How Cat Litter is Made: The Truth Might Surprise You
We talk a lot about our personal carbon footprint, but what about the carbon footprint of your four-legged friends? Ever wonder how cat litter is made? Unfortunately it’s environmentally destructive, but there are lots of earth-friendly alternatives for your furry friend.
If you’re a cat owner, one of the easiest ways to ensure your kitty has a smaller print is to choose a cleaner, greener cat litter. If you don’t know how cat litter is made, it’s important to get the facts here! The kitty litter we choose for our little furry friends can make a big difference in their overall carbon paw-print (sorry, couldn’t help it!).
How is Cat Litter Made?
If you’re a fan of the regular scoopable cat litter (as I have been for years), this might be unhappy news. Most cat litter is made from bentonite clay, they type of clay that clumps in the presence of moisture. This type of clay also helps absorb odors because it can hold the urine, and it keeps the litter box a bit cleaner because the liquid and solid waste can be scooped out regularly. According to Wikipedia, non-clumping cat litters are usually made of zeolite, diatomite and sepiolite.
Though clumping litter is a natural product, it is harvested by strip mining, a decidedly unfriendly process. In an article on Groundswell, Katherine Manchester says, “Conventional clay ‘clumping’ litter […] is an offender for a whole host of reasons. Over two million tons of clay are mined in the United States every year, just to be turned into cat litter. The clay—or sodium bentonite, more specifically—is obtained via strip mining, requiring massive amounts of soil and rock to be moved in order to access the mineral seam underneath. The result is a giant hole in the ground that needs to be filled and then returned to something resembling a natural state.”
Here in the US, bentonite clay is mined in Wyoming, which contains 70% of the world’s supply. The Wyoming Mining Association confirms that bentonite is mined via surface mining. Surface mining is an environmentally destructive form of mineral removal that removes the entire layer of topsoil (or mountain, depending on the mineral being mined). Greenpeace says that there are many environmental impacts from surface mining:
- Strip mining destroys landscapes, forests and wildlife habitats at the site of the mine when trees, plants, and topsoil are cleared from the mining area. This in turn leads to soil erosion and destruction of agricultural land.
- When rain washes the loosened top soil into streams, sediments pollute waterways. This can hurt fish and smother plant life downstream, and cause disfiguration of river channels and streams, which leads to flooding.
- There is an increased risk of chemical contamination of ground water when minerals in upturned earth seep into the water table, and watersheds are destroyed when disfigured land loses the water it once held.
- Strip mining causes dust and noise pollution when top soil is disrupted with heavy machinery and coal dust is created in mines.
Not only is the conventional clay cat litter mined in destructive ways, bentonite clay cat litter is also known to contain silica dust, which is classified as a carcinogen according to California’s Proposition 65. It has been suggested that clumping cat litter can cause digestive harm if ingested by cats while cleaning, but the studies are inconclusive.
What are Sustainable Cat Litter Solutions?
This post is not meant to promote any one brand over another, but just feature the various types of cat litter available and the pros and cons of each. There are various types of non-clay cat litters available, many of which are more sustainable than clay litters.
Scientific American lays out the basics of choosing a natural cat litter:
“NEPCO’s Cedarific Natural Cat Litter is a blend of hardwood and cedar chips with no clay or silica dust. Besides being inexpensive, it is easy to handle, has a pleasant odor, and is biodegradable and compostable. Other wood/sawdust alternatives include Feline Pine, which is made from dust-free pine chips, and Better Way Cat Litter, which combines clay with cedar chips for natural odor control. Yet another great choice is Eco-Shell’s Purr & Simple Cat Litter, made from a proprietary blend of fibrous material from annually renewable tree-nut crops.
SwheatScoop Natural Wheat Litter keeps odors at bay through the power of natural enzymes in renewable wheat crops; it is low-dust and low-tracking besides being biodegradable and compostable. Meanwhile, World’s Best Cat Litter is made from whole kernel corn. And Benevo Cat Litter is made from non-genetically modified maize [corn] and other vegetable derivatives.”
Need more info to make an informed decision about the most sustainable cat litter? Here is a detailed list of all the types of cat litter from Green24 that can help you find the best solution for your kitty friends:
How to Make your Kitty more Sustainable
Regardless of which type of litter you use, cat feces should never be flushed down the toilet because of risk of bacterial contamination and potential clogging of pipes. Always bag the cat poop and litter in a plastic bag and toss out with your trash. You can use biodegradable bags, which have a lower environmental impact, but they will not degrade fully because they will end up in a airlocked landfill. It’s actually better to use recycled/reused plastic bags to keep the litter safe from potential leakage into the environment.
It’s also important to note that it’s healthier AND safer for your kitty to stay indoors. Despite their adorable outside appearance, cats are serious predators! Audobon magazine says that cats are responsible for 39 million wild bird deaths each year, and can catch or spread the toxoplasmosis parasite, which is dangerous to babies and pregnant women, and sea otters. Keeping cats indoors keeps our ecosystem and our kitties healthier and safer. Get tips for keeping your inside kitty entertained from the ASPCA.
Finally, learn more about how to reduce the impact of all your pets in this great article from Audobon magazine: How to Green your Pet.