6 ways you and your pets can help save the planet

In Mashable’s series Wasted, we dig into the myriad ways we’re trashing our planet. Because it’s time to sober up.


My cat is the problem. But, to be fair, so am I. 

Earlier this year, I challenged myself and my feline roommate/son, Kirby, to go zero-waste for seven days. Like many foolhardy zero-wasters before me, I thought reducing my waste footprint (and consequently, my cat’s waste paw print) would be easy. 

But by mid-week, an empty tub of kitty litter, three shredded cat toys, and a small stack of Fancy Feast tins — next to all of the garbage I had accumulated — demonstrated just how far off the mark our tiny household was. 

Pet ownership, something that roughly two-thirds of U.S. households took part in last year, seems like it would go hand-in-hand with a sustainable lifestyle. People who love animals love the planet, right? While that may be true, in reality, pet care is one of the more wasteful areas of product consumption.

From food packaging to single-use poop bags, many of the essentials surrounding dog and cat ownership rely on harmful practices encouraged by the booming pet industry. We buy what’s cheap and convenient, and those things are rarely good for the bigger picture.

Are you looking to make a change? Do you want to live more sustainably? Will your cat not stop with the Greta Thunberg impression? Here are 6 tips for cutting down on pet-care waste, as researched by me (and my cat). 

1. Make meal-time sustainable 

Like many store-bought products, pet food often comes in problematic packaging. 

Fortunately, much of that packaging can be recycled. Wet food cans should go out with the rest of your metals, kibble jugs or tubs can usually get sorted with the plastics, and those giant dog food bags — if made with specific materials and accepted by your county recyclable collectors — can go out to the curb as well.

But for as much packaging that is recyclable, plenty more is not. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, containers and packaging account for “the most plastic tonnage” of any waste category, accumulating 14 million tons in 2015 alone. Put in the context of just how much pet food is purchased each year — $30.32 billion’s worth, according to the American Pet Products Association’s latest spending report — it would seem that pet food buyers collectively contribute to the world’s waste in a substantial way.

Conscientious consumers should examine what goes into packaging the products they are purchasing, as well as who they are purchasing those products from. Plenty of boutique pet food companies base their business models on sustainability, although they tend to be pricier for it, and not all products claiming to be eco-friendly actually are. 

Before I began my research, Kirby spent months eating an extremely expensive kibble that wasn’t all that sustainable and also gave him acne on his chin. (Really.) Now, we use Open Farm’s dry food, which is still expensive but actually seems to do some good for the planet. 

To cut down on cost, consider buying your pet’s food in bulk or cooking some of it yourself. Tons of recipes, using supplies you would find at any zero-waste grocery store, are available online. Of course, be mindful of the nutritional value your pet is getting so they are neither under- nor overfed. My experiment in DIY cat treats left Kirby a bit… rounder than before.

Kirby: cat, companion, aspiring eco-friendly influencer

Kirby: cat, companion, aspiring eco-friendly influencer

2. Take care of “business” the green way

Turns out there are a number of ways you can eliminate waste while your pet uh… “eliminates waste.”

Dog owners, consider buying a sturdy pooper scooper (preferably, one made from metal or durable plastic) as an alternative to single-use baggies. Carrying a shovel full of excrement to the trash can — or ideally, flushing it down the nearest toilet — isn’t an elegant solution, but it produces minimal  waste and carries a low one-time cost. 

Added bonus: If your dog is anything like my boyfriend’s dog, they’ll confuse the whole ordeal for a game and keep trying to yank the scoop out of your hand until you fall on your butt in front of all the other humans and canines at the dog park, hurt your pride, and ruin your new leggings. (Happy is a good girl. It was just a long day.) 

Do not flush cat poop. I repeat: Do NOT flush cat poop.

If you can’t get into the poop-scooping game, don’t see a nearby trashcan/toilet, or go on walks/hikes/adventures that make carrying a scoop unrealistic, opt for compostable bags instead. They’re not as eco-friendly, but for many pet parents, they’re far more practical. 

You can get compostable bags in person from retailers like Petco, or order them from sites like bioDOGradable, all the while keeping in mind how the bags will be packaged for shipping. (You don’t want to accumulate more waste in transit.)

In an ideal world, you’ll make sure those bags and your dog’s “business” eventually make it to a composting facility. But even if those suckers end up in a landfill, truly compostable bags, as opposed to the sometimes misleading “biodegradable” ones, will break down in relatively short order.

As for feline restroom users, indoor cats need litter. Yes, you can technically train your cat to go outside like a dog or use a toilet like a person, but numerous animal behaviorists caution against attempting to change your cat’s bathroom habits beyond kittenhood. It can spell a lot of trouble, both in terms of unwanted behavior as well as health risks. (When I tried “toilet-training” Kirby a few years ago, he peed on my rug and then stopped peeing altogether. It was a mess.)

