they’re both voracious litter-kickers and it just didn’t work for us for that. So, I didn’t include it in the list above, but know that corn is another option!

Eco-Friendly Cat Litter Disposal

OK, so you’ve chosen a biodegradable cat litter and transitioned your cat. Go, you! You’re killing it! Woot!

What’s next?

Well, you have to dispose of the litter!

TONS of eco-friendly advice articles suggest flushing, but it’s not advisable. Municipal water treatment plants simply can’t process the bacteria and pathogens found in cat waste. You could call your local water treatment facility and ask, just to be totally sure, but it’s generally not possible. Since we’re trying to prevent further environmental contamination, here are two ways to dispose of your cat litter in an environmentally-responsible manner:

  1. Compost. If you can swing it, this is the best route to take. Again, if you’re going to include your cat’s waste, you need to ensure your compost heats to over 145°F. If you can’t ensure that, follow step two below for waste removal and compost the remaining biodegradable litter away from edible plants and use for decorative gardens.
  2. Scoop and toss. This is what we do and though it’s not ideal, it’s often the single best option available. Scoop into a biodegradable pickup bag (we use these or these) and toss in your curbside garbage. When you change the litter in the box, which we do every 30 days, simply empty into newspaper, wrap, and toss in your trash bin.

This is one of those places where we need to focus on progress, not perfect. No, it’s not a truly zero-waste system since you’re sending material to the landfill. It’s the best, gentlest option available at this time. That’s all any of us can hope to do!

Eco-Friendly Cat Litter Box Options

You’ve picked your litter, developed a sustainable litter disposal routine… well, what about the box itself? Let’s consider some do’s and don’ts when it comes to litter boxes and scoops:

  • Don’t use liners; they’re unnecessary waste.
  • Do use your current box–even if it’s plastic–until the end of its useful life! No point tossing and replacing something that still works. However, once it’s run its course…
  • Do swap your box for a bamboo version like this one (it comes in a bunch of colors, too).
  • Don’t use disposable scoops. There’s no point. Use a metal scoop like this, and if you’re worried about contamination, store it in one of your biodegradable pickup bags. Clean it periodically with castile soap or vinegar.

Finally, when it comes to cleaning the litter box, stick with a mild or gentle cleanser–like castile soap or vinegar–and rinse well. Never use harsh products like bleach that will get on your cat’s paws, which she’ll then lick off. Blech.

There you have it: Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about eco-friendly cat litter disposal!

Now it’s your turn: What questions do you have? Are you looking for a solution, either DIY or to purchase, that you could use some guidance on? I’m here to help! Leave them in the comments below! If you’re looking for solutions for your dog’s waste, stay tuned.

If you’re looking for more ideas on your zero-waste journey, join our email community AND snag a free wallet-friendly, pet-safe cleaning guide as our thank you for singing up!

26 Comments

  • Arissa

    Hi there! I love the article and I was just wondering if you should throw away cat cat poop (and send it to the landfill) because apparently it’s a bad idea to compost it.

    • maggieZWP

      Unless you have the ability to heat your compost pile to a temp hot enough (at least 145°F), tossing is the best bet. It’s not ideal, but it’s the safest overall with what tech we have available to us now!

      • Samantha

        Thank you for this article. Very helpful and not shaming. I use Abound litter, grass seed, and my cats love it and so do I. I will start buying biodegradable bags to throw it away now. Thanks again.

  • Jeanie Ailstock

    This article was definitely helpful! I have 2 sweet indoor kitties, one of which would use any litter I ever introduced him to, and the other that has required Dr Elsey’s (SUPER expensive) Cat Attract litter for probably at least the last 8-9 years. It doesn’t matter how clean the litter box is, if it’s not that particular litter, he will happily pee on the floor beside the box. My special boy is also diabetic, although his glucose levels are on the cusp of remission, but between the 2, they pee A LOT. Like for every day use I have to use double-bagged plastic grocery bags (which I HATE) but I don’t know if they make biodegradable bags big enough for them. I tried the litter genie and I fill one of those big thick bags up every-other-day. Also, they have no additional underlying medical conditions that would warrant their waste level. It’s just how they are. Do you have any suggestions? Thanks so much for your help!

