Like other "hidden" forms of environmental waste, your best furry friend masks extraordinary amounts of waste behind his cute little face.
Brenda and Robert Vale, eco-footprint experts from New Zealand, concluded in their controversial 2009 book "Time to Eat the Dog? The Real Guide to Sustainable Living," that owning a medium-sized dog is twice as environmentally expensive as making a Toyota Land Cruiser and driving it for 10,000 kilometers (about 6,200 miles), according to an article in The Globe and Mail. Cats, on the other hand, were about one-fifth as taxing on the environment, or the equivalent of doing the same with a Volkswagen Golf, the paper reported.
And a Los Angeles Times opinion piece said, "Plastic bags of poop account for 4% of the municipal waste in San Francisco's landfills, as much as the whole city's disposal diapers. And every ounce of it produces methane — a greenhouse gas 30% more powerful than carbon dioxide. The city of Chicago's 68 million pounds of annual dog poop creates 102 million cubic feet of unburned methane."
Of course, some people don't bother to pick up the waste. "It's organic," right? The LA Times article said dog waste, when washed down storm drains into streams and the ocean, fuels toxic algae blooms that suck up oxygen and turn coastal habitats into dead zones. So that's not the answer, either.
And not all of the pet conundrum stems from actual waste. Pets have to eat, too. A lot of what they eat is meat, which we already know comes with a hefty footprint. But beyond that, their processed foods contain "double or triple the protein that studies show animals need," The Globe and Mail article reported. So not only are they eating foods with a heavy carbon footprint to start, they're eating more of it. Yes, some pet food companies use ingredients that incorporate byproducts or leftovers from the food chain — which would reduce the food's footprint — but it's "not enough to offset the willingness of many animal lovers to pay a premium for pet cuisine," the Globe and Mail article said.
This doesn't even take into account the problems with chemicals used to treat fleas or ticks, or the footprint of producing and importing oh-so-cute outfits for those who take the phrase "babying your pet" to heart.
So what to do about the pet problem? Here are a few tips to lessen your pets' eco-pawprint.
Perhaps the easiest solution here is to simply choose foods for your pet that have a smaller footprint. That includes chicken and rabbit, according to the LA Times. That's still not the greenest of foods, but going vegetarian probably isn't a great option for your pet. A recent study found that vegetarian-labeled pet food assessed in the study "were not compliant with Association of American Feed Control Officials' labeling regulations, and there were concerns regarding adequacy of amino acid content." So aim for lowering the footprint, but don't expect a dramatic decrease.
There are actually multiple solutions here — some which could be scaled up on a city or county level and some which you could easily incorporate right at your home.
— Flush it. Pick up after your dog, bring it home and then flush it. But don't flush cat waste. Why? The eggs of Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite found in cat poop, may survive the wastewater treatment process and contaminate waterways, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
— Bury it. The NRDC suggests using corn-based biodegradable bags to bury the waste, locating your holes away from vegetable plants and ensuring that the water table isn't too high in your area so the waste won't get into groundwater.
— Compost it — in a special composter. You can either purchase a dog waste composter, such as the Doggie Dooley, or make your own, using a trash can. With either option you use the same enzymes as in a septic tank to help break down the waste. Again, this is not for cat waste, but if you have an herbivorous pet, such as a hamster, rabbit or guinea pig, you can put their waste right in the regular garden compost.
— Pick a better cat litter. Skip the clay-based litters. Instead, go for one made with wheat, corn, reclaimed pine shavings or recycled newspapers. There are lots of options in stores now.
— Pet waste digester. You may be familiar with agriculture using anaerobic digesters, which convert manure into energy. This is the same concept, but using dog waste as the methane agent. The LA Times said an artist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created a waste digester for a Cambridge, Mass., dog park, which powers the lights for the park.
(Image at top: Pixabay.)