DOG WASTE DISPOSAL: OVERVIEW
1. Quickly clean up after your dog, whether at home or while on a walk. Consider racking up some good “poop karma” by bagging the occasional “stray poop” left behind by less-conscientious owners to help control the possible spread of disease.
2. Be leery of “weasel words” such as “biodegradable” when shopping for earth-friendly dog waste bags. Instead, look for products adhering to well-defined standards such as ASTM’s D6400 standard specification for labeling of plastics designed to be aerobically composted in municipal or industrial facilities.
3. Consider asking your local dog park to explore options for on-site composting.
Many people aim to be good stewards of the environment. We reduce, reuse and recycle whenever we can, and it goes without saying that we always pick up our dogs’ waste. Some of us even use extra bags to pick up stray waste left behind by less-considerate dog owners.
And our poop bags? Lots of us go out of our way to look for biodegradable bags. After all, we want to be earth-friendly in as many ways as possible. Who wants to think of their dog’s poop festering away in a traditional polymer bag designed to survive a zombie apocalypse?
Unfortunately, the term “biodegradable” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Truth is, when it comes to dog waste bags, it’s not easy to be as “green” as we’d like to be.
The Green Guides
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is a U.S. government agency tasked with protecting consumers from deceptive marketing and advertising claims. The FTC publishes the Green Guides, a resource designed to help marketers avoid making environmental marketing claims that are unfair or deceptive under Section 5 of the FTC Act.
The guidelines are created based on research showing how reasonable consumers understand claims. The publication offers guidance and specific examples for a variety of environmental marketing claims including general environmental benefit claims, non-toxic claims, ozone-safe and ozone-friendly claims, and, specific to consumers of disposable dog waste bags, claims related to product degradability and compostability.
The term “biodegradable” is defined in the dictionary as, “being of a substance or object capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms.” This definition offers no parameters as to how long it will take to achieve decomposition.
Section 260.8 of the Green Guides addresses degradability claims, suggesting that marketers making unqualified degradable claims should have “competent and reliable scientific evidence that the entire item will completely break down and return to nature (i.e., decompose into elements found in nature) within a reasonable short period of time after customary disposal.” The Green Guides also suggest, based on consumer research, that “it is deceptive to make an unqualified degradable claim for items entering the solid waste stream if the items do not completely decompose within one year after customary disposal.”
The key words here are, “after customary disposal.” Our society predominantly utilizes landfills for waste management. A landfill is essentially a controlled underground storage facility for solid waste. “They’re built to exclude air, light, and water, so things that are in there will be there for lifetimes,” says Bob Barrows, a waste-policy analyst with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. In other words, even if a pet waste bag is capable of decomposition, unless it can do so within a year of disposal, it should not be marketed as “biodegradable” or “degradable” since it simply cannot degrade in our common landfill environment.
When it comes to compostability, the Green Guides recommend marketers clearly and prominently qualify compostable claims “if the item cannot be composted safely or in a timely manner in a home compost pile or device,” and that they should avoid potentially deceiving consumers by stating a product is commercially compostable, “if such facilities are not available to a substantial majority of consumers or communities where the item is sold.”
Historically, many marketers have struggled to abide by these guidelines. In early 2015, the FTC sent letters warning 20 manufacturers of dog waste bags that their claims of bags being “biodegradable” and “compostable” may be deceptive.
“Consumers looking to buy environmentally friendly products should not have to guess whether the claims made are accurate,” says Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “It is therefore critical for the FTC to ensure that these claims are not misleading, to protect both consumers and honest competitors.”
According to the FTC Office of Public Affairs, there have been no further public actions related to pet waste bags following the issuance of the warning letters.
In a similar effort to protect consumers against misinformation about the post-disposal environmental impact of plastic products, California enacted legislation making it illegal to sell any plastic product labeled “compostable” unless it conforms to the ASTM D6400 standard. ASTM is a voluntary standards organization whose members create consensus standards for materials, products, systems, and services. A product can be manufactured in conformance with an ASTM standard, as well as certified to meet the standard by a third-party organization. Specifically, D6400 looks at what is required to determine if plastics and products made from plastics will successfully compost, which includes biodegrading at a rate comparable to known compostable materials. The standard also requires that the degradation of the material will not diminish the value or utility of the resulting compost.
