The eternal conundrum of dog poop

When trying to phase out single-use plastic, there are some items that seem impossible to replace — like dog poop bags.

Having a dog is a truly wonderful, life-altering experience. From the unconditional love your pup effortlessly gives to the daily exercise benefits to the constant connection to a living creature, it's truly a joy to care for the loyal, lovable species.

But then there's the poop.

If you live in a suburban or urban neighborhood, you're probably familiar with those mini plastic bags used for dog droppings. As a Dog Mom to two 60+ pounds mutts, I deal with this, erm, waste collection on a daily basis. And while I'm able to cut down on single-use plastic and unnecessary garbage in other aspects of my life, this is one stinky situation I have to yet to resolve sustainably.

Why even pick it up?

green dog poop bag in wilderness© L. Reynolds

First off, even if you live in an rural area, surrounded by wilderness, you still should pick up the poop. There's a laundry list of environmental reasons for why you shouldn't let that waste rot away in the ground — even if you're deep in the woods.

It's estimated that our 83 million pet dogs in the U.S. produce some 10.6 million tons of poop every year. And I won't even mention the numbers for cat litter waste. That's a lot of doo to deal with.

Doggie doo is full of bacteria, viruses, and other nasty microbes that (if left on the ground) will eventually work their way into our springs and rivers and storm sewers, contaminating our drinking water. Other dogs, wildlife, and kids can also be affected by the bounty of bugs poop contains, like adenovirus, parvovirus, giardia, coccidian, roundworm, and tapeworm.

Burying it in your yard, sadly, is also a no-no. Obviously, you wouldn't want it anywhere near your vegetable garden, and again, if buried too close to a waterway, dog poop even has certain nutrients than can encourage the growth of fish-suffocating algae.

So where does it go?

Hopefully you're now fully convinced to pick up the poop, but what exactly do you do with it? Unfortunately, throwing it in the trash is also a strain on our already bursting landfills. Although biodegradable options exist, the jury's still out on how effective these “compostable” bags are.

We also know that when organic material (like food and dog waste) goes into a landfill, it releases methane into our air. As we've noted before, methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas, 80 times as powerful as carbon dioxide, and it's already leaking at alarming levels, thank to the U.S. oil and gas industry.

There are some creative solutions out there, like using the methane found in Fido's poop to burn as energy, as demonstrated by the Park Spark Project in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Artist Matthew Mazzotta installed the special methane digester near MIT campus, using the fuel to power an old-fashioned lamp post. Similar ventures are being undertaken in places as disparate as Colorado, England, and Melbourne.

Mazzotta writes on his website:

“This is a chance to be good to the planet, and to also start to think how we could relate to each other in new unexplored ways, such as using the flame made from dog waste to boil water for coffee, focusing the light to create a projector, baking bread, power a street light on a dark corner, or whatever else comes to mind.

This public urban intervention questions both global and local issues, and at the same time creates local responses to issues of sustainability and lifestyle choices. Feeding dog waste into the public digester turns these actions into something much more critical, visual, and participatory.”

Enterprising ideas like these, sadly, need a lot more funding, support, and buy-in from elected officials — something we are sorely lacking in many parts of the United States these days.

Until we all have portable methane digesters in our backyard, it seems the best approach is also the simplest. Like many sustainable solutions, it also requires an extra step and incentive that can be hard to muster when you're miserably picking up poo on a blustery winter morning. But, both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Natural Resources Defense Council say that flushing the poop — without any bag, natch — is the best way to dispose of it. That way, you're not letting another plastic bag live on forever, emitting methane in a landfill, and your city's sewage treatment plant can, ideally, do what it does best.

And yet, there's also a catch to that. Sewage treatment facilities require a lot of chemicals, energy, and water to clean just human contamination — adding additional waste could put a real strain on these systems. If you have a septic system, you'll want to check with your installer or manufacturer first before flushing any non-human waste.

For me, my long-term goal is learning how to compost all this dog poop — even though many say it's best left to the experts. You'll need to be committed to learning about pathogen testing and safe temperatures, and be able to read and decipher this 36-page scientific report commissioned by the city of Vancouver, which is a comparative analysis of dog waste processing — fun!

In a perfect world, our sustainably-minded public officials will start to see much of our trash as a source of energy instead. Toronto already anaerobically digests their waste through its curbside bins. Here's hoping other cities will invest in similar solutions: working with nature instead of fighting it.

When trying to phase out single-use plastic, there are some items that seem impossible to replace — like dog poop bags. For those who want to be a greener dog owner, what kind of options exist?