Sustainable Pet Ownership

This one's not strictly about development, but there are some 50 million dogs in the U.S., and more around the world, and the amount of resources wasted on them is pretty much incalculable. So I have been persuaded to write a little something about how to be eco-friendly while stewarding a pet (primarily a dog, but some of this applies to other pets, as well).

First, try to recycle pets. Rather than order a new one from a breeder or pet store, adopt one that is already alive. By some estimates, as many as 8 million dogs and cats wind up in animal shelters each year. It's more humane to adopt one of these than to let the strays die.

Next, be humane and spay or neuter your pets. One of the reason so many pets arrive in animal shelters is that so many are born "unwanted." By spaying and neutering your pets, you eliminate dozens, or even hundreds of unwanted pets in the future.

Let your pet drink tapwater. You can filter it if you wish, but don't insist on bottled water, which in most cases is no better than tapwater, but which carries a huge environmental cost in the form of those plastic bottles and the shipping necessary to get those bottles to you.

Buy sustainably. Furnish you pet with eco-friendly collars, leashes, and toys, made with recycled materials or sustainable fibers, such as hemp. Why put an extra burden on the environment when you don't have to? Most pet care and cleaning products are also available in eco-friendly versions, including shampoos, soaps, other cleaners, and anti-flea products without chemicals, additives, and other toxic materials.

Try and keep your pet's used items out of the waste stream. Call your local shelter, for example, and ask if they can make use of your old newspapers, and your pet's old towels, bedding, leashes, litter boxes, toys or other discards.

One of the biggest differences you can make is to scoop your puppy's poop into biodegradable bags. If you pick it up and throw it away with a normal plastic bag, it'll stay isolated from the environment in a landfill for hundreds or even thousands of years. Experts say that almost four percent of landfill materials consist of dog poop, nearly as much as disposable diapers. That's just wrong.

Instead, make a point of using one of the new biodegrable bags from vendors like PoopBags, which mostly meet the ASTM D6400 standard. This means the bags are shelf stable, but will decompose after use.

Why is this important?

Experts estimate that despite their owners' best efforts, dogs leave more than 4 million tons of waste each year on our streets, sidewalks, parks, and lawns. Washed by rain and hoses into our drainage systems and from there into our waterways, this material is the source of as much as 20-30% of all water-borned pollutants, contributing mightily to the level of bacteria in our sadly contaminated waters.

Putting these wastes into ordinary plastic bags is not much of an improvement. Conventional plastics are the fourth largest component of our waste stream, and are made from petroleum, which is a non-renewable resource. Most plastics will take tens of thousands of years to degrade and "go back to nature. When the poop is encased in such plastic, it will remain intact for tens of thousands of years, as well.

But now there's an alternative: a new class of "plastic" bags are made from corn and other renewable resources, and contain no chemical additives. They degrade completely within 6o to 90 days when exposed to various elements and micro-organisms in the soil. These bags also “breathe,” which allows heat and moisture to escape, minimizing the build-up of bacteria.

There are also flushable bags for dog waste. These bags allow pet poop to be flushed down the toilet into sewer systems, where they will degrade right along with the poop itself. Flushing dog waste in flushable bags is in many ways better, because it allows the material to be returned to nature more quickly, and it prevents this material from contributing to the rapid filling of our garbage dumps.

More later ...

Photo credit: D'Arcy Norman