Going Zero Waste with Pets: A Guide

In today’s throwaway culture, it can be challenging to find zero waste options for ourselves, let alone our pets. While a few businesses are catching on to the idea of minimal or no packaging, the pet industry is a bit behind.

The result is that it’s almost impossible to have pets that are zero waste, but there are ways you can limit their environmental impact. 

Making your own pet food is a good start. Also, make sure to buy toys and accessories that are plastic-free and very durable. Composting waste when appropriate is recommended, as is ensuring your pet is trained to be less destructive.

Here are a few ways to help your pets reduce their carbon pawprints and create a zero waste pet routine.

Make Your Pet’s Food

Almost all pet food comes in a bag, can, or plastic tube. The only real way to avoid this is to make your pet food at home. There aren't many other zero waste pet food options.

Dogs and cats need specific nutrients to thrive—muscle meat alone will not provide this.

Cats need Taurine, a nutrient typically found in animal brains, and both dogs and cats need a source of calcium. Sourcing this outside of supplements and plastic wrap may be difficult to do.

If you’re not sure, try calling your local butcher. Many of them offer pet food grinds, and they may be willing to let you bring your own container. At the very least, you can always reduce how many bags of kibble you get for your pet by making fresh food toppers from your food scraps and reducing their kibble to reflect the new toppers.

If you’re looking for a dry cat food to feed, Wellness brand pet foods have partnered with Terracycle to recycle their bags. When finished, you can mail them to Terracycle, where they will be recycled.

Feed Less Overall

The simple truth is that the majority of pets around the world are overweight or obese. This is bad for the pet, bad for the owner who spends more on food and vet bills than needed and creates a lot of waste.

Often, you can drastically reduce the waste from pet food by simply feeding an appropriate amount of food for your animal. Talk to your vet to find out what a healthy weight is for your pet and follow package instructions on the food to make sure you’re giving them the correct amount.

If you have been free-feeding your dog or giving them far too much dog food, simply cutting back on their food will make them healthier and save on packaging as well.

Upcycle Pet Food Bags

If you can’t escape the plastic bags of pet food, but you do want to do something with the bags, it’s possible to turn them into tote bags. It may be as easy as giving your bag to a local seamstress who already makes them, or you can do so yourself using this tutorial. While it’s possible there may be a few left-over scraps of waste, it’s much less wasteful than tossing the entire bag when it’s finished.

This tutorial works for most pet food bags, including zero waste dog food, as well as livestock feed.

Compost Non-Cat Waste

You can compost your dog poop at home by simply burying it in the backyard. If you’d prefer to use the compost yourself on non-edible plants (it’s never a good idea to use dog waste in the vegetable garden), doggie composters such as the Doggie Dooley are available.

If you have a rabbit, goat, or mini-horse as a pet, have no fear. Simply advertise your pet’s “pile” on your local buy nothing group, and the gardeners will be lining up for miles to pick up your black gold from you.

Cats are a little bit trickier. Cats can carry toxoplasma parasites. They can spread these parasites to humans. Many people have these parasites and are fine, but they can cause some people issues. As an example, if a pregnant woman contracts toxoplasmosisthe infection from these parasitesthey can spread it to the baby, possibly fatally.

If you flush cat poop, it can transfer toxoplasma parasites into the water supply and possibly infect people who are at risk for the disease. This is also why composting it is a bad idea.

The best thing to do with cats is find a plastic-free bag to put it in and dispose of it in a trash can. Sir Doggington makes excellent poop bags made from corn starch, which can work both for on-the-go poops from dogs and collecting cat poop.

Dealing with Cat Litter

The poop itself isn’t the only problem cat owners have with going zero waste. The other concern is, of course, the cat litter itself. How can you go zero waste when you’re dumping several pounds of litter out each week?

Luckily, cat litter can be sustainable if it’s carefully chosen. Avoid clay-based litter because it’s not biodegradable. Instead, select litter made from corn, wood, recycled paper, or wheat. Brands include World’s Best Cat Litter and the corn-based litter from Nature’s Miracle.

