Have you ever gone on a hike or taken your dog for a stroll around the block, only to find piles of dog poop laying in your path? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken my dog out for a walk and stepped in another dog’s poop. I’ve always wondered what makes people inclined to never scoop poop, and upon further investigation, there seem to be a lot of myths surrounding the “benefits” of letting dog waste return to the soil. So, it begs the question: why do we pick up our dogs’ poop? There are actually more reasons than you might think, so let’s dive in.
WHY IT’S IMPORTANT TO CLEAN UP DOG POOP
This one is a no-brainer. Stepping in dog poop is an awful experience. It gets stuck in your shoes, it can smell terrible, and it takes forever to get it to go away. Plus, you may even end up tracking it around your home or other buildings before you even notice! And if your dog frequently potties in areas where dog poop gets abandoned, they are liable to step in it too. Keeping sidewalks, trails, and grass yards clean and enjoyable for everyone should be reason enough to scoop that poop, but let’s examine why not picking up after your dog has a bigger impact than you might think.
World’s Worst Fertilizer
Many people make the mistake of leaving dog poop on the ground because they believe it will act as fertilizer, but this is far from true. The most commonly used manure for fertilizer comes from livestock - cows, sheep, and even horses. The caveat is that most manure-based fertilizer comes from herbivores, because their waste product is full of undigested plant fiber. Cow manure works as fertilizer because it started out as vegetation - it contains nutrients that encourage plant growth.
Now you might be thinking, why can other carnivorous animals like wolves or bears poop in the wild, but my dog can’t? One of the reasons for this is because wild animals, carnivorous or not, are consuming resources and nutrients from the ecosystem and returning those same nutrients and resources back into the ecosystem with their scat. In comparison, dogs are consuming protein rich and nutrient-dense pet foods that are designed to give them a balanced diet, but often result in pet waste full of excess nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous. When this waste starts to break down, it becomes acidic, depletes oxygen, and can lead to unstable conditions in many ecosystems that can damage plant life, contribute to algae blooms, or contaminate waterways.
Additionally, dog poop can harbor loads of bacteria and pathogens, making it a hazard to not only the environment, but other humans and animals as well. Composting dog waste might be a possibility in the future, but achieving a high enough temperature to kill off any potential pathogens is a problem that still needs solving before we can consider dog poop fertilizer as an option.
Bacteria, Pathogens, and Worms
Dog poop can contain an astoundingly large amount of bacteria and pathogens - up to 23 million bacteria can be present in just one gram of poop! Plus, dog poop is also a common carrier of salmonella, parvo, hookworms, roundworms, and giardia - all things that can make humans and animals sick. Think about when you get a new puppy - everyone tells you to keep your pup away from areas other strange dogs have been until he or she is fully vaccinated. When people leave pet waste out in public yards and parks, your unprotected puppy is put at risk if they make contact with infected waste, as it could cause some serious damage. Similarly, if your dog ever gets worms, you are always told to thoroughly wash your hands after handling pet waste to avoid contracting them yourself. The fact that diseases and pathogens can be spread so easily between dogs and humans should be enough reason to pick up pet waste, not to mention the effect it can have on natural bodies of water.
Impact on Watershed
Not only does dog poop contribute to environmental pollution on land, but it can also contaminate waterways with pathogens. Pet waste that is left on the ground can wash away with rain, snow, or water runoff over time, but this doesn’t mean its negative impact goes away. Decomposing dog feces can deplete oxygen in water, which can cause difficulties for wildlife like fish and other aquatic life, and contribute to harmful vegetation growth. A study was done that estimates about 20-30% of bacterial water pollution comes from dog waste, posing serious health risk to the native wildlife and humans.
Bagged isn’t Always Better
To go a step further, some people bag up their dog’s poop and leave it on the sidewalk or on a hiking trail, intending to pick it up later. Most never do, and the bag of poop is just left out in the elements. But despite all the negative impacts poop can have on the environment, it is even worse bagging it and not properly disposing of it. Plastic can take anywhere from 10 to 1,000 years to break down completely, so imagine the negative impact on the environment when you find plastic poop bags scattered everywhere! Not to mention, the plastic poses a threat to wildlife who may try to ingest it.
Given the negative impact dog waste has on the environment and others, it’s clear that we should be disposing of it. However, scooping poop responsibly is more confusing than you think.
PACKING IT OUT
The most common way of picking up and disposing of dog waste is to use plastic bags that are sold in rolls, or in a box for bags with handles. There are enough good reasons for why we need to pick up dog poop, but excuses like “I forgot bags” or “I don’t want to carry the bag” still prevent some people from doing the responsible thing. While it may be inconvenient to clean up after your pup sometimes, there are several helpful products available to alleviate common annoyances and help you be a more responsible pet owner.