Alternatives to Putting Dog Waste in the Garbage
|In-ground waste disposal system||Doggie Dooley|
From $35 (best prices in pet supply stores and online, not from manufacturer)
|Works like a small-scale septic system for un-bagged dog waste. Uses proprietary enzyme product to speed-up degradation time. Sensitive to soil conditions and ongoing water levels.|
|Disposal system utilizing existing sewer or septic clean-out trap||Doggie Doo Drain|
About $50 from manufacturer, stores, and online
|Simplicity itself; device screws into existing home sewer or septic clean-out trap. Allows users to essentially “flush” un-bagged dog waste directly into sewer line outdoors. Requires water to help move waste through the system. (Obviously, only homes with easy access to sewer clean-out pipe can utilize this solution.)|
|Flushable pet waste bag||Flush Puppies|
About $6 for 60 bags
|Made from polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) and designed to degrade in water. Requires owners bring waste indoors, and bag must remain untied. (Tying-off the bag creates a balloon in the toilet!)|
|Burial||N/A||Mixed opinions among environmental experts. One EPA fact sheet lists burial as an acceptable option, provided the hole is at least 12 inches deep and away from food-growing plants. Others say population density issues create environmental concerns.|
|Home composting||N/A||Can be challenging for the average dog owner. May require a significant quantity of waste and a delicate balance of nitrogen and carbon to achieve proper temperature. Check out The Pet Poo Pocket Guide (2015, New Society Publishers, available in book stores and Amazon.com) by Rose Seemann to learn more.|
Compostable is the New Biodegradable
Because of the regulatory challenges associated with labeling pet waste bags as “biodegradable,” many manufacturers of high-end, “earth friendly” bags now highlight various compostability claims instead.
For example, BioBag, a manufacturer of a wide range of compostable bags, lists three different composting-related certifications on its website. Its packaging also notes that the products conform with the ASTM D6400 standard, and acknowledges not all areas will have access to appropriate commercial composting facilities.
Poopbags.com offers three product lines, one of which is plant-based, and notes its plant-based product line is safe for composting in a commercial facility. Earth Rated also offers multiple product lines, one of which is marketed as a vegetable-based product “that can be disposed of in a municipal compost environment where pet waste is accepted.”
People often wonder if they can toss a compostable bag of dog waste into the green yard trimmings bin if its contents are headed to a commercial composting facility. Most likely, no!
According to Richard Crockett, a general manager with Burrtec Waste Industries, some facilities don’t fully process the trimmings, creating a coarse mulch product instead. Without full processing, there’s no way to kill existing pathogens. Additionally, experts say the introduction of the bag itself is often the biggest barrier, as compostable bags don’t degrade at the same rate as the bulk of the trimmings.
Even when green waste is fully processed into compost, the introduction of pet waste negatively impacts the organic certification of the compost, affecting aftermarket sales of the end product, explains Lily Quiroa of Waste Management, an environmental solutions company serving 21 million municipal, commercial and industrial customers in the United States. For this reason, Waste Management facilities are not permitted to accept animal waste.
While some areas have designated bins for manure pick-up, they, too, will likely exclude pet waste since, in many areas, “manure” is defined as accumulated herbivore or avian excrement, and, again, the addition of the bags is likely to slow the composting process.
Pathogen reduction is a significant concern, one that potentially keeps commercial composting facilities from embracing the seemingly untapped pet-waste market.
“Bottom line, if you were going around with a truckload of bagged dog waste, you would be hard-pressed to find even one composting facility that would willingly or knowingly accept it, and you would have to pay a lot (for the service),” says Robert Horowitz, environmental scientist supervisor with CalRecycle’s Materials Management and Local Assistance Division. “Yes, the heat of the commercial piles will kill just about any of the many pathogens in dog feces, but who wants to take that chance?”
Poop is Difficult to Compost (But Not Impossible)
While traditional composting facilities aren’t jumping at the chance to add “pet waste” to their roster of acceptable feed streams, a handful of forward-thinking entrepreneurs and conservation-minded citizens’ groups are successfully implementing pet-waste composting programs to help reduce the carbon footprint of man’s best friend.
