My dog Gussie is enviably regular. She makes around four poops a day. This means that, in an average week, I use and discard 28 plastic bags to pick up and toss her poop.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that pet owners pick up their animal waste instead of leaving it on the ground, for sanitary reasons. The agency recommends using a bag to avoid getting pathogens from the waste on your hands. It doesn’t specify that you use plastic for this. But most people do.
It’s pretty well established that plastic bags are a major source of waste that inflames the Earth’s tremendous plastic trash problem. In the U.S. alone, 14 billion plastic bags are consumed annually. When these bags escape into the environment, they can have devastating effects on wildlife, especially marine animals like whales and sea turtles.
So why am I — and ostensibly the other 60 million dog-owning households in the country — using this pernicious material for the sole purpose of picking up shit?
Two reasons. First, plastic poop bags are convenient and easy to use. Second, disposable, single-use bags can be obtained cheaply, sometimes for free.
“We make the cost invisible, so when it looks like something is cheap or free, someone else is paying the price for it,” said Andrew Dobbs, program director for Texas Campaign for the Environment, a policy-oriented organization fighting pollution.
“There is no such thing as a free lunch and there’s no such thing as a free bag,” Dobbs added.
Reusing plastic grocery bags for poop collection, for instance, seems like a practical and cost-effective thing to do. Many dog owners in my circle do just this, hoarding ugly bundles of bags beneath the sink for when duty calls. Repurposing a grocery bag for dog doo disposal does provide a second life to what might otherwise be called a single-use item, but the bag ultimately ends up in the trash, destined for the landfill, where it could take hundreds of years to break down.
Plastic grocery bags are still free for most consumers, though grocery stores in a number of locations across the country charge a small amount of money for them. While dozens of municipalities weigh new proposals to ban plastic bags or other types of single-use plastic, it’s dog poop cleanup that causes many citizens to resist such legislation, Dobbs told HuffPost.
So are there more ethical poop bag options? Sure, there are lots of biodegradable bags available for dog owners ― but the big problem here is that you can’t always be sure you’re buying the real thing. And the real thing can often be very expensive.
An Amazon search for “dog poop bag” returns more than 3,000 products. And while there are brands that claim to be biodegradable or compostable, these categories aren’t well-defined, and sometimes they’re downright meaningless. In 2015, the Federal Trade Commission warned 20 dog waste bag manufacturers in a letter that their products’ environmental claims could be deceptive.
Anything that purports to be biodegradable is supposed to “completely break down into its natural components within one year,” the letter stated. “Most waste bags, however, end up in landfills where no plastic biodegrades in anywhere close to one year, if it biodegrades at all.” Even before this warning, the state of California had enacted strict laws for companies to be able to claim biodegradability, but there is much less clarity in other states across the country.
The miscategorization of so-called “biodegradable” bags is a case of industry greenwashing that has led consumers to mistrust eco-friendly claims, said Achyut Patel, operations analyst for Biodogradable Bags, a company that sells ― you guessed it ― biodegradable bags.
Products made of plastics that allege to decompose naturally in the environment are often “oxo-biodegradable,” meaning they contain chemical additives that break down plastic into smaller fragments. There’s no evidence that these materials completely degrade, and experts don’t believe oxo-biodegradable plastic products are a sustainable solution. Ultimately, oxo-biodegradable products become less visible but can cause the same damage to the planet that any other plastic can.
Truly biodegradable bags are different; they tend to be made from maize flour and vegetable oil, said Patel. The materials allow the product to break down naturally and be consumed as food by microorganisms. Whether the bag of poop is thrown into a trash can or a bin dedicated to composting, it will naturally return to the earth within a few weeks.
Getting consumers to rely on this type of product would take a ton of education and resources. Plus, there’s the fact that a box of 200 Biodogradable-brand bags costs $23.99, while you can score a 600-count box of conventional doodie bags for $19.99. It’ll take a lot to get consumers to agree to pay more for a product that handles literal crap.
But wait, you might be thinking, can’t we nix plastic altogether by simply composting our pets’ waste or using it as fertilizer? It’s complicated. Dog poop is a tricky thing to compost because it requires higher temperatures to kill the pathogens it carries. To do it right, you need to put the poop in a special composter designed for animal waste. And you shouldn’t use pet waste to fertilize a vegetable garden ― or anything you might eat ― though you could use it for your flowers or shrubs, according to Patel.
There are other creative and planet-friendly methods to take care of business, though they have a much more limited reach. A lamp at a dog park in Malvern Hills in the U.K. gets its power from feces turned into fuel. A local man named Brian Harper was sick of seeing poop bags littering the area, so he invented the contraption that uses the methane produced during the breakdown process as energy. A similar device powers a dog park in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Less tech-involved solutions, like pooper scoopers or plain old shovels, surely work for dog owners with yards, but for city dwellers, lugging something like this around the block isn’t as feasible.
Dobbs also said that using paper is an obvious, viable solution.
In a zero-waste Facebook group I’m a member of, people suggest using large leaves, scraps of junk mail or tissue paper to pick up the poop and transport it to a toilet. But convenience comes into play here: Sometimes your dog doesn’t poop according to plan. It’s pretty easy to keep a few flimsy bags stuffed in your coat pocket or purse. The alternatives don’t make as much sense.
But the bottom line is, being a more responsible pet owner means putting up with some inconveniences and, for those who can afford it, probably paying a bit more money. Grrrr.
This story is part of a series on plastic waste, funded by SC Johnson. All content is editorially independent, with no influence or input from the company.