Eco Advice Column #4
December 12, 2007

The Scoop on Cat Litter

Q  I have two cats and currently use clumping clay litter in their litter box. I have tried to use cat litter made from recycled newsprint, but Gravy and Tang would not use it. What are other environmentally friendly alternatives I could try?

Kokomo, Indiana

A  Dear Susan,

A simple trip to buy cat litter has become more and more like stepping into a supermarket toiletries aisle. Sure, everyone knows cats are picky, but the variety seems a mite excessive. Texture! Odor! Self-cleaning! Natural!  That said, the litany of litters available at your local pet supply store is likely to include several environmentally friendly options.

The original clumping litter was invented by a cat-loving biochemist from Baylor University, who observed that bentonite, a type of clay, could absorb several times its own weight in liquid. Today, nearly three-quarters of the billion dollar cat litter market is dominated by clumping litters developed from this discovery.

Although it is convenient, bentonite clay is obtained through environmentally damaging practices such as strip-mining. Because the primary ingredient in clay litter is, well, clay, used litter cannot be flushed down the toilet, and does not biodegrade in landfills.

The most popular alternatives to clay cat litter are made from agricultural plants, byproducts from the lumber industry, and the recycled newsprint option that you tried. Wheat-based litter is made by mixing the type of wheat used in pasta with a softer variety, producing a biodegradable cat litter. Other manufacturers grind whole corn kernels or cobs to produce soft, grainy, odor-controlling litters that weigh less than clay but are supposedly even more absorbent. Sawdust and scraps from pine provide yet another option. When processed into lightweight pellets, pine leftovers are reported to perform as well as traditional cat litter because they absorb both moisture and ammonia odors. All of these options are flushable.  That’s a bonus since more than 150,000 tons of cat litter – about 100,000 garbage truckloads – end up in U.S. landfills each year.

It will probably take time to discover the one both you and your cats think is purr-fect.  You have a good start, since you know that Gravy and Tang didn’t appreciate having outdated reading material in their bathroom. As you consider next steps, be sure to allow time for a transition. Pet experts recommend placing new litter in a separate box, so your cat isn’t forced to try it immediately. This method also prevents dissatisfied kitties from selecting locations that are new  -- and perhaps unanticipated -- to do their business. Transferring some used litter into the new box, or mixing litters, may encourage your cats to take the hint. Once they are using the new litter, it’s time to make the old stuff quietly disappear.

No matter what, resist the temptation to move too fast. Just think: how would you feel if somebody stole your Charmin?

Click here for Digging Deeper, which contains more information about cat litter


Do Disposable Diapers Deserve the Bum Rap?

Q My niece recently had her first baby, and chose to use cloth diapers, including washing them at home. When I was bragging about her to a friend, he said that in an eco-analysis of cloth vs. disposable diapers, cloth were favorable but only by a slight margin. Can you help me get to the bottom of this? Is it environmentally sound to continue bragging about my niece?

Fishers, Indiana

A  Dear Cheryl,           

And the Great Diaper Debate rages on. With a shocking 38,000 disposable diapers discarded in landfills every minute in the United States, you might be tempted to conclude that cloth is the way to go. But some of the issues are fairly subtle, and your friend was right: ultimately, in a comprehensive eco-analysis of cloth vs. disposables, there really isn’t a clear winner.

Cloth diapers are made of cotton, and growing cotton uses large amounts of fertilizers and pesticides that can harm the environment. Additionally, washing several laundry loads of diapers every week consumes water and electricity, much of which is still generated in coal-burning plants.  Functionally, cotton diapers are probably more comfortable for babies and have less chance of causing diaper rash as long as they are changed regularly. Modern cloth diapers, unlike older ones, do not require any special origami skills to use.

On the flip side, disposable diapers are made of plastics, which are obtained from fossil fuels. The 20 billion disposables thrown away every year also get a bum rap for taking up landfill space.  While they’re often blamed for hogging 20 to 30 percent of American landfills, in fact, diapers actually represent about two percent of total discards, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

While one choice may not be clearly better than the other, that doesn’t mean that your niece’s efforts are in vain. There are many easy ways she could reduce the environmental impact of the cloth diapers she is using. Commercial diaper laundry services, though a tad more expensive, are better than home-laundering because they use about one-third less water by washing diapers in bulk. Line-drying diapers can also reduce electricity consumption. You could ask your niece to watch out for diaper brands that use organic instead of conventional cotton.

Also, it might not be a bad idea to keep an eye on disposables, which are steadily becoming more environmentally friendly. At the very cutting edge of diaper technology, there are “disposable” diapers that consist of a washable, reusable cotton outer “pant” and a flushable liner.  This approach seemingly would eliminate the landfill problem. And it’s as close as anyone has come to a diapering royal flush.

If you truly want to have bragging rights, you might give your niece the gift of a diaper service or a starter kit of the flushable diapers.  Or, if you want to be more hands-on, offer to wash the cloth diapers on your next visit, and hang then on a rack or a clothesline so they can air dry.  Your friend probably won’t be able to trump that.

Click here for Digging Deeper, which contains more information about diapers

Pay as You Throw -- Each day, each person in the U.S. produces 4.5 pounds of household trash, including yard trimmings, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. To encourage waste reduction and recycling, more than 25 percent of U.S. communities have “Pay as You Throw” programs, allowing residents to pay for trash collection based on the amount of waste they throw away, rather than being charged a flat fee. High marks go to the states of Minnesota, Oregon and Washington, where 100 percent of communities are Pay as You Throw. At the other end of the scale, Washington D.C., Hawaii and Mississippi, have no such programs. For EPA information on Pay as You Throw, click here.