EarthTalk / From the editors of E
Dear EarthTalk: Which are the most eco-friendly and non-toxic (to people, cats and sanitation systems) cat litters? -- Sam Barnes, Macon, Ga.
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, British Columbia, provides instructions on how to get healthy compost from cat litter derived from wood, sawdust or vegetable products.
More InformationFact box
Contacts: Yesterday's News, www.yesterdaysnews.com; NEPCO, www.nep-co.com; Treehugger's "Make Your Own Newspaper Cat Litter," www.treehugger.com/culture/pet-topic-make-your-own-newspaper-cat-litter.html; Glenbrook North Zero Waste Blog's "How to Compost Your Cat's Litter," http://glenbrookzerowaste.wordpress.com/2010/03/30/how-to-compost-your-cats-litter.
Dear EarthTalk: I read that a single child born in the U.S. has a greater effect on the environment than a dozen children born in a developing country? Can you explain why? -- Josh C., via e-mail
It is well known that Americans consume far more natural resources and live much less sustainably than people from any other large country of the world. "A child born in the United States will create 13 times as much ecological damage over the course of his or her lifetime than a child born in Brazil," reporteds the Sierra Club's Dave Tilford, adding that the average American will drain as many resources as 35 natives of India and consume 53 times more goods and services than someone from China.
Tilford cites a litany of sobering statistics showing just how profligate Americans have been in using and abusing natural resources. For example, between 1900 and 1989 U.S. population tripled while its use of raw materials grew by a factor of 17.
"With less than 5 percent of world population, the U.S. uses one-third of the world's paper, a quarter of the world's oil, 23 percent of the coal, 27 percent of the aluminum, and 19 percent of the copper," he reported. "Our per capita use of energy, metals, minerals, forest products, fish, grains, meat and even fresh water dwarfs that of people living in the developing world."
He adds that the U.S. ranks highest in most consumer categories by a considerable margin, even among industrial nations. To wit, American fossil fuel consumption is double that of the average resident of Great Britain and two and a half times that of the average Japanese. Meanwhile, Americans account for only 5 percent of the world's population but create half of the globe's solid waste.
Americans' love of the private automobile constitutes a large part of their poor ranking. The National Geographic Society's annual Greendex analysis of global consumption habits finds that Americans are least likely of all people to use public transportation -- only 7 percent make use of transit options for daily commuting. Likewise, only one in three Americans walks or bikes to their destinations, as opposed to three-quarters of Chinese. While China is becoming the world's leader in total consumption of some commodities (coal, copper, etc.), the U.S. remains the per capita consumption leader for most resources.
Overall, National Geographic's Greendex found that American consumers rank last of 17 countries surveyed in regard to sustainable behavior. Furthermore, the study found that U.S. consumers are among the least likely to feel guilty about the impact they have on the environment, yet they are near to top of the list in believing that individual choices could make a difference.
Paradoxically, those with the lightest environmental footprint are also the most likely to feel both guilty and disempowered.
"In what may be a major disconnect between perception and behavior, the study also shows that consumers who feel the guiltiest about their impact -- those in China, India and Brazil -- actually lead the pack in sustainable consumer choices," said National Geographic's Terry Garcia, who coordinates the annual Greendex study. "That's despite Chinese and Indian consumers also being among the least confident that individual action can help the environment."
Readers can discover how they stack up by taking a survey on National Geographic's Greendex website. But brace yourself if you are a typical American: You might not like what you find out about yourself.
EarthTalk is by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss of E -- The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.