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May 5, 2003

Cat Litter Curbside?

My wife lives for babies. Her undergraduate degree was in Child Studies. She started babysitting when she was 11 years old. After graduation she was a nanny for a family of 3 kids. She is actively involved with birth labour support, and is expanding her role in assisting and educating mothers- and parents-to-be. It should be no surprise then to learn that when "we" finally got pregnant with our first child, she had pregnancy books out the wazoo, and became very well read about pregnancy. As a direct consequence of this, I deal with a lot of cat shit.

Believe it or not, there is a direct connection between pregnancy and feline feces. Specifically, there is an extremely high chance that cat crap contains toxoplasma gondii, a microscopic parasite that causes toxoplasmosis. Don't ask me exactly what it is, as I only have a fuzzy idea myself other than it's bad. All that you need to know is that if a pregnant woman gets toxoplasmosis during the early stages of pregnancy, it can lead to some very serious neurological development problems for the fetus, and possibly other problems. That's bad. Thus, when my wife became pregnant, for the sake of our unborn baby I got to scoop the cat litter each and every time all by myself.

The task continues to be mine, even past our daughter's 2nd birthday. No big deal - it's a dirty job, but someone has to do it. It occurred to me recently, however, that we actually go through an awful lot of cat litter, and throw out a lot of waste products that come from our three furry feline friends. Each time I toss the bag of siftings into the garbage I know that it's likely the heaviest bag in there - especially when I change out the litter for fresh stuff. I have a vague notion that throwing out cat waste and litter in the municipal garbage is either really frowned upon or illegal in some way, but what else is one to do with it, especially so much of it? Then it hit me. I had to find a way to recycle cat litter and divert it from landfill.

What is cat litter, really? The regular stuff, from what I've seen it do when it gets wet, is simply granules of clay. I'm not sure what hocus-pocus they add to litter to make it clumping, but I'll bet it's something as simple as a different kind of clay that clumps together when wet. Add your cat feces and urine, and you've got what I throw out in the garbage each week. Now, the litter itself could be useful for a number of different uses were it not contaminated with cat waste. I'm sure it could be useful as aggregate for roadwork, or even just as clean backfill for construction. Not being a civil engineer, I'm not up on my aggregate types and uses, however I'd be very surprised if reclaimed litter couldn't be used for something.

Of course, this begs the question: how does one reclaim litter? Well, the feces would be fairly simple to get out. A few sifting screens of decreasing size would be able to get even the tiniest turds out of the litter. All that leaves is litter and urine. From here there could be a couple ways of "purifying" the not-quite-reclaimed litter. First, one might try washing the urine out, and sending it (along with the removed feces) to the local sanitation plant, which knows exactly what to do with such material. That would involve vast quantities of water, piping, pumps, and probably cost.

Another option I'd look into is simply baking the heck out of it to ensure anything that remains is inert. Ideally the sun's energy could be used to bake everything in a huge industrial-sized solar oven, however that would be contingent on having good sunny weather. The next most likely scenario might be using natural gas as a fuel source to create heat. This would be especially good if the natural gas could be reclaimed from a nearby landfill - recycling two waste products at once! After baking, the dried litter might then be suitable for a variety of uses, as mentioned before. Heck, one might be able to re-scent it and sell it again as cat litter!

Obviously, there are yet many details that would need to be worked out, however I'm quite confident that a solution could be found. The problem then becomes the cost of such a project. Recycling trucks with cat litter compartments aren't going to appear for free, nor is the litter recycling facility. Will the end product be saleable? Will it have enough value to pay for the project? I have a feeling not. So, what about simply asking municipalities to pay for such a project? After all, it's diverting waste from a landfill, and every amount of diverted waste adds time to that landfill's lifespan, a huge savings over having to create another costly landfill or ship your garbage elsewhere, as Toronto is doing.

To answer that last question we have to figure out how much litter is actually being generated. If I had access to data telling me how much litter is being produced each year for use in Canada, my job would be easy. As it stands, I've not been able to find any such data, nor any data about pet ownership in Canada, so I'm going to use a best guess. I'm going to assume that 5% of people in Canada own one cat, and that cat goes through 1kg of litter per week. This is probably a very conservative estimate, and assumes clumping cat litter as well, but I'll stick with it for now. At a population of 30 million, that translates to 1.5 million cats, which seems reasonable, and 1.5 million kilograms (1500 tonnes) of litter per week, or 78000 tonnes of litter every year. That seems like a freaking huge pile of litter to me. Is it enough to bother diverting? I'd need to do some more digging to figure that out.

One slight setback to starting a pet litter collection and recycling program is simply a matter of common sense. Although 78000 tones is a lot of anything to divert from landfill, pet litter is not the biggest landfill component, so why should it be diverted before other garbage? Based on what my family throws out in the weekly garbage, compostable kitchen scraps is the largest portion of landfill that could be diverted and turned into something worthwhile, or even profitable. In a perfect world, everyone would own a composter, make it work perfectly, and we'd all have beautiful lawns and gardens. Realistically, my weed collection is small enough as it is, and I don't want an ugly black box filled with composting slop taking up physical and visual space. So instead of spending municipal effort on pet litter collection, I'd really love to see a compostables pick-up along with our weekly garbage and recycling pick-up. Sell us nice, thick, bright green plastic bags that we can toss our kitchen waste into, and then sell us the resulting compost. Wouldn't that be great?

The next problem in line is how many different trucks are going to be coming around collecting the stuff at the end of your driveway each week? We already have separate recycling and garbage trucks and a biweekly yard waste pick-up during the non-winter months... add in a compostables (or pet litter) recycling truck and you've got four trucks coming down your street once a week, and four piles of stuff at the end of your driveway! Five, if you count your bundled cardboard. I have to believe that if the municipalities were thinking clearly, they would mandate truck companies to redesign garbage and recycling trucks into one uber-collection vehicle. Such a vehicle could gather recyclables, compostables, yard waste, and perhaps even more items (like pet litter?) into a one-stop pick-it-all-up vehicle.

I honestly don't know what the answer is. Recycling programs are great, but are not immune to business considerations. If recycling a material is not profitable, or can't even be done to break even, chances are it simply won't be implemented. Aluminum, steel, and plastic all have markets for recycled materials. Would litter? Dealing with feces and urine is likely ripe with laws, by-laws, regulations, standards, and who knows what else, making any such reclamation and recycling project that much more expensive and complex to administer. Although I truly believe that there is a way to divert litter from landfill and turn it back into a useful product, I am not so sure about its business sense, or its ease of implementation.

Sigh. I guess it's time to teach cats how to use the toilet. But only if it's a 6-litre low-flush toilet.


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