It makes sense that environmentally enlightened cat owners would want cat litter made from natural products that will not potentially compromise their health or that of their beloved pets. Many mass market cat litters contain significant amounts of silica dust which has been linked to upper respiratory issues in cats and even humans. Likewise, the chemical fragrances in many cat litters can also be toxic to cats.
Yet another issue is the sodium bentonite clay in “clumping” cat litters. The fact that this type of clay can swell up to 15 times its original volume when a cat urinates or defecates into it makes it an excellent cat litter substrate, as waste clumps can be scooped out and filled in without changing the entire litter box. But when cats ingest this material it can cause gastrointestinal distress that in some cases can lead to death. Also, the clay commonly used can be derived from environmentally destructive strip mining.
But thanks to increased concern for cats’ health and the environment, there are plenty of greener options out there. To wit, Yesterday’s News cat litter is made from recycled newspaper and is reportedly three times more absorbent than clay. It is non-toxic and contains no scented fragrances, but its makers say it is still tough on odors, and is 99.7 percent dust-free. It also comes in recyclable paper packaging.
Wood shavings and sawdust also make good cat litter substrates. 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 and other vegetable derivatives.
Frugal eco-conscious cat owners might consider making their own cat litter by repurposing everyday materials that would otherwise end up in the waste stream. Plain sawdust makes great cat litter, but doesn’t control odor as well as other substrates and might be hard to find in urban areas. The website treehugger.com offers instructions on how to turn old newspapers into cat litter; the process is a bit involved but can save money while extending the life of discarded newsprint.
Cat litter made from natural materials can also be composted as a way to reduce waste while creating rich soil for the garden. The Glenbrook North Zero Waste Blog in Vancouver, BC provides instructions on how to get healthy compost from cat litter derived from wood, sawdust or vegetable products.
Table of Contents
- 1 The most sustainable cat litter
- 2 The Best Biodegradable Clumping Litter
- 3 Bring the Forest Inside
- 4 Nutty about Cat Litter
- 5 Read All About Recycled Paper Litter
- 6 Get a Little Corny about Litter
- 7 Sweet, It’s Wheat
- 8 Completely Biodegradable Doesn’t Mean Completely Harmless
- 9 Pick of the litter
The most sustainable cat litter
Cat litter is a top seller in pet accessories with a worldwide sales volume of five million metric tonnes and a value of almost $3.5 billion (€3 billion). In recent years, we have seen new organic products entering the cat litter market. They are positioned as more sustainable and natural. But are they?
A brief history
A cat’s natural behaviour is to go into the garden. For domestic cats, the litter tray was invented long before the Second World War. At that time, people were using ordinary sand, wood shavings or old newspapers as litter. It was not very hygienic and quite smelly. In 1948, Ed Loewe invented cat litter. Initially, this was a clay-type product called attapulgite, with interesting absorption properties.
In the early eighties, clumping cat litter made of bentonite was invented. The clumps lock in the unpleasant odours and can be scooped out once a day. After scooping, the litter tray is clean again and has to be filled up to the original level. In contrast, with non-clumping litter, the entire litter tray has to be renewed once or twice a week, which makes clumping material more economical to use.
In the nineties, the first non-clay products entered the market. Typically, the non-clay or organic cat litters (made from wood, corn, straw, hay, coconut skins, et cetera) do not form clumps. However, in recent years we have seen further development. Thanks to special processing and additives, clumping organic products have entered the market.
The disadvantage of mineral-based products is that the raw materials are mined, potentially causing unnecessary harm to the environment. On the other hand, non-mineral-based products are organic in origin and are generally residue from another organic product or production process. Obviously, this is seen as more sustainable and natural. So today, organic litters have a better image with respect to sustainability. But is this well-deserved?
Product life cycle inventory
In order to compare the different product categories, Sivomatic carried out an extensive product life cycle inventory (see diagram top right). It is interesting to see that the production steps in the different product categories are very similar, if not identical.