    • maggieZWP

      Hmm… I’m not sure about the size of biodegradable bags because the only ones I’ve seen are made for picking up after your dog, BUT! I did recently learn that there are such things as compost bin liners. Perhaps something like that would be sized appropriately? Another thought would be to scoop into a bin with a lid (you could even line it with paper instead of a bag) and dump that into your curbside garbage once it got full. Let me know if you find a solution that works for you! Gotta love our sweet kitties always challenging us! 🙂

    • Tauby Mintz

      How can you write an article advocating for environmentally friendly options when you are associated with Amazon? How can you order these environmentally friendly options from amazon and tell us you are finding truly environmentally friendly options? Amazon emits tons of CO2 waste and regularly ordering from Amazon is far worse than your individual pet waste habits. In fact, Amazon emitted 19 million metric tons of carbon in 2017, which is equivalent to five coal power plants. Further, ordering from Amazon just means that Jeff Bezos’ 171 billion dollars (as of July 2nd, 2020) will continue to grow, furthering the wealth gap, a gap that also furthers the discrepancy among those who are impacted by environmental destruction which impacts people of color and those living in the most impoverished parts of the world the most. I cannot believe I clicked on a link from a website called “thezerowastepet.com” just to find another Amazon affiliate. I hope you will look into other options, including using Black owned businesses, local businesses, and business that offer net zero or net negative shipping, and businesses that don’t emit millions of metric tons of carbon per year. This post might make you feel better about your pet waste options, but if you truly cared for the environment, we would see you leave the Amazon affiliates program and lift up business who are committed to the fight for environmental justice. What will you do now? I really would love to see a resource that is truly environmentally friendly and not just a feel good about yourself post. I would love to talk more about this and learn with you to find ways to actually get closer to the zero waste pet you talk about. I hope you will reach out.

      • maggieZWP

        Hiya, Tauby! I’d LOVE to discuss this further, and I thank you for calling out Amazon. This is such a deep, multi-faceted issue that I’m not sure a single comment can unpack, so let me see what points I can touch on here then would absolutely love to chat with you in greater detail via email, messenger, etc.

        I’m actually going to set aside the Jeff Bezos issue for this conversation, though we can dig into that more anytime!

        Let’s start with this example: I would be thrilled to pieces if I could find a local store that sells sustainable cat litter. Trust me, I’ve tried. Most say the demand is too small, the litter is too expensive, etc. So, I hope that by writing about it here–and, yeah, linking to what’s available on Amazon–might increase the awareness of better options.

        I would also be ecstatic to find Black-owned pet businesses. Honestly, there is a tremendous lack of representation of BIPOC in the pet industry, from manufacturing to retailing to marketing to editorial to rescue to sheltering. Every facet of the pet industry is dominated by white women. This is something that I’m working on heavily on OhMyDogBlog.com and hope to have a resource available soon. In this particular space, we’re currently researching to find BIPOC-owned companies that have a sustainable bent. We’ll publish as soon as it’s robust.

        The brands we DO try to promote, we focus on only those that are taking active strides toward lessening their impact on the planet. However, I will stand behind my biggest assertion, which is that every single tiny step matters. If you’re a dog person, for instance, and commit to swapping out your pickup bags from plastic to something biodegradable, we can certainly argue that biodegradable pickup bags are imperfect, but I refuse to deter someone from taking the first, even minuscule, step forward. We can’t lose sight of the fact that we NEED progress and the push for perfection alienates newcomers.

        As for the affiliate program, here’s my reality: This site costs me a ton of money each year. I pay for hosting and security. I pay to register the URL. I pay to fight the copyright infringements that occur a few times a year when people steal what I post. If I’m going to continue to create this material, and to leverage my decade-plus in the pet industry to distill and disseminate what I’m learning, well… I have to earn at least some money to offset those costs. That is the reality. I’ve seen this on tons and tons of websites where people feel irritated when there’s a sponsored post or an affiliate link because they assume the creator is just doing it for the money. The unfortunate reality is that bills can’t be paid with Facebook shares or Instagram likes. For a long while I tried to link to another affiliate program through a natural pet store, but I got so many emails from people saying that the store charged $7.99 shipping so they found the items on Amazon. At the end of the day, I’m very aware of Amazon’s ills, but I’m also aware that most people need to start somewhere and most want to start from where they feel most comfortable. So, yeah, I make a few cents if someone buys something from my link, and it might not be the best place to purchase an item, but sometimes it’s actually the only place to find something these days. I guess at the end of the day for me, it’s more about helping folks take tiny steps on this path to lessen their pets’ environmental impact, and I prioritize that over achieving perfection because, the harsh reality is, pet ownership can never be a truly zero-waste endeavor. Honestly, though? And I think many of my posts make this clear, living a lower-waste lifestyle means buying LESS stuff, so the long game would mean I put myself out of a job if my work is helpful enough.