Poop Bag Dispenser
Although it’s always possible to forget refills, poop bag dispensers make it easier than ever to never be without a bag. There are a wide variety of poop bag dispensers, but the ones with hooks on the back are the best option for those who want to keep their hands free after picking up their pet’s waste. To stay extra prepared, you can always keep a spare roll of bags in your jacket pocket.
The Poo Vault and Other Portable Waste Receptacles
For longer adventures, products like the Poo Vault are perfect. They allow you to hold onto your dog’s waste until you find a trash can, keeping your dog’s poop “out of sight, out of mind.” The small plastic vault keeps smells contained inside, is hands-free, and allows you to pack out your dog’s poop anywhere with no hassle or mess. Out on the trail or even in your car, products like these help us eliminate the hassles of cleaning up after our dogs, and make it easier to be more responsible pet owners.
WAYS TO DISPOSE OF WASTE - IS THERE A “BETTER” WAY?
Compostable and Biodegradable Bags & the Issue with Composting
The compostable/biodegradable bag trend is growing rapidly, but there are some underlying issues that the companies themselves don’t spend much time fleshing out for the average consumer.
What are Biodegradable and Compostable Bags?
Biodegradable means that a substance can break down and return to nature in a reasonably short time after disposal (about a year or less), whereas compostable means a substance can break down and return to nature while also providing the earth with nutrients once the material is broken down. Biodegradable materials can theoretically be designed to break down in landfills (though many don’t), while compostable materials require special composting conditions such as high temperatures and frequent rotation. Be wary that not all biodegradable products are created the same. “Oxo-biodegradable”sounds good, but isn’t- these types of materials degrade with oxygen like many others, but they contain chemical additives that break plastic down into smaller fragments that never completely degrade. Truly biodegradable bags are typically made of maize or vegetable starch, but many bag companies make claims without disclosing their bag’s components. Given how different compostable and biodegradable materials can be, why are companies using these terms interchangeably on their products?
Well, companies may be using deceptive advertising for their “earth friendly” products. The Fair Trade Commission warned 20 companies that their biodegradable and compostable claims may be deceptive. The FTC defines a “biodegradable” product as one that will completely break down to its natural components within one year of customary disposal. “Customary disposal” means the product needs to be disposed of correctly, in the right conditions to degrade properly. Biodegradable and compostable bags were never intended to be thrown in landfills, but that crucial point isn’t made explicitly clear to the general public.
How Do You Dispose of Biodegradable/Compostable Bags?
And as if finding truly biodegradable or compostable bags wasn’t enough of a challenge, disposing of them is even more complicated.
Whenever you throw trash into a normal trash bin, it gets carted off to a landfill. The trouble with landfills is that if they don’t provide enough oxygen, it doesn’t matter if your bag is biodegradable - lack of oxygen and compression from other trash can keep it from breaking down properly.
Industrial or large-scale composting centers may be an option for your vegetable or plant-based bags, but not all of them accept dog waste. But for the ones that do, compostable bags are a great way to reduce your impact on the planet and landfills. Larger compost operations have more volume to maintain a compost bin and can reach higher temperatures than home-composting bins - allowing them to successfully neutralize potential viruses, pathogens, and bacteria. If you have local compost centers, check to see if they accept pet waste.
As we discussed earlier, using dog poop as fertilizer can be very complicated, and home composting could potentially be dangerous for your health. Dog waste is full of bacteria that can be nearly impossible to kill in a home-composting environment due to the high temperature (160°F) needed to kill off harmful pathogens. Most home composting piles aren’t big enough to reach this temperature. Because of this, the EPA recommends dog waste should never be used as fertilizer for crops grown for human consumption. So although it’s certainly possible to compost your pet’s waste, it’s important to keep it away from all edible crops and be aware of the risks of bacteria and pathogens.
Another way to dispose of poop involves flushing it down a toilet - but we all know how the “flushable” wipe trend went! Most flushable bags become softer hours after being flushed but never fully disintegrate. Flushable bags are usually made out of polyvinyl alcohol - a water-soluble material - but degrade slowly and may clog pipes.You could always flush the poop without the bag, but there are a few caveats to this as well.
As I mentioned earlier, pet waste can be a hazard due to all the bacteria and pathogens it can harbor - ideally, this should be eradicated when the water goes through a sewage treatment plant, but this isn’t always the case. For example, sewage overflows each year force untreated water back into the environment. If pet waste were to be included in this, it would release ammonia and remove oxygen from the water as it decomposes, potentially harming aquatic life and risking contamination to drinking water. However, flushing poop can be a “greener” option as long as your city and sewage setup can handle it. If you are interested in flushing poop without the bag, check with your sewage treatment plant to make sure they can handle the additional waste.
To recap, it’s clear that disposing of pet waste is complicated. Reducing our plastic use is great in theory but can be difficult in practice. Luckily, we have a few options at our disposal as long as we take the necessary precautions to use them properly. Remember to always do your research when purchasing waste disposal products, know where your waste is going, and always be aware of the impact you’re having on others and the environment.