Cat Litter: Is It ‘Green’ If You Flush It?

Cat Litter: Is It ‘Green’ If You Flush It?

cat litter green flushable

Flushable cat litter is sometimes marketed as green, but here’s the rest of the story: It’s not if you flush it down the toilet.

That’s right. Don’t flush “flushable” cat litter, scientists say. Double bag it and send it to a sanitary landfill.

By flushing cat poop, pet owners unwittingly may contribute to the deaths of Hawaiian monk seals and California sea otters and otherwise spread a hardy parasite linked to cats. As a result, a California law actually requires kitty litter to bear warnings such as this excerpt: “Please do not flush cat litter in toilets or dispose of it outdoors in gutters or storm drains.”Here’s the deal: What flushes down the toilet or languishes outdoors can eventually reach waterways and oceans, “putting wildlife at risk for infection, including sea otters,” states the Companion Animal Parasite Council (see here — (PDF). Only cats and other members of the cat family shed in their feces a parasite that can live for months or years in soil and can be carried long distances in water.

So much for a “green” flushable litter. Researchers have found the cat parasite in question, Toxoplasma gondii, in dolphins and a humpback whale. So while flushable kitty litter is environmentally friendly in terms of being made of, say, recycled newspaper instead of clay, which must be mined from land, it isn’t eco-friendly in terms of spreading a harmful parasite when flushed.

“There is no cat litter that can inactivate Toxoplasma,” Patricia Conrad, DVM, a parasitology professor and co-director of University of California Global Health Institute’s One Health Center, told me via email. On a hunt to figure out a way to kill the parasite’s eggs, she and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments. No luck.

“They are amazingly tough,” Dr. Conrad says. The experiments “really convinced us” that the procedures being used at most sewage treatment plants to treat wastewater from toilets “will not reliably kill” the parasite’s eggs. (The exception is if the sewage treatment plant is able to filter out particles smaller than 10 microns.)

What is a green cat lover to do?

  • Don’t compost cat litter. Compost doesn’t get hot enough to kill the parasite’s eggs, Dr. Conrad says.
  • Don’t bury cat poop. Toxoplasma eggs can stay alive in soil for months to years depending on the temperature and humidity. So they can percolate down to the groundwater, where they could contaminate drinking water used by humans or animals, Dr. Conrad cautions, or flow into receiving water bodies and eventually reach coastal areas where marine mammals could become infected.
  • Don’t assume that your cat doesn’t carry the parasite just because he lives indoors. While an indoor cat has a much lower risk, Dr. Conrad says “the risk is not zero.”
  • Do bag up cat poop and send it to a sanitary landfill. “We would like to reduce the burden on landfills,” Dr. Conrad says, but “we don’t yet have a good alternative.”

Why you shouldn’t flush flushable cat litter

Cleaning the litter box often seems like a high price to pay for the fickle attention of the domestic feline. The box can be smelly, dusty and, if you let it go too long between scooping, a real workout. Then you have to bag up all the mess and take it outside. It’s a chore.

Those reasons, and a few others, are why some cat-owners have turned to flushable litters, which allow them to scoop a cat’s droppings right into the toilet and flush away.

While few things could be easier, the harm flushable litter can cause may be more far-reaching than you realize.

What is flushable litter?

An orange-and-white cat stands in a litter box with wood pelletsSome wood-based cat litter is advertised as flushable. (Photo: Tiplyashina Evgeniya/Shutterstock)

Most cat litters are clay-based. Some clump, some don’t. Clumping litters in particular are popular for their ease of removing urine as the litter absorbs and creates scoopable clumps. The litter doesn’t need to be replaced as often as non-clumping litters do. However, these clay-based litters end up in the trash, often in plastic bags, where they contribute to landfill sizes and other environmental woes. Clay-based litter doesn’t break down in compost heaps (not that you’d want to use cat waste on your vegetable garden), and the clay itself itself is often derived from materials that are gathered through strip-mining processes.

Obviously, given how clay litter hardens when wet, to say nothing of its absorbent nature, it’s not a great thing for flushing through your home’s pipes, unless you want to pay your plumber a lot of money.

Flushable litter is often positioned as an environmentally friendlier alternative to clay-based litter. These litters are often made up of corn, wood, pine or wheat, so they’re biodegradable if you don’t put them in a plastic bag. Some will trap odors without relying on artificial fragrances, common in clay-based litters. Some also clump.

