Eco-Friendly Options for Dog Waste Containment
Updated August 2014
Many of us can relate to the old saying that “dog is man’s best friend”. According to the Humane Society of the United States website, 47% of US households have at least one dog. These dog lovers actually average 1.47 dogs per household. A big environmental challenge that every dog lover faces is the dog waste removal and disposal. Two of our avid subscribers, Charlene and Joanna, suggested an article on this subject. It has been a topic of debate among their dog walking group. The magnitude of this issue is much greater than I had originally realized. While researching eco-friendly dog waste containment options I uncovered some surprising facts:
Dog Waste Facts:
- According to the Flush Doggy Poop Calculator a 75-pound dog will generate over 500 pounds of waste in one year
- Picking up 3 times a day with plastic bags, the most popular practice, puts over 1000 bags a year into the landfill
- Various estimates state that plastic bags will take from 10 years to 1000 years to fully decompose in landfills
- A City of San Francisco study showed that “animal feces make up nearly 4 percent of residential (landfill) waste -- nearly as much as disposable diapers”
- Various surveys state that about one-third of dog owners don't bother to clean up after their dogs (DISGUSTING!)
- Dog waste is a major source of urban stormwater bacterial pollution
So what is the best solution for getting rid of dog waste?
A state of New Jersey document about dealing pet waste in suburbia stated the options very simply, you can:
- Trash it
- Bury it
- Flush it
Lets dig a little deeper into each dog waste containment option.
As dog owners for many years, “trash it” has been our primary practice for getting rid of dog waste. We started out using the left over plastic produce bags or plastic newspaper covers that we had accumulated. They were convenient for a daily yard pickup or two and on our daily walks. We felt good because these bags were being used for a “second job” before disposal. This went on for years before I realized just how big the numbers become. Two large dogs generate about 1000 pounds of waste per year. Between 4 and 5 bags per day for waste removal add up to more than 1500 plastic bags in the landfill per year. Not good!
In the past year we began to feel guilty about all of those plastic bags going into the landfill, and that foul smell of the trash can during the hot summer months. We began to use degradable waste bags for our walks and a dog waste digester system for the yard. This practice has worked pretty well (see the Doggie Dooley® experience below). The big question that remained was about the “biodegradability” of these plastic bags. We had heard that plastic bags take many decades to decompose. Wouldn’t biodegradable bags be much better? We thought so. We began using BioBags® for our dog waste disposal. Researching the various biodegradable bag brands available opened a few big “cans of worms”.
Can of Worms #1 – What Does Biodegradable Mean?
I was very surprised that “biodegradable” is largely a marketing term when it comes too most self-proclaimed eco-friendly products. There is actually no legal definition for biodegradable. According to Wikipedia, “biodegradable waste is a type of waste, typically originating from plant or animal sources, which may be broken down by other living organisms.” Since there is no mention timeframe or under what conditions breaking down takes place, many companies stretch the definition. Almost everything will break down over some time period. There are FTC guidelines for stating “biodegradable” on products, but my experience is that almost everyone claims that their product is biodegradable. Just recently the FTC has begun cracking down on deceptive biodegradable marketing claims.
We found that there are two basic types of dog waste bags, one made from petroleum and the other from corn. The biodegradable corn bags are more expensive and meet the tougher standard for biodegradable and compostable, something called ASTM D6400. This standard applies a timeframe and conditions to the definition. It was mandated in California law under SB 1749 that “prohibits the sale of plastic bags within the state, which are labeled "compostable" or "degradable" or "biodegradable" unless the bags conform to standards set by the American Society for Testing and Materials” (ASTN D6400). I had to laugh when looking at one (unnamed) brand at the local pet store. It was labeled “100% Biodegradable” in large letters with “*Except as defined by California” in small print underneath it. At least they were up front about it. Most other brands were not.
To sum it up, ordinary plastic bags are the worst solution. Petroleum based biodegradable plastic bags are a better option. Biodegradable corn bags that meet ATSM D6400 standards are the best. But that would be just too easy!
Can of Worms #2 – It may not matter, it’s mummified anyway
It turns out that modern landfills are designed in a way that almost no biodegradation occurs, for anything! I came across some interesting information about “The Garbage Project”. Dr. William Rathje’s, a University of Arizona Professor of Anthropology, began a study of the Tucson landfill in 1973. In the book “Rubbish,” he writes: “Well-designed and managed landfills seem to be far more apt to preserve their contents for posterity than transform them into humus or mulch. They are not vast composters: rather they are vast mummifiers.” Since 1987 the project has excavated 21 landfills in North America and found 40-year-old newspapers that were still legible, 5-year-old lettuce and a 15-year-old hot dog. It seems that even organic materials take a very long time to break down in landfills.
The bottom line here is that when you use the best biodegradable and compostable bags, but throw them into the trash, they probably won’t break down quickly, like we thought. I guess the trick is in the word compostable. If you use these bags and then compost the waste, they are a great solution. We will review that approach in the “bury it” option next. Almost any way you look at it, “trash it” is not a good eco-friendly solution for dog waste disposal.
