Hunting for a purr-fect solution

The recent addition of a feline companion to our family has poised us a question; what do you do with a problem like cat litter?

Michael the cat. Photo credit: Charly Stamper

Unless you’re the lucky owner of a cat who does their business exclusively outside, then your cat will invariably regularly present you with a small brown problem. Speaking to various friends and family members who own cats, the consensus seemed to be that the only satisfactory disposal route was via the rubbish bin (where the contents will end up in landfill, or in a slightly better cases, be incinerated to generate electricity). When coupled with the additional detritus of the litter itself and any containment, such as nappy bags or newspaper, this represents a fair amount of material heading straight to the residual waste pile. I decided to see if there was an alternative.

Problem 1: The brown stuff

Let’s delve into the murky world of cat faeces…feline excrement can contain a parasite called toxoplasma gondii, which is manifest in humans as the infection ‘toxoplasmosis‘. This disease can cause serious harm to unborn children and people with weakened immune systems, and thus any disposal method should take this into account  (N.B Cats are the only animal known to excrete the eggs of the parasite, so the same does not apply to dogs or other pets).

Cerebral toxoplasmosis as viewed under the microscope. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons (Jensflorian)

It’s for this reason that cat faeces should not be flushed down the toilet.

The conventional wisdom is that this also prevents cat poo being composted in the same way as regular food or garden waste. Hot composting (where temperates exceed 70ºC) is an option, but not one most of the population could routinely sustain.

Problem 2: Litter-bugs?

The second part of the equation is the litter itself.  “Mineral-based” cat litter is the most commonly available (and cheap) option. Most of these litters comprise highly-absorbant clays such as bentonite or montmorillonite, materials which are strip-mined from as far afield as Wyoming and Brazil. Furthermore, clay-based litter does not readily break down and will persist in landfill for many years. You don’t need to be a sustainability expert to work out the relative carbon footprint of that option.

In the past, the only alternative was to experiment with homemade options such as saw dust or pine shavings (I’m pretty sure any discerning cat would have immediately turned their back on anything that involved intensive effort on their owner’s part). Thankfully, there are now some off the shelf ‘eco’ alternatives.

Cat litter made from recycled paper pellets. Photo credit: Charly Stamper

The trial

All this research left me none the wiser as to what to do with the bulk of my smelly problem. To me, it seemed a shame to rule out the composting option given that by its very nature, cat faeces is already partially decomposed.

After much deliberation, I decided to do a composting trial. Whilst most online resources rule out this, there’s a hardy community of kitty-composters out there. The technique is similar to normal green waste composting, though to err on the side of caution it is recommended that the waste is left to compost for a minimum of one year and that the finish product is not applied to fruit or vegetable crops.

Bearing this in mind, I went for a recycled paper litter; wood pellets are another possibility. The paper litter is 100% recycled and will decompose easily in any setting.

Two months in, and this is what I have so far:

Cat litter compost (month 2). Photo credit: Charly Stamper

All seems to be going well. The waste at the base is homogenous, brown and powdery, with no trace of the original components. There’s a visible bustling community of woodlice, worms and other insects, and I’ve also been mixing in some grass cuttings and newspaper. The odour is minimal, although to be safe I have placed this compost bin at the far end of the garden.

Of course, the most important part of any trial is user participation. I’m happy to report that since spending all this time researching cat litter, Michael has mostly taken to using the garden instead of his litter tray. I wouldn’t expect anything else from a cat.

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About Charly Stamper

I’m an ex-experimental petrologist.
I used to make pretend volcanoes; now I work in renewable energy

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