6 min read

Eco-friendly Cat Litter: A Complete Guide

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Litter boxes are a must for every household with feline family members. But have you ever thought about what cat litter does to the planet? The environmental impact of conventional litter may surprise you. Read on to learn more about how this common household item affects the environment and what sustainable alternatives are available on the market.


Is cat litter bad for the environment?

Cat litter was invented in the 1940s, when a man named Edward Lowe discovered that a clay-like substance called fuller’s earth was really good at absorbing feline waste and controlling odors. He subsequently launched a brand called Kitty Litter and invested heavily in research and development to produce a litter that was lightweight, low-odor, and super absorbent. Prior to Lowe’s discovery, cat parents used ash, sand, or soil to fill their cat’s boxes. 

Since these materials tended to track paw prints all over the house, clay-based litter quickly became the product of choice for many cat parents. Unfortunately, conventional litter isn’t the best choice for the environment for various reasons. The majority of cat litters on the market are made using sodium bentonite clay, which is primarily obtained by strip mining. 

trucks collecting bentontite clay by strip mining - eco-friendly cat litter

In strip mining, bentonite clay is extracted from 30 to 40 feet below the ground. But before miners can reach the clay, large amounts of vegetation, topsoil, and dirt need to be removed. This practice destroys the local environment, displaces wildlife, and can pollute water tables. It takes huge amounts of energy to mine the clay and process it to achieve the desired texture as well.

Additionally, clay-based litter is not biodegradable, so when it gets thrown away, it will sit in the landfill for thousands of years. Many of today’s products also contain additives such as clumping agents, chemical scents, and anti-dust sprays that will end up in landfills too. 

What about crystal cat litter, another popular form of litter? While it is less messy than clay-based products, crystal litter, which is silica-based, isn’t any better for the environment—it’s also sourced using strip mining and isn’t biodegradable.


Black and white cat being examined by veterinarian

Is cat litter unhealthy?

Is conventional cat litter unhealthy for us and our cats? While you may have heard about catching diseases from being around your animal's waste, such as the warnings to pregnant women about toxoplasmosis, there are actually other factors at play, and it has to do with the litter itself. You know that dust that gets kicked up into the air each and every time your cat uses the litter box, as well as when you change the litter itself? It contains minerals which all pets and humans in the house can breathe in that could exacerbate respiratory allergies or asthma, or even cause other serious health issues.  

Remember that bentonite clay from earlier? This clay expands up to 15 times from its original volume when wet to "soak" up urine into easily-scoopable clumps, which is why we don't flush litter down the toilet and block our household pipes. The clay can do the same to our cats' internal organs when breathed into airways or licked off of paws or fur, causing dehydration, anemia, and lung and gastrointestinal issues, including blockages and preventing nutrient absorption. Plus, bentonite clay can also have traces of arsenic, lead and silica, all known carcinogens. And unless your cat's litter box is outside, you'll be breathing in the dust throughout your house too. 

Crystalline silica, found in both bentonite clay litters and crystal silica litters, is a known cancer-causing agent for humans, as well as animals. Inhaling too much of it can lead to silicosis, an upper respiratory condition brought on by silica dust accumulating in the lungs over a period of time that results in shortness of breath and a reduced lung capacity. It may also contribute to sarcoidosis, a disease involving the growth of inflammatory granulomas in the internal organs.

Scent and odor controlling additives can also be kicked up into the air with the litter dust, or licked off of paws, and can come with their own dangers. Many of these additives haven't been well studied for their possible toxicity, but some may trigger allergies or help cause respiratory, eye or urinary issues. 


Stylized earth surrounded by recycle arrows

What is eco-friendly cat litter?

So, what’s an aspiring zero-waste cat parent to do? While no cat litter is truly zero-waste, there are several eco-friendly options on the market that have a significantly smaller carbon paw print than conventional litters. 

Eco-friendly cat litters are made using biodegradable materials that are recycled, renewable, and/or byproducts of other industries, often sustainably sourced and with minimal processing. And because they are biodegradable, they can be composted and will not pile up in landfills if thrown out. Eco-friendly cat litter can be made from wood, pine, bamboo, paper, newspaper, grass seed, coconut, corn, wheat, beet pulp, and even tofu.

Plus, unlike conventional litters, eco-friendly litters don't contain bentonite clay or silica dust which has been linked to upper respiratory diseases, cancers, allergies and a host of other health issues. 

It's clear that eco-friendly cat litters offer a sustainable, biodegradable, cleaner and healthier option to traditional varieties, but where do you begin?


Natural plant-based litter being poured into litter box

Best eco-friendly cat litter products

Ready to switch to cat litter that has a lower impact on the environment? Here are five of the best eco-friendly cat litter brands to get you and your feline friend started on your journey towards sustainable living!


World’s Best 

World’s Best cat litter is made from whole corn kernels that have been compressed into granules that are highly absorbent, trap odors, and clump on contact. The clumps don’t stick to the box or fall apart, allowing for easier cleanup. In addition, it lasts longer than conventional brands so you can cut down on trips to the pet store. It comes in unscented and scented varieties, with formulas geared towards single, multiple, and picky felines. This is also a brand that gives back—so far, World’s Best has donated more than one million pounds of litter to rescue cats in need. 


SmartCat 

Made from US-farmed grass, SmartCat clumping litter has a creamy sand-like texture that many cats like. It is soft on the paws, making it safe and suitable for younger felines. The brand claims to out-clump clay-based litters; clumps can be scooped out within minutes of elimination, and because it clumps so well there’s no need to dump the entire box too often. It is also fragrance-free and virtually dust-free, reducing the chance of respiratory issues and making it ideal for sensitive cats. 


Human hand touching wheat stalks

sWheat Scoop

sWheat Scoop is the world’s first plant-based cat litter, made from rapidly renewable wheat sourced from farms in the United States. Its proprietary blend contains naturally occurring starches and enzymes that form clumps fast and trap odors on contact, so it retains its natural wheat scent even after your cat does their business. Tracking is minimal as well since it doesn’t stick to the paws. sWheat Scoop comes in five varieties, including multi-cat and wheat-corn blend formulas. The brand has also partnered with Plastic Bank to help protect oceans from plastic waste. 


Ökocat 

Using reclaimed wood fiber, Ökocat offers completely biodegradable, additive and dust free cat litters that range in a variety of textures for our picky felines. From super soft fiber pieces made for delicate paws, to a super light cut that simulates clay, and even pellets in wood or paper for long-haired cats, there's one that's sure to fit your kitty's preferences. With a natual scent and solid clumping ability, the wood fiber absorbs liquid quickly to help stop odor from even forming, and most varieties are even flushable! And if you've got other critters, the same company also produces natural dog litter for indoor use, and small animal bedding too!

Pile of walnut shells

Littermaid

Hailed as one of the best eco-friendly options on the market by many reviewers, Littermaid's Premium Walnut Cat Litter turns discarded walnut shells leftover from the human food industry into a soft, sandy litter that's easy on the paws. This absorbent walnut litter clumps tightly, naturally minimizes odors and gives off very little dust. A note of caution for those with nut allergies, however, as the walnut shells can contain trace amounts of walnuts. Littermaid also makes a corn cob variety that's nut, dust and clay free.

Not sure if eco-friendly cat litter is the right choice for your feline friend? Chat with a veterinary professional today to get the lowdown on eco-friendly cat litter.

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