EnviroWagg in Aurora, Colorado built an entire business out of composting dog feces, compostable bags and all, by partnering with a local residential dog waste cleanup service and several area dog parks. The composted waste becomes Doggone Good Potting Soil, available online and in select Colorado retail locations. Owner Rose Seemann even wrote a related book, The Pet Poo Pocket Guide: How to Safely Compost and Recycle Pet Waste, (2015, New Society Publishers, available in book stores and online).
Similarly, a handful of dog parks and open space areas throughout the United States have started composting programs, including Williamsburg River State Park in Brooklyn, New York.
According to Leslie Wright of the New York State Parks Department, response to the program has been overwhelmingly positive. Dog-owning park guests contribute to the enclosed pile using available scoopers or rapidly degradable paper waste bags, or they can dump waste from a plastic bag into the pile and dispose of the bag in the trash. Sawdust is added to create the correct carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, and the compost pile is carefully attended to and monitored by park staff to ensure a consistent temperature required to kill existing pathogens. The resulting fertilizer is used only on ornamental plants and flowers throughout the park, and, as an added precaution, away from children’s playground areas.
What About Composting Pet Waste at Home?
The success of any compost pile largely depends on achieving the correct combination of carbon, nitrogen, air and water. Dog waste supplies the nitrogen, while materials such as leaves, grass clippings, shredded newspaper, or fruit waste can provide the carbon.
According to the USDA National Resource Conservation Service’s eight-page, step-by-step guide for successful dog waste composting, the ideal recipe for a high-temperature compost (designed to kill pathogens) will use two parts dog waste (nitrogen) to one part carbon-rich materials in a minimum volume of three cubic feet.
For the average dog owner, that might mean collecting and saving waste for an undesirable amount of time before composting can begin.
“The fewer animals, the more difficult it will be,” says Ann Rippy, a practice implementation specialist working with the National Resource Conservation Service. Unlike the Environmental Protection Agency and the various environmental experts we spoke with, however, Rippy says the risks associated with potential pathogen exposure resulting from composting at lower temperatures (as would likely happen in a typical backyard compost pile) might not be as worrisome as they are often made out to be.
“We’re all familiar with dog behavior. We know what they tend to do, and then they go and lick your face,” Rippy says. “If your dog is healthy and you compost responsibly, and use the end product responsibly, it’s not so risky. Every individual must decide in life which risks they are willing to take. In our experience, composting pet waste is a low-risk activity.”
Families considering venturing into composting as a method of pet waste management should not take the idea lightly. “It does require knowledge, caution, and dedication. You need to be well-informed,” Rippy adds.
Are Dog Owners Left Holding the Bag?
Despite a desire to contribute less overall product to landfills, it seems the most realistic option for safe pet waste disposal is still putting it in the trash.
“For the health and safety of my family, my friends, and my community, I’m going to bag the poop and send it to the landfill, which is specifically designed to contain pathogens and prevent the spread of disease,” says Jessie Payne, water-quality communications manager with the State of Washington Department of Ecology. Every ecology expert we spoke with felt the same way.
While it’s disappointing to think of our pet waste bags lingering in landfill, Payne encourages people to look for other ways to lessen their impact on the environment such as recycling newspapers, composting organic food waste, and reducing energy usage.
However, that doesn’t mean the high-grade compostable pet waste bags are without merit. Companies making the effort to produce waste bags that conform to standards for compostability are, in general, striving to be earth-friendly in all facets of the business. Using sustainable raw materials in a plant-based waste bag is still more eco-conscious than producing a traditional polymer bag. For many consumers, even if the compostable bag fails to degrade while trapped in an anaerobic garbage tomb, the earth-friendly manufacturing still justifies the higher price tag.
“It’s a voluntary market differential piece,” says Allison Fick, manager of standards development at ASTM International. “It’s the demonstration of sustainability and being good stewards of the earth. Not only are dog owners being good stewards of the earth by picking up the waste, but they’re making good consumer choices by picking a bag and supporting a company that practices good stewardship.”
Want more ideas on how to be a more eco-friendly dog guardian? Click here!
Stephanie Colman is a writer and dog trainer in Southern California.