        All that said, I get it. I get your frustration and the issues you raise are important and valuable. I’d certainly be happy to continue this discussion anytime. My contact info is all over the place, or we can chat here, email, etc.

        I appreciate your time and your passion.

  • Aditya

    Hi there! I love the article and I was wondering what should we do to the cat waste (poop) other than throw it away to the landfill. Is there any other options?

    • maggieZWP

      If your city offers pet waste pickup, that’s the very best option! Not many do, at least not around where I live. If you live somewhere with a climate that allows your compost to get hot enough, you could try that, but as I outlined above… it’s tricky and risky if you get it wrong. Basically, the safest option for cat waste is to toss it, though I recommend a biodegradable pickup bag so that it can break down in the landfill. Fingers crossed more cities start to offer pickup programs!!

  • Hana

    Hi, could you give readers more information on the grass seed for litter? Your link sent me to a ‘404 Page Not Found.’ Will any old grass seed clump? Thank you for a great article.

    • maggieZWP

      Yikes! It looks like the brand I’ve always purchased is no longer available. Sorry about that, but thank you so much for pointing it out. I just went in and updated my own Amazon order to the new one linked above (or here for convenience: https://amzn.to/2TCe4TG) but note I haven’t yet tried this one. I just ordered it, so I’ll come back with my verdict after we’ve had a chance to scope it out!

      • Brinley

        Hi there,
        I use recycled new paper litter for my cats droppings and found that if I try to scoop just the dropping without much litter that I can successfully flush it down the toilet – we have been doing this for a year now and have had no problems.
        Is this a low waste way to get rid of the dropping or is it still going to be harmful to the environment?

        Also then when we change the litter completely at the ended of the week we place it in a biodegradable bag and sadly have to put it in the trash as we rent and are not allowed a compost at this time

        Is there anything I can be doing better to help reduce waste ?

  • Josh

    Hi! Great article. We have a ferret and because he eats exclusively cat food I think it’s a close enough comparison. We live in an area with no regular curb-side garbage pickup. I suppose I’ll have to try to get the compost warm enough to break everything down. Any advice for methods to do so?

  • Kele Roberts

    I wonder if I rinse and set out in the sun kitties used silica litter…can I reuse it in my gardens?
    I was gifted some for my rescue/ kat house.
    Thank Mews

  • Andrea

    Hi. I just want to say Thank You for offering what you have been exploring yourself and then sharing. None of us hold truth and so we just keep powering on and finding small (and sometimes bigger) ways to contribute and share versus extract more from our lovely Earth. The pet realm of the zero waste continuum is often ignored or overlooked but its impact is just as significant. Thank You for the focus on this and for your grounded and respectful responses on here.

  • Andy

    I’d love to be able to change our litter less often, but while the poop is manageable, the urine smell becomes unbearable if litter isn’t changed every week. We have two male cats (neutered, but they still have a stronger odour) and so we have two boxes. Would love to use less litter overall, but not sure how to keep the odours at bay.

    • maggieZWP

      How often are you scooping? We scoop our three boxes twice a day, once after breakfast and once before bed. (More if there’s an *acute* situation…) Beyond that, we don’t need to do a full replace of the litter more than once ever six weeks or so!

  • Dawn

    Hi Maggie,

    I’m curious if you know how well litter actually composts or breaks down once it’s sent to the landfill or compost bin? I friend of mine recently posted about the limitations of biodegradable dog poop bags and how normal waste facilities don’t create the right environment for them to degrade. Now I wonder if the same applies to litter.

    Thanks, Dawn

    • maggieZWP

      Hi, Dawn! I realize I got back to your email and forgot to come back here! So, IF you’re lucky enough to live somewhere with industrial composting, that’s the best option. If you choose a natural litter (my recommendation is grass seed) it breaks down just like grass seed would. Your friend is right about the limitations of dog poop bags. I have emails out to interview several different experts and manufacturers and hope to share those insights soon!

    • maggieZWP

      Hi, Fred! Thanks so much for taking the time to leave a comment! I’d love to continue the discussion if you can be a little more specific in your question? I think the post is super clear that it’s not possible at this time to achieve zero-waste cat litter management unless you live in one of the few municipalities that allow you to compost it industrially, so my goal was to give lots of ideas on how to lessen the impact of your cat’s litter. I tried to sum it up when I wrote: “This is one of those places where we need to focus on progress, not perfection. No, it’s not a truly zero-waste system since you’re sending material to the landfill. It’s the best, gentlest option available at this time. That’s all any of us can hope to do!”

      I’m really sorry if that wasn’t clear! Can you be a little more specific in your question?

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