I had almost eliminated plastic bags from my life. From diligently bringing my own bags to the grocery store, composting organic waste, and reducing waste overall, I had almost rid myself of plastic bags, except for a few bags reused as trash liners. Then in March, I got a dog. Dennis was a six month old border collie-ish mutt with floppy ears, a bright stripe on his forehead, and spots on his feet. He came to us from the Delaware County SPCA where he was rescued from a pound in Kentucky. It was evident that he had been through a lot because when we brought him home he was so scared that he couldn’t do anything except hide under the coffee table and look at us with frightened eyes. He wouldn’t walk and he wouldn’t play. I had to carry him in and out of the apartment. But nowadays he can be found lounging by the window or on the couch, hopping into our bed, chasing other dogs, and chewing on something expensive. Like all dogs, Dennis is a prolific pooper. Suddenly, I couldn’t have enough plastic bags. I grabbed bags in the checkout line and the produce isle. I bought bags at the pet store. My mother began to help me collect bags as well. From perhaps one bag a week, I instantly went to discarding 3 bags a day, 21 bags a week!
I knew that plastic bags are super bad for the environment. They are made from fossil fuels and they never decompose. According to the EPA, somewhere between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags are used worldwide each year. Americans alone throw away over 100 billion bags a year.[i] Millions of plastic bags end up outside of landfills, in waterways, on land, and in the ocean. In these environments plastic bags break down into smaller and smaller pieces but never fully decompose. The pieces are mistaken for food by birds and turtles, causing the deaths of over 100,000 marine animals every year.[ii] There is so much plastic in the oceans today that our oceans are being turned into plastic soup. There now exists in the Pacific Ocean huge swirling vortexes of waste, twice the size of Texas, 90% of which is plastics.[iii]
Pet waste is a big part of the problem. Unless you live in a rural area, dog waste has to be picked up. If your dog poops three times a day, that’s 1,095 bags a year. According to the American Humane Society, 47 percent of American households own at least one dog. It is estimated that there are 83.3 million pet dogs living in the United States today[v]. If each dog requires 3 bags a day, that’s 250 million bags a day, or 91 billion plastic bags a year! If we consider the previous figure that Americans throw away over 100 billion bags a year, this means that 90% of the bags are being used for dog poop!
Dogs and cats also must be fed meat, which comes from our industrial food production system which is a huge source of pollution to the land, air, and water and a major contributor to climate change. One study shows that if a medium sized dog ate a normal diet of meat that would otherwise be fed to humans, its ecological footprint would be equivalent to driving an SUV 12,500 miles a year.[iv] But luckily, most of what we feed to dogs and cats are by-products of meat that are raised for humans. But there is still an impact from processing, packaging, and transporting all that pet food. One article suggests that we feed our pets a more vegetarian diet. Dogs and cats need protein, but they can be just as healthy with proteins from plant sources and diets that are not 100% protein. A lot of dogs and cats are also overweight, so we can help them and the planet just by feeding them less.
Pet lovers are generally animal lovers and often environmentalists as well. But how could we love our own animals, rescue them from shelters, while causing harm to hundreds of thousands of animals every year and destroying our oceans with plastic debris? We may recycle and bring our own bags to the grocery store, yet we seem to assume that poop bags are a necessary evil, so we don’t even think about their environmental impact.
But what could I do about it? I seriously thought about toilet training my puppy, but the toilet was not made for such use. I went to the pet store to see if I could buy biodegradable poop bags, but they were not available for sale at the store! (I have since found biodegradable bags online, such as this at company.) The only option at PetsMart was a long handled scooper. Usually when I walk Dennis, I require at least one hand to hold the leash, sometimes I also need to hold an umbrella, so I couldn’t really carry a scooper every time I took him for a walk. The thing would also be a bear to clean. Then it occurred to me: paper towels. I could use paper towels to pick up the dog poop and it would biodegrade in the garbage. I tried it the next time I took Dennis for a walk. It was a little smelly, but I was able to pick up all the poop without getting any on my hands. It helps that I do not have to go far to find a garbage bin in my neighborhood. If one were to be more fussy about it, one could wear gloves and also carry a container to put the poop in after picking it up with a paper towel. But I was content with just washing my hands after every walk. I have heard that newspaper works pretty well for this purpose too. I now keep a stash of paper towels by the door. Once again, I was able to save plastic bags for lining the trash; and it made no difference to Dennis whatsoever.
This took care of the problem of plastic bags, but not the problem of the pet waste itself. So I did some research and learned about different ways to dispose of dog waste. The Sierra Club suggests flushing it down the toilet, and there are septic systems you can purchase for that if you don’t want to use your own toilet. It is also possible to compost dog waste. All you really need is a hole in the ground and something to cover it with. Throw the dog poop in the hole, cover it with some sawdust, newspaper strips, and septic system enzymes, and it will decompose on its own. The finished compost can be used on plants, but don’t use it on vegetables or anything you might eat.
There’s also the philosophical question of why do we need so many pets in the first place. The American Pet Products Association estimates that Americans will spend $55.5 billion on our pets in 2013.[vi] I cannot deny that pets add a lot of joy to our lives, are good for our health, provide crucial help to the disabled and those involved in crime detection, and so on, but is it really necessary for 47% of us to own dogs and 46% of us to own cats? Pet overpopulation is a problem and each year, about 2.7 million cats and dogs in the United States are put down because there are no families to adopt them. While dogs and cats are the most popular, an herbivorous pet such as a rabbit or a bird would be much more sustainable. But perhaps I wouldn’t feel like I needed a dog for my emotional wellbeing if I had more human company that I desired. I used to get so lonely that I felt claustrophobic and would do stupid things like call up my ex, but now that I have a dog, my anxiety at being alone is much ameliorated. America, with its car-oriented, work-oriented culture, is a place of isolation, a feeling we must ameliorate through consumption. This includes consumption in the form of pets. This is a much bigger problem that I won’t attempt to address today.
While I cut down on the waste from my own pet, changing my own actions does nothing for the other 83.3 million dogs in America. I find that the environmental impact of pets is a topic that is very difficult to talk about with others. People are irrationally devoted to their pets, and Americans have a huge aversion towards fecal matter. It would be like asking people to use cloth diapers for their babies instead of disposable ones. It would just be too much to suggest that people handle dog poop with anything that might put them in contact with it, or go through the inconvenience of washing a container or setting up a composting bin. Yet is littering our planet with bags of dog poop really the best for our public health? Are we really going to pretend that it all just goes away and we don’t ever have to deal with it?
So as we love our pets, let’s give a little love to the other animals that inhabit our planet, the ones that have to find their own food and make their own homes, starting with a biodegradable “bag”.