Like many of you, I am a huge fan of Bea Johnson’s Zero Waste blog, and have even used it as an inspiration to make my household zero waste. However, her advice on pets leaves something to be wanted for those of us with larger dogs, cats, and other pets. Through some experimentation and common sense, I’ve come up with an easy way to keep all the pets we love in a zero waste manner.
The first step to a zero waste pet is to acquire it in a responsible manner. Petfinder.com, the humane society, animal shelters, craigslist, freecycle, and the local classifieds all are great sources for cheap or free pets that people may love but just aren’t able to care for any more. If you’re looking for farmyard type animals (chickens, rabbits, bees), look for local enthusiasts through farmer’s markets, county and state fairs, 4-H clubs, and other similar societies. If you don’t want to or are unable to get the pet you want through secondhand means, make sure that the breeder you go through is responsible. Look for healthy living conditions, happy animals, and a breeder who truly cares about the creatures they raise and care for.
Once you have your pet home (or maybe before that), start looking for used animal supplies. Bowls, collars, leashes, toys, and grooming supplies can usually be made or found in classifieds and thrift stores. Cages and tanks are especially common in thrift stores, while hutches for farmyard animals can usually be bought secondhand from the breeder where you got your animal. There are also a myriad of do-it-yourself fencing and caging options online which only use common, easily borrowed tools and which can usually be built in only a few hours. If you do need to buy new, check Etsy first, as handmade items are usually more earth friendly and waste free (they even have Amish-built kitty litter boxes listed for sale). If you do find yourself in a pet store, try to buy quality, long-lasting items that are repairable, have minimal plastic parts, and try to make that pet store a local establishment, as they’ll keep your dollars in the local economy better than the big box stores.
Now that you have a pet and their gear, think about feeding them a home-made diet, as this is the easiest way to make them waste-free. If you have a bulk source of pet food near you, hooray, but check to make sure the ingredients are something you’re comfortable with feeding your pet. I keep some bulk food on hand for nights I’m too tired to cook, but I normally like to feed my dogs a meal of half meat, diced and pan fried, a quarter cooked whole grains, and a quarter lightly steamed vegetables. There are plenty of homemade recipes online for dogs, cats, and all kinds of other animals. When I had fish I liked to chop up fruits and vegetables to supplement the flaked food I gave them (pre-zero waste days), and my hermit crabs are now much happier on mixed vegetables, calcium tablets, and the tiniest bit of cooked chicken.
There’s a lot more information on how to properly feed your pet a homemade meal (pet nutrition is different than human nutrition), so I would suggest that you perform a thorough Google search, make sure you’re getting your recipes from a reliable source, and possibly check with your vet or another expert to make sure that all your animal’s nutritional needs are being met.
Possibly the biggest source of pet waste aside from food packaging is actual pet waste. Everything poops (and pees), and all that matter has to go somewhere. Personally, I think the best thing to do with the mess is compost it, as this turns waste into a rich resource for your garden and yard. Composting poopy isn’t that much harder than regular composting, but a few extra precautions need to be taken to prevent the spread of pathogens.
The easiest thing to do is find an old trash can. Cut the bottom out, drill a lot of holes in the side, and dig a hole in the ground big enough to bury the can in with only two inches sticking up over the top. If you have heavy, clay-based soil, you can dig the hole a few feet deeper and then fill it up with gravel to promote drainage, but I haven’t found this necessary in any other type of soil (to tell if you have clay-type soil, get a bit of it wet, roll it into a snake, and bend it into a ‘U’ shape; if it can do that without breaking it, you have clay soil). You can also line the hole with chicken wire or nothing at all, if you’re not worried about the pit collapsing in on itself. I like the trash can because it has a lid built in, but a board or piece of old carpet would work just as well.
Once the poop composter is built, just add poop whenever you normally clean up after your pet, and then layer some leaves, sawdust, grass clippings, or shredded newspaper on top to keep the smell down and add carbon-rich material to balance out the nitrogen-rich animal leavings. I think it’s best to build two poop composters, as it takes six months to kill all bacteria and viruses, and a year and a half to two years to kill all parasitic worm eggs. This means that once the bin is full and you stop adding material it’s important to let the compost sit, undisturbed, for a year and a half to two years. With two compost bins this means that while one bin is being filled up, the other bin is composting and aging enough to kill off all pathogens.
Once the material has aged enough, the resulting humus can be used safely even for food crops, but if you continue to be worried about pathogen infestation use it for only horticultural purposes. If this all sounds like a long process, you can make thermophilic compost and eliminate all the nasties (bacteria, viruses, and worm eggs) in less than six months, but this is a topic for another post. If you’re just aching to know more, you’re welcome to go to my composting blog at www.compostingworld.blogspot.com, where everything is laid out in clear steps.
Composting poop is easy when compared to collecting it. If you have a cat, rabbit, chicken, or other pet that poops in one designated area, just make sure that the bedding is compostable too. Clay, sand, and crystalline-based cat litters are no good, as they leach chemicals and mess up the soil structure. Kitty litter, and other animal beddings, that are made of sawdust, wheat husks, newspaper, corn cobs, rice hulls, or similar materials are all good candidates for zero waste pet bedding. I pick up my dogs’ poop on walks with biobags, which I’ve had no trouble composting, but which may need to be processed in a thermophilic pile to break down completely. I’ve also considered using a wet bag on walks, but this seemed like too much work, so instead I just try to pack as much poop in each biobag as a can on a walk, and then make my biggest dog carry it in his back pack. All other pet bits, like feathers, fish tank water, fur, nail trimmings, and bedding can be composted easily, but may also be added to the poop composter if you’re worried about pathogen contamination.
So as you can see, though keeping a zero waste pet sometimes involves a bit of a long article, it really isn’t that much more difficult than keeping a zero waste home. And even if you only implement a few of these methods (my vote goes to the poop composting; composting will save the world!), you’ll be doing a whole lot to help your family, furry and otherwise, and the planet.