Stop Wasting Money on Biodegradable Dog Poop Bags
There are far better ways to deal with your shit.
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Picture this: one thousand football fields lined up in a row, each one filled with dog shit one foot deep. It’s not a pleasant thought, but that’s how much waste our canine pets create each year in the U.S.
What happens to all that crap? That depends on what we do with it.
You’re not gonna like what I’m about to tell you. Once I started to dig into how to handle my dog’s poop in the most responsible, environmentally-friendly way, I didn’t like it either.
If you’re like me, you dutifully scoop your dog’s poop with a biodegradable or compostable bag that you paid good money for. We feel good about buying those bags because we think they’re better for the planet. Newsflash: they’re not. We’ve been had.
I couldn’t find any data on how big the “dog poop bag” business is, but if you search Amazon for that term you get over a thousand hits. Start clicking and you’ll see lots of language (“USDA certified,” “certified compostable,” biodegradable, “made from vegetables”) designed to make you think that those bags will melt away and sprout daisies when they hit the landfill.
Problem is, all those certifications are based on commercial composting facilities which engineer the perfect conditions needed for the bags to break down. Those conditions do not exist in the landfill, so the bags simply don’t break down as claimed. Instead, they get buried beneath other garbage and fester, all the while releasing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Lots and lots of greenhouse gasses.
So what’s a responsible dog owner to do? To find out, I reached out to Rose Seemann, author of The Pet Poo Pocket Guide. Seemann is a co-founder of Enviro Pet Waste Network, a nonprofit whose goal is to connect and educate people on sustainably managing pet waste. We talked about all the different ways dog owners deal with their crap and came up with some good, better, and best options.
Good: Bag It
Nobody wants to see–or worse–step in your dog’s daily offering. At the very least, pick it up and throw it away. Some cities will even fine you for not doing so. But the big question is what to pick it up with? There are two basic choices: paper or plastic.
Paper dog poop bag options
I ordered up PoopShark Poop Bags and Pooch Paper. The former is a three-sided bag; the latter is a simple square sheet that you twist shut.
After using these bags for a couple of weeks on woodsy and residential walks that often last an hour or more, I encountered a big drawback: the paper is thin, uncoated, and not designed to encapsulate a wet turd for more than 15 or 20 minutes. After that, things get start to get a little sketchy. I found I had to carry a backup plastic bag, which defeats the purpose of choosing a paper scooper.
Representatives from both companies conceded that their best markets are in urban areas, where dog walkers have easy, frequent access to bins, so minimal toting is necessary. I do believe that for city dwellers and short-haul dog walkers, these two products are good options—far better than plastic ones—but I wish that both companies were clear in their marketing about the limitations.
If your end game is to trash your bag of poop, then use either a repurposed plastic bag—bread, carrot, newspaper, or deli bags all do the trick—or buy bags made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled materials as a way to support recycling infrastructure. I found only one product that fits this bill, Purple Poop Bags. (Be warned, they only sell in batches of 6,000, so you’ll want to go in on it with dog park buddies.) And, as I said: Do not waste your money on anything marketed biodegradable or bio-based. Those companies are capitalizing on our desire to do something good for the planet and not properly educating us on the real-world breakdown of their products. I see it as just plain greenwashing.
If composting programs accepted pet waste, it might be a different story. Then those bags would have a logical place to go. But for now, it’s just too hard to find a composting facility that allows pet waste. Rose Seemann of Enviro Pet Waste Network only knows of two municipal composting facilities (in Nantucket, Massachusetts, and Brattleboro, Vermont) and a smattering of small-scale composting projects in city parks, dog runs, and trailheads in the U.S. that welcome pet waste into their composting facilities. (Canada is way ahead of the U.S. on this front.)
Better: Build a Poop Digester
If you have a yard and your dog does most of his business there, making a poop digester is a great solution. It’s a mini septic system designed to send his crap down into the soil, where it will eventually break down and enrich it. Site location here is key. You don’t want to build your digester near any waterway or too close to buildings with foundations which could impede drainage.
It’s a fairly simple DIY project that entails drilling holes and removing the bottom of a sealable container (like a 5-gallon bucket or old garbage can), lining it with stones, and burying it. Poop goes in along with grass clippings or leaves and a sprinkling of septic treatment which helps things break down faster. Seemann says that septic processing slows down when temps drop below 40 degrees F: “Be sure your bin is big enough to get through the cold spells or have a backup plan.”
Best: Turn That Poop into Black Gold
Upcycling–or composting–dog poop into a resource for the garden is, by far, the greenest way to go. If you aren’t lucky enough to live near a facility that can compost your dog’s doo, Seemann recommends you start advocating for one. Building awareness and collective action around dog waste composting is the heart and soul of her work. In her hometown of Boulder, Colorado, the community spoke up about needing better pet waste disposal options, and the city council took action by funding collection points and at popular trailheads and dog parks and transportation of waste to local compost facilities that agreed to process it.
“If you don’t think big, you’ll never get there,” says Seemann. She suggests getting a group of like-minded dog park friends together and attending city council meetings. “Get the issue on the agenda and show up in force to tell the council you want a composting solution for pet waste. You need to form a vocal, dedicated coalition and make your case.”
In the meantime, you can compost your dog waste at home. While that notion is sure to make some of us (read: me) squeamish, it’s entirely doable and apparently not that difficult. Just know this: even bags labeled “home compostable” will take several years, maybe more, to break down in your bin.
Virtually everything you read on the internet says that dog waste should not be co-composted with food waste and that any dog waste compost should not be used in any garden beds that contain edibles.
But even that is up for debate. I reached out to Rick Carr, farm director and master composter at Rodale Institute to get his take. He says that most of what you read about the dangers of composting dog poop with food waste is bunk. “As long as you manage your pile properly, you can compost anything: meats, dairy, fats, oils. Even dead animals, and yes, any kind of manure.”
One key, he says, is to make sure that no food (or poop) is ever showing. It should be nested in “browns” or carbon material like leaves or straw to enhance the decomposition and eliminate harmful fecal coliforms (like E. coli) over time. “I’d be more concerned about the risk of exposure to fecal coliforms by getting poop on my shoes and tracking it into my house than putting it in my compost. Fully cooked, cured, finished compost poses virtually no risk, no matter what went into it.”
Dealing With Dog Poop on a Long Hike
If you’re on a hike deep in the woods and your dog poops, think Leave No Trace. “Don’t just flick it into the woods,” says Seemann. (Damn, that’s what I always do.) “The excess nitrogen and phosphates in domestic dog waste throw the local ecosystem out of whack. And accumulated dog poop in sensitive natural landscapes can encourage the growth of invasive species that crowd out native plants. Then there’s the potential problem with run-off into waterways.” If you don’t plan on packing it out, bury it six inches deep away from water and trails, and let nature do the rest.
Kristin Hostetter is the head of sustainability at Outside Interactive, Inc. and the resident sustainability columnist on Outside Online.