Purchase Accessories Thoughtfully

Your pet is going to need a few things in life. They’ll need a collar and ID tags in case they get lost. Dogs will need a leash to go walking on, and cats may benefit from a harness and leash for wildlife-safe outdoor time. They’ll need food and water bowls and a warm bed to sleep in.

These things are necessary, but they also can end up being a source of waste. You could quickly end up with 5 or 6 different collars, bowls, leashes, and beds that wear out or break. Purchasing thoughtfully can help reduce the need to constantly replace these items.

  • Bowls
    Metal bowls are the easiest to clean, and the longest lasting of all the different options out there. Ceramic is a good second choice, but they can break if kicked by exuberant kids or dropped. Plastic bowls should be avoided at all costs.
  • Leashes and Collars
    Your leash should have a sturdy snap to avoid it breaking. Bamboo or hemp leashes are good choices because they remove most or all of the plastic from the leash. Choose a 6” leash so it can also be used as a training leash.

    Most leashes will last your dog’s lifetime but avoid flexi leashes. Not only do they use an excessive amount of plastic, but they’re also prone to breaking. Flexi leashes need to be replaced frequently and can cause severe injury or even death to people and pets should they malfunction.

    As far as collars, there are hemp and bamboo options available that can help nudge your pet away from plastic. It’s a little harder to find plastic-free clip-type collars, but the old-fashioned belt-style buckles are still made of metal.
  • Dog and Cat Beds
    Before you rush out and buy your pet a fancy dog bed, it’s better to take a look at their preferences. Your pet may prefer to lay on the family room rug and not need or want a bed at all.

    If your pet is allowed on the furniture, they may choose to cuddle with you on the sofa, and the bed ends up being a useless ornament in the home.

    If you can, DIY a bed first. You may be able to create a bed and get rid of waste instead of adding it into the world. If you can’t, look for a durable, chew-proof bed that busy teeth won
    t easily destroy.

Toys for Pets

Pet stores are usually packed with an ever-rotating selection of toys for your pets. Toys are essential because they are a source of joy for your animals and can help provide much-needed enrichment for your animals.

Luckily, it’s easy to DIY many toys for your pets, including a rolled-up tin-foil ball for cats, cutting holes in boxes and tossing the ball inside to make a wild chaser game, and giving pocket pets tissues and other ink-free paper products to “recycle” in their own way.

When you choose toys for your dog, look for sturdy toys that will last your pet a lifetime while also being something that appeals to them. A rope toy for a squeaky sort of dog will be left unattended, while if your dog is a tugger at heart, he may be underwhelmed by a soft plush.

Train Your Pets

A final word of advice for cats and dogs that can bring their waste down tremendously is to put in the effort to train them. A dog that knows to only chew on their chew toys and not laptop cables or furniture pieces is a dog who won’t be the reason the couch and cables got thrown in the trash.

A dog that is 100% trained to go outside will never need the thousands of dollars’ worth of potty pads an untrained dog will use in their lifetime—not to mention the cleaners and replaced rugs.

Teach your pets not to counter or table surf, go potty outside, walk loosely on a leash, and only chew specific things. The reward is you will not need a hundred different products to try and stop these problems.

This isn’t always so easy—small dogs can be notoriously difficult to potty train, and cats are usually underwhelmed by our demands to stay off the counter. This brings us to the final point in our guide.

Forgive Yourself and Your Pets

Zero waste is a nearly impossible task when you’re single and can control all your environmental influences. As your family grows, pets included, it gets that much harder to do. The world as we know it is set up to be unsustainable.

It’s a fight to find our own food without a tremendous coating of plastic on it, and when you add in the specialized needs of pets, things get more complicated.

It’s impossible to be perfect all the time, and doing so may needlessly stress you. Instead, the best course of action is to do the best you can to limit waste while understanding when it simply isn’t possible.

Even if you just do what you can to reduce the waste of your pet, those small changes will add up over time to make a very big difference.

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