The biggest upside, of course, is that these litters can be flushed down the toilet. Gone are the plastic bags and landfill concerns because you’re just dropping a couple of clumps into the bowl, flushing and waiting a few minutes before getting the next scoop. It’s certainly a lot easier than scooping, bagging and trashing. But it may not be as ideal as it appears.

Flushable litter and your pipes

A cat looks into a toilet bowl‘Did you flush the litter enough?’ (Photo: Natasia Causse/flickr)

So if flushable litter is advertised as such, it should be safe, right?

Well, hold on. You’ll want to check to make sure the flushable litter you’ve selected is safe for your pipe system. Some flushable litters aren’t designed for septic systems, and some septic systems just won’t break down certain materials, like cat fecal matter and litter, no matter what kind of litter you use. You definitely don’t want your septic tank to have issues because of your kitty.

Even if you have checked, it’s probably not advisable to flush it anyway. Not waiting long enough between flushing clumps can result in clogs, and if you don’t break up larger clumps prior to flushing — and you’re going to want to do that somewhere other than the litter box — you could face all sorts of nasty problems.

Your toilet also simply may not be a fan of flushable litters. As Mike Agugliaro, co-owner of the New Jersey heating, air, electrical and plumbing Gold Medal Service company, explained to Today.com, “Today’s water-saving toilets use only 1.6 gallons of water per flush. That’s not enough water to keep the kitty litter moving.”

Agugliaro also points out that toilets, which are designed for water-soluble waste, aren’t keen on harder fecal matter. Cat poop quickly dehydrates and hardens while it’s awaiting scooping, so by the time you get around to scooping it, it’s “petrified poop” that can get stuck in the toilet’s various pipes and create a clog.

Even if the litter and its contents do get out of the toilet, the flushable stuff still has its issues.

Introducing parasites into the waterways

A 3-D CG illustration of Toxoplasma gondiiToxoplasma gondii, illustrated above, is probably something you don’t want in your water system. (Photo: Kateryna Kon/Shutterstock)

Pet waste is classified as a pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency that can “harm fish and wildlife populations, kill native vegetation, foul drinking water, and make recreational areas unsafe and unpleasant.”

Cat waste can contain the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. If humans become infected with it, we’re normally able to fight it off, but those with compromised immune systems may not be able to. Symptoms from parasitic infection can be flu-like — aches, pain, fever — or people can develop the disease toxoplasmosis. Toxoplasmosis can cause fetal development disorders, loss of eyesight, brain damage, premature birth and death.

Many water treatment plants aren’t designed to handle those kinds of pollutants, let alone a parasite like T. gondii; they’re designed to handle human waste. Adding in litter and cat waste only creates more “stuff” for the treatment plants to, well, treat. If the pollutants aren’t treated, they can circulate through the water system.

That circulation can affect critters in the wild, too. Scientists have found T. gondii contamination in coastal areas, infecting marine mammals, including sea otters, with the possible source being — you guessed it — cat fecal matter flushed down commodes. (At least one study has challenged this connection.)

Flushable litter has its upsides, but some potential downsides, both on a financial and an environmental level, should be considered. Finding a way to balance those — perhaps by disposing of flushable litter in biodegradable bags — may be the key to having a happy cat and a human who is happy to scoop.

Is Flushable Cat Litter a Good Green Option?

Flushable cat litter is not widely used by house cat parents in the US.

In fact, alternative litters in general aren’t yet that popular, but the idea has been gaining popularity over the years.

Concerns about the environment have paved the way for new green litter brands to hit the market.

Jazzy the cat's face with text overlay Is Flushable Cat Litter Really Flushable?

Judging by the discussions I’ve had with readers, topics in Facebook groups, and questions I’ve gotten, it would seem as though people are warming up to the idea of alternative cat litters.

The majority of cat litter in use today is still either clumping clay litter, made of bentonite, or the old style non-clumping clay litter. In fact, as discussed below, alternative cat litters don’t seem to be gaining in popularity, despite what I hear on the streets.

The market has spoken, and clay still rules the box.

There are a number of environmental issues associated with the use of cat litter.

This includes both the production of the litter (strip mining clay, for example), and the disposal of the litter and cat waste itself.

A relatively small percentage of cat owners use alternative litters. Some are marketed as eco-friendly.

These alternative litters are made of everything from silica gel (silica crystal cat litter), to old newspaper (Yesterday’s News), to sawdust from pine (Feline Pine), to soybean and potato (Close to NatureNow).