That said, you can switch the type of litter your cat is using with limited risk of an adverse reaction. Compostable options made of pine, wheat, or recycled newspaper, as opposed to the standard clay mixture, are more sustainable and are carried by most major retailers. 

Kirby and I have had the best luck with pine pellets, which, full disclosure, I only started using because I was tired of the clay paw prints on the floor near his litter box. (I know he’s getting a little pee on the floor, I’d just rather not see it so clearly etched out.) 

A word of caution: Even if you are using a so-called “flushable” litter, avoid putting cat poop in the toilet. I repeat: Do NOT put cat poop in the toilet. Not only can it cause big-time plumbing problems, some cat feces contains a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii that can get in the local water supply and is poisonous to both humans and other animals. 

3. Buy smart when it comes to leashes, toys, carriers, and more

Chances are you’ve purchased a million things for your furry friend over the years. The best thing you can do with all that stuff, considering you already bought it, is take good care of it. Then, when the time comes, be conscientious about what happens to the items you and your pet no longer want.

Buy once and you won’t have to buy again.

Recyclable or not, make an effort to donate used pet items to fellow animal lovers who can put them to use, and consult the web on how to best dispose of products that cannot be used again. To avoid spreading disease between pets, avoid sharing things like old litter boxes, dirty beds, or medical items.

For future purchases, buy smart and sustainable. If your dog needs a new water bowl, get one that will last a long time. The same applies for leashes, toys, carriers, beds, costumes, you name it. Treat your pet’s things as long-term investments in their happiness. Buy once and you won’t have to buy again.

Or, better yet, consider DIY projects that allow you to repurpose existing clutter as pet luxuries. (As I write this, my cat is chilling is an Amazon Prime box filled with college T-shirts. Sure, it’s not the most flattering piece of furniture in my home — but it’s cheap, waste-free, and well-loved.)

Mashable reporters Dax "Mr. Baby" Joho and Happy "This is my boyfriend's dog" Matz, as seen at the LA office

Mashable reporters Dax “Mr. Baby” Joho and Happy “This is my boyfriend’s dog” Matz, as seen at the LA office

4. Keep bathing and grooming simple

It’s unclear what risks the soaps, shampoos, and moisturizers we rinse off in the shower pose to the environment — and the same is true for most of the suds we wash off our pets. 

That said, there’s a reason (besides an abundance of caution) to skip the puppy shampoo at bath time: Dogs don’t really need it. For most animals, an occasional rinse will achieve everything your pet needs and more. 

You can try to make at-home shampoos or throw oatmeal into the mix, but most dogs will be fine with fewer baths featuring fewer products. Not only will it save you from having to find an eco-friendly, recyclable shampoo option, but it may prevent skin irritation in your pet. 

If you get your pet professionally groomed, it’s worth considering the sustainability practices of the shop you frequent — and asking how much waste surrounds your visits. 

5. Avoid waste around the vet’s office

Dealing with medical waste, like pill bottles and single-use sanitary items, continues to pose a sustainability issue to humans. So, it’s no wonder the perfect pet solution has yet to surface. 

Luckily, there are steps pet owners can take to reduce waste accrued at the vet’s office. 

Forget throwing deworming pills in a Mason jar.

If your pet needs some kind of reusable product, like a “cone of shame” or splint, get one and then keep it. Although it might might seem convenient to Marie Kondo this kind of thing in the hope that whatever was ailing your pet never returns, saving these items for a rainy day — or donating them to a friend in need — makes eco-friendly sense. If sanitized, these items can be re-used and shared between pets, size depending.  

What about medication? In many states, it is illegal to store prescription medication in anything other than those labeled pill bottles — so forget about throwing Rocky’s deworming pills in a Mason jar. Instead, donate your pet’s empty pill bottles to a group that will repurpose them, or find a new use for them inside your home, like holding bobby pins, paper clips, or even condiments for a packed lunch. 

As for flea and tick prevention medicine, which is rarely sold in anything other than plastic packaging, there are natural options you can make at home to avoid using these products altogether. But proceed with caution and ask a veterinarian before changing your pet’s medical treatments. 

6. And Google everything else

In the sustainability world, Google is a pet owner’s best friend. 

Google is a pet owner’s best friend. 

Whether you have a different kind of pet with needs that aren’t outlined above or a specific concern regarding your cat or dog, I guarantee you that someone, somewhere has faced that exact same problem. They have or are in the process of finding the answers you need — and with countless, active zero-waste and eco-conscious groups online, they’ll eventually share the answer somewhere you can see it. 

While zero-waste living may still be a far-off goal for Kirby and I, we’re gradually implementing the kinds of changes that chisel away at this literally world-ending problem — in large part because of the resources available online. By sticking together and researching constantly (OK fine, I’m in this alone and he can’t read), we are slowly but surely reaching solutions. 

They may be small solutions, but they’re something — and that’s more than you can say for most humans, let alone most cats.