Mineral clay products start their journey in a mine. For cat litter clay, it is always open pit mining. In any country, mining goes with heavy legislation and recultivation obligations. After mining, the land will be brought back in the original state to the extent possible. E.g. hilly areas will return ten meters lower or farmers will return to their land at lower altitudes.
Ideally, wood products are made of local wood waste. However, in reality most products unfortunately originate from industrial production forests. Only clean soft woods can be used, e.g. pine and spruce. Hard woods like oak, et cetera, cannot be used due to its low absorption capabilities.
Paper or corn
Collecting cereal or corn waste for cat litter is not easy. In an agricultural country like The Netherlands, all the corn waste goes into animal feed, due to its caloric value. This is a higher grade of recycling than turning it into cat litter. Corn residue needs careful washing and cooking to prevent the organic content to be a growing medium for bacteria of cat urine and faeces.
Paper waste needs to be carefully selected due to inks. Paper waste may be smelly and needs washing/ cooking for cleaning in order to get a suitable end product. All product categories need crushing and seeving, packing and shipping. In general, clay products will end their life in incineration plants, whereas wood, paper and corn will be disposed in the green bin and be fermented.
However, we must add that there are quite a lot of exceptions to this rule. Depending on local legislation, in some areas all litters can be put in the green bin, whereas in other cases not any litter is allowed. Toilet flushing of any litter is forbidden in most countries, due to blockage risks.
Following an inventory of the different stages the product passes through, the next step was to translate this into a life cycle analysis in terms of CO2 emission. Sivomatic carried out a detailed life cycle analysis for The Netherlands, with interesting results.
CO2 per kilogram
In general, all litters show very low CO2 emissions of around 170 to 410 grammes of CO2 per kilogram of cat litter (see table below). Non-clumping organic material shows the lowest value of 170 grammes of CO2 per kilogram of cat litter.
Silica gel is excluded from the calculations because this product (produced in China) has more than ten times the CO2 pressure of other types. It takes approximately five tonnes of coal to produce one tonne of silica gel.
CO2 per cat
The CO2 emission per kilogram of cat litter is good to know, but the consumer uses cat litter by volume and not by kilogram. No matter the weight, people fill their litter tray by volume, with a layer of five to eight centimetres.
If we adjust the numbers for density and material use, we get the grammes of CO2 per cat per day (see table below). Clumping litter shows figures from 24 to 19 grammes for mineral and organic-based litters. Non-clumping shows higher figures at 42 and 32 grammes CO2 per cat per day.
It is noteworthy that the figures in both tables are very different. For example, clumping organic goes from the worst score at 410 per kilogram to the best score at 19 per cat.
We have to realize that all these numbers are aggregates. For instance, bentonite is sold as coarse grain and fine grain. The finer product is twice as economical as the coarse product, due to more compact clumps and a better lock-in effect for odours. With organic clumping litter, we can say that clumping wood is better than clumping corn, due to easier production. The use of additives, like perfumes, on any material will improve material efficiency.
This research obviously has its limitations. We are talking about CO2 as if this were the only parameter that matters. Therefore we can draw the following conclusions only carefully:
- The life cycle inventory of all litters is surprisingly similar.
- Clumping litters outperform non-clumping litters, because only the clumps have to be disposed of.
- Clumping organic litter shows the lowest CO2 pressure per cat per day on average.
- Density and efficiency in material use are the most important factors in comparing the different litters.
- Finer grains and additives like perfumes improve material efficiency.
- The average outcome of 33 grammes of CO2 per cat per day is very low compared to other consumer goods.
- Clumping Turkish white bentonite and clumping wood chips are the winners when it comes to CO2 only.
Having said all this, if your cat got to choose, the real test winner would probably be the garden.
The Best Biodegradable Clumping Litter
Cat litter is a necessary product for any house with feline members. Increasingly, studies have shown that traditional clay litter is bad for cats, humans and the environment. So, more owners are looking for safer, biodegradable alternatives. Fortunately, the options are increasing, with products made from nuts, wood, corn, paper and wheat.