Many of these litters are absorbent, lightweight, dust and (almost) track-free, provide natural odor control, and appeal to an eco-friendly crowd.

Some are supposed to be flushable. So, they seem good, at least on the surface, but are they really flushable? Are they even biodegradable?


Can You Really Flush Flushable Cat Litter?

To flush or not to flush? That is the question.

On the surface, flushable cat litter seems like a good idea. After all, we send our human waste down the toilet all the time, so why not cat waste?

Well, flushing may be a good idea gone bad. Here’s why:

According to information online from plumbers, flushing cat litter (including flushable litter products) is probably going to make your plumber a lot of money. Flushing any significant amount of cat litter of any kind down the toilet will probably result in clogged pipes at some point.

The advice from Mike Agugliaro, co-owner of Gold Medal Service, a New Jersey plumbing service company, is do not flush kitty litter. In this article on things never to flush down the toilet, he says:

Today’s water-saving toilets use only 1.6 gallons of water per flush. That’s not enough water to keep the kitty litter moving.

That said, quite a few cat owners have reported using flushable cat litter for years without any apparent issues. Your mileage may vary.

Note: Swheat Scoop Natural Wheat Litter claims to be the only litter on the market that’s certified flushable by the SGS U.S. Testing Company. It’s made from wheat, which contains enzymes that neutralize litter box odor.

Next, there are some environmental issues with flushing cat feces. First, waste treatment plants are not designed to handle Toxoplasma gondii (the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis and may reside in cat feces). Second, whatever you flush can end up in places you hadn’t realized, such as bodies of water, like, I don’t know, the ocean?

In California, for example, there have been concerns that T. gondii is hurting the sea otter population. As a result, any cat litter sold there has to contain a statement that discourages flushing.

T. gondii can infect all warm blooded animals, and researchers have found it in dolphins and a humpback whale.

So, while you can flush, there are reasons not to. For the most part, then, flushable cat litter really isn’t flushable. Many people end up simply disposing of it the old fashioned way… in the garbage.

Most of these alternative litters end up in the landfill right along with the clay litter. The difference, of course is that unlike clay, many of these litters are biodegradable, or at least that’s how they’re advertised.

But that raises another question. Are the biodegradable claims of some of these companies realistic? Does flushable cat litter break down the way it’s supposed to when disposed of in a landfill?


Is Flushable Cat Litter Really Biodegradable?

Mark Klaiman runs Pet Camp and Pet Camp Cat Safari in San Francisco, CA. Pet Camp is a unique, certified green boarding facility for cats and dogs. In this article on litter and the environment he elaborates on the environmental impact of producing and disposing of cat litter.

One of the points he makes is that these “natural” kitty litter products might be biodegradable if you sprinkle them in your garden, but not if you put them in a plastic bag and send them off to the landfill.

Even if you do use your used litter as mulch, you have to remove the feces and dispose of that separately.

While no study has been conducted directly evaluating how such liter breaks down in landfills, studies performed by W.L. Rathje at the University of Arizona confirm that most modern landfills are packed very tightly, contain little soil and not very much oxygen. These environmental conditions greatly inhibit biodegradation of even products that in other environments would biodegrade.

Klaiman also points out that composting may be possible, but San Francisco (and likely other areas) won’t allow kitty litter or animal feces to be collected for this purpose.

I’ve seen a recommendation to dispose of your used, biodegradable cat litter in a paper bag in the trash. Based on your local trash collection policies, this may not be acceptable or allowed.


Should You Switch?

If you’re currently using clumping clay litter in the box, you might be wondering if you should switch. You might even be feeling some pressure to switch to an alternative.

I’ll have to leave it up to you to answer that question. I will say that switching litters can kick off litter box problems and end up being just an expensive experiment. So be prepared if you do switch.

My intention here was not to go into all the details on the types of alternative litters, but only to address the flushable cat litter aspect. As I did more and more research on this subject, however, it became clear that the alternative litters have their problems.

So while clay litters may have a reputation for impacting the environment, flushing just doesn’t seem like a good option either.

One of the reasons stated by a number of resources that clay litters are more popular is cost per pound. I would say also that clay simply works so well (in most cases) that most people might be reluctant to switch.

For example, pellet type litters are either uncomfortable for sensitive paws, or perhaps simply don’t feel right to the cat. Clay has that sandy feel that cats seem to like most, which can be important for initial litter box training or if your cat goes off the box at some point.

What about you? What are your experiences with flushable cat litter? Have you tried it?


 

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