On Wednesdays for the rest of the month, I’ll be posting entries about the members of many households who are sometimes neglected when it comes to green household purchasing: pets. Apologies if I offend those owning hamsters, hedgehogs, beta fish and bunny rabbits, but I’ll be focusing primarily on cats and dogs. That said, if there’s anything in particular you’d like me to focus on — FSC-certified dog houses, cat scratch posts made from post-consumer content, etc. — please do let me know. And although I don’t have any furry, four-legged flatmates at the moment, I am a veteran of the pet care industry and can certify a few of my close friends as “crazy cat ladies.” I’ve pilled geriatric felines and had a Great Dane sit on my lap. Consider me qualified.

Now on to the good — kinda gross — stuff. As reported in National Wildlife magazine, 38.4 million cat-owning households send about 2 million tons of kitty litter to landfills each year. This is in the U.S. alone. How much litter is that? It’s the same weight as five Empire State Buildings and the same amount of electronic waste that’s landfilled each year in the States. All and all, nothing to LOL about.

Conventional cat litter is not biodegradable and cannot be composted. And not only do these litters clog landfills for years and years, the key ingredients in bentonite clay-based varieties have been unsustainably strip mined. Anyway you look at it, the cat business business is taxing on the planet.

Fortunately, there are a variety of natural cat litters that ease the burden on the earth. For cats that like to read in the bathroom, there’s Purina’s Yesterday’s News, a biodegradable litter made from recycled newspaper; for grain-lovin’ kitties there’s Swheat Scoop Natural Wheat Litter that’s biodegradable and clay-, chemical-, and fragrance-free; and for kitties that deserve only the best, there’s World’s Best Cat Litter, a brand that’s highly absorbent and corn-based. There are several more companies out there marketing eco-friendly kitty litters, most of them containing plant-based ingredients. And then there is the CatSeat, a well meaning but disconcerting litter-less alternative. For those who want to toilet train their cats, all my best, just give me fair warning before I step into your loo.

If you're considering composting cat waste that’s been deposited in biodegradable litter, the folks at GreenYour have some advice. Since cat poo contains potentially dangerous nasties like the parasetic toxoplasmosis gondii, you can’t just toss it anywhere even if you’re using natural litter. The same goes for flushing it down the toilet. Keep in mind that natural litter may be gentler on the planet but the waste itself can present a whole other set of problems to ecosystems and wildlife. My advice? Keep it simple — stick to biodegradable litter deposited in biodegradable garbage bags and trash it.

Felines, like humans, can be finicky about bathroom habits. If you switch to a natural litter after using a conventional variety, 8-year-old Fluffy may resist the new stuff. Patience and experimentation is key. After all, I’m guessing many who made the switch from regular toilet paper to a less gentle recycled content kind found the experience initially unsettling. Just remember, whether we’re dealing with recycled TP or natural kitty litter, all of these little changes that we make around the home equal one big sigh of relief for Mother Nature.

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Letting the cat out of the bag
Mr. Whiskers may have nine lives but Mother Nature doesn't. Make your choice of kitty litter count.