Bring the Forest Inside
One of the highest consumer-rated biodegradable cat litters is Feline Pine. This product is made from pine wood, and is available either in non-clumping pellets or clumping . Feline Pine is completely biodegradable and can be composted or flushed. The litter is very absorbent and is even safe for kittens, cats who have just had surgery or cats with respiratory issues.
Nutty about Cat Litter
One of the newest types of biodegradable cat litter to hit the market is made of ground nutshells. Made by Blue Buffalo, Naturally Fresh cat litter is made from sustainable and renewable walnut shells. Another company, Purr and Simple, also used to make nut-shell litter, but the company was recently bought by Blue Buffalo. Nut litter does not have the silica that is in clay litters, so it has very little dust. It also doesn’t stick to kitty paws, so there is much less tracking throughout the house. The litter can be composted or flushed in the toilet.
Read All About Recycled Paper Litter
Litter made from recycled paper has been growing in popularity over the past several years. There are several companies, including those offering clay litter, that are now making recycled paper litter at reasonable prices. The litter companies shred the newspaper and form it into small pellets or gravel-sized pieces. Since it is made of paper, it is completely biodegradable, although it’s not recommended to be flushed. Recycled paper litter is available in both clumping and non-clumping options. The non-clumping litter receives higher consumer reviews than the clumping version, so you may want to start with the higher-rated option first.
Get a Little Corny about Litter
One of the newest and most highly rated kinds of biodegradable litter is made of corn. The most popular brand is World’s Best Cat Litter, although other several other companies also offer corn litter. Both expert and consumer reviews of World’s Best are generally favorable, although some experts have expressed concerns. One of the most dangerous toxins that causes pet food recalls is aflatoxin, which is a mold that grows on wet corn. By design, litter boxes trap moisture, so if the corn is contaminated, dangerous aflatoxin levels could develop. While the risk of toxicity may be small, cat owner should be aware of the symptoms of aflatoxin poisoning if using corn litter.
Sweet, It’s Wheat
One of the more unique types of biodegradable on the market is Swheat Scoop, which is made of wheat kernels. The litter is safe for kittens and cats of all ages, has a low level of dust and is safe if ingested. The litter is only available in a scoopable formula, although some reviews express disappointment at the instability of the clumps when removing them from the box. Swheat Scoop is completely biodegradable and is safe for flushing.
Completely Biodegradable Doesn’t Mean Completely Harmless
Biodegradable litters offer much healthier alternatives for cats and people than clay litters. But biodegradable doesn’t always mean harmless. Litters made of nuts, corn, wheat, paper and wood are all safe if ingested, but not digestible. Cats who eat these litters may experience stomach upset or even dehydration from the absorption properties of the litter. Environmentalists have also expressed concerns about the safety of flushing these litters. Even though the sewer systems can manage the litters, increasing toxoplasmosis poisoning among sea otters along the West Coast has been tentatively linked to flushed cat feces.
Pick of the litter
Before businessman and entrepreneur Ed Lowe invented and trademarked Kitty Litter® in 1948, the most popular litter pan materials were sand and fireplace ashes. If you are a seasoned cat owner, you can well imagine the impact of sooty ashes and “litter box tracking” on your clean carpet. Or how little odor control sand or silica would have on a human’s olfactory senses.
The pet industry has long taken into consideration a human’s sense of smell and has come a long way in fulfilling our needs with a myriad of scented, absorbent and earth-friendly cat litters. In fact, cat litter is one of the best-selling feline products on the market. Learn the pros and cons of five different varieties of cat litters and the impact each has on the environment.
Clay litter is composed of absorbent, diverse clay minerals called “fuller’s earth.” Fuller’s earth is any non-plastic clay or clay material that can be used to filter, decolorize and absorb liquids and spills. It has been popular for decades and has the innate ability to absorb its own weight in water.
Examples of clay litter: Tidy Cat®, Fresh Step®
Pros of clay litter:
- It will effectively absorb moisture as well as provide some odor control through absorption.