My next attempt was to install a Doggie Dooley® 3000 dog waste digester. The mini septic tank has worked well, once I got use to a few little tricks. We have two large dogs and I really needed the larger dog waste digester. While this is a good solution, it is not for everyone. The unit should be placed away from the residence and garden, but within reach of the garden hose. After making the rounds with a poop scoop, and depositing the waste into the tank, you need to add a little water. During this flushing, you’ll sometimes get a whiff of unpleasant odor. There is also a digester powder that you add weekly to accelerate the decomposition process. During the hot summer, it can “cake” on top, if you don’t add the water daily. If you keep up with adding water it’s fine. In cold weather the decomposition process slows and doesn’t work during the freezing season. You should have good draining sandy soil for the waste water to soak into the ground, ours has too much clay and couldn't keep up with the two dogs in wet weather. A dog waste digester is a good eco-friendly solution under the right conditions.
Another option with limited applicability is composting. There are a number of articles online describing how to make and operate home composters. There are also a few commercial products out there, including one that uses a worm farm to consume the waste. Dog waste composters must be separated from yard and food waste composters, as they won’t work properly if mixed. They operate best when regularly turned or aerated. Composting looks like a good solution if you have the space and can use the compost in non-garden areas. There are a number of conflicting opinions on the risks associated with home dog waste composting because the temperature is not high enough to kill the pathogens (such as E. coli) and parasites.
A third option for dog waste disposal is to bury it in a hole or trench that is at least 6 inches deep. It will break down naturally and provide nutrients for vegetation and trees. If you have a rural yard and a woodsy area away from the house, garden, well, stream and pond this could be a good solution.
Unfortunately none of the “bury it” solutions will work for small city lots or apartment dwellers. Many cities have compostable waste bins to collect yard waste separately from the trash, but most ban pet waste from the containers. For those dog owners who live in a rural area with plenty of space and the right conditions, “bury it” solutions can be very good options.
This is an option that I’ve never really heard of or considered; in the many years we’ve owned dogs. One reason is that until recently, you either had to somehow tap into the sewer line to add a waste door, or bring the waste inside and empty the bag into the toilet, then dispose of the plastic bag in the trash. Not very easy or appealing options!
In my research for this article, I’ve found that a number of flushable waste bag products have come on the market. These are made from a material called Polyvinyl Alcohol (PVA) that dissolves in water, much like toilet paper. All of the flushable products that I found said that they were biodegradable but none stated that they were compostable, although it seems like they would be. PVA is made from petroleum, but, according to pva-film.com, “it is degraded totally by water” and “has no bad effect on environment”, since it “decomposes into water and carbon dioxide.”
This seems almost too good to be true! Upon learning about flushable bags, I immediately drove down to our local pet supply store, part of a large national chain. They had never heard of flushable dog waste bags. I tried a second large chain pet store, and found the same reply. I called a few of the smaller pet stores and no one was aware of this product!
I’ve placed my order for a box of FlushEze flushable bags from amazon.com. After we fully test the flushable bags, I will update this article to reflect our experience, and make a final recommendation for the best eco-friendly dog waste containment solution.
2014 UPDATE: We tried the flushable bags for about six months. They did work fairly well but not without issues. The bags begin breaking down very quickly so if the "load" is wet or it's raining and you're at the start of a long walk, they began falling apart before you reached the toilet. With medium to large size dogs, they can easily clog the toilet, especially low-flush models. You can drop the bag into the toilet bowl and let them sit for 5 to 10 minutes to break up. This reduced clogging. After the six month trial we reverted back to the poop bag and "trash it" practice.
While flushing dog waste was something new to us, my research found that it is the recommended solution by a number of government agencies. An EPA report states, “Flushing pet waste is the best disposal method.” I recently ran across an interesting direct sewer connection flushing kit called Doggie Doo Drain. If you have easy access to a sewer line clean-out pipe, a plumber or handyman can easily install the kit. It looks like a great backyard solution and it totally avoids bring the dog waste into your house and the toilet clogging issues. I hope to set one up soon.
The table below summarized our findings.
PLEASE DON’T FLUSH OR BURY CAT WASTE!
We also need to point out that flushing applies only to dog waste and NOT CAT WASTE. A parasite in cat waste (Toxoplasma gondii) has been linked to serious health issues in wildlife. In California, the decline of sea otters as well as infected shellfish and crabs have been linked to flushing cat waste into the coastal sewer systems. Sewer systems do not typically treat for this parasite so it is discharged into the rivers and bays. When buried it reportedly can also infect rodents, birds, or other small animals. Without further research it appears that the trash is the best place for cat waste.
The table below highlights some of the findings of our research for this article. We hope you find it informative and useful in selecting the most eco-friendly dog waste solution for you.