- There are many alternative uses for clay litter, including motor oil clean-up, soaking up “barbeque run off” and traction for icy driveways.
- It is also relatively inexpensive compared to other products on the market.
Cons of clay litter:
- While clay litter effectively absorbs moisture, if the soiled litter isn’t replaced often enough, the urine will collect at the bottom of the box. The bacteria in the urine will multiply and convert the uric acid into foul-smelling ammonia.
- It is dusty and can cause respiratory problems in both cats and humans.
- It is obtained through strip mining, which has a negative impact on the environment.
- It does not break down naturally – leaving landfills full of soiled cat litter.
CLUMPING (or SCOOPABLE) CAT LITTER
Clumping litter is also a clay-based litter, but the main ingredient, sodium bentotite, acts as a clumping agent, absorbing urine and turning it into tight, solid clumps that can be easily removed from the litter box and disposed of.
Examples of clumping litter: Scoop Away®, Arm & Hammer Super Scoop®, Precious Cat Ultra®
Pros of clumping litter:
- “Urine clumps” eliminate odor build-up and keep the box cleaner.
- It is virtually dust free.
- Ideal for mechanical or sifting litter boxes.
- It works well with multi-cat households.
Cons of clumping litter:
- There has been much debate about the safety of clumping litter in regard to a cat ingesting the litter and
- becoming ill. It has been suggested (but not clinically proven) that if ingested – the clumping litter will expand in the cat’s intestinal track and absorb moisture in the cat’s body, creating intestinal blockages and dehydration. As such, many clumping litter products are not recommended for kittens – who often times play in litter pans and ingest litter.
- Do NOT flush! Due to the highly absorbent nature of clumping litter, flushing it down the toilet can cause it to expand and damage plumbing.
- Green hazard: Clumping litter is also collected from strip mining and is NOT biodegradable.
- It’s more expensive than regular clay litter.
RECYCLED PAPER CAT LITTER
Post-consumer recycled newspaper is converted into pellets or granules and works well as cat box substrate.
Examples of paper cat litter: Yesterday’s News® (pellets) and Pa Purr Scoop® (granules)
Pros of paper litter:
- It’s made from recycled newspapers
- Safe for septic systems
- Highly absorbent
- Virtually dust free
- Safe for kittens and post-surgical cats
Cons of paper litter:
- Different from clay litter, paper litter will absorb urine from the bottom, so having the litter too deep will make it more difficult to find and remove the soiled litter.
- More expensive than clay litter.
- Some cats do not like the texture or feel of paper pellets. Not always found in grocery stores (You may need to visit a pet retailer or pet store)
PINE CAT LITTER
Made from 100% recycled pine and formatted into pellets, pine litter is also highly recommended for pet owners looking for an environmentally friendly product.
Examples of pine cat litter: ExquisiCat®, Feline Pine®
Pros of pine litter:
- Recycled product (no new trees are cut down to make this product)
- Safe to use with kittens and post-surgical cats
- Safe for flushing
- Safe for composting
- Can also be used for small animals, birds and reptiles
Cons of pine litter:
- Not all cats like the texture or pine scent
- More expensive than traditional clay litter
- Not always found in grocery stores (You may need to visit a pet retailer or pet store)
CORN CAT LITTER
Corn cat litter is all-natural and the whole kernel substrate offers clumping and odor control. The large surface area of the kernel traps and absorbs ammonia and urine odors naturally.
Examples of corn cat litter: World’s Best Cat Litter®, Nature’s Miracle®
Pros of corn litter:
- Soft texture
- Resists tracking
- Safe for flushing and septic tanks
- Safe for composting
- Silica dust-free
- Natural clumping ability makes it easy to scoop box
- Safe for kittens and other pets
Cons of corn litter:
- Not all cats like the texture or smell of corn litter
- More expensive than clay litter
- Not always found in grocery stores (You may need to visit a pet retail store or pet store)