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The Environmental Impact of Natural Cat Litters

The Environmental Impact of Natural Cat Litters: Uncovering the Eco-Friendly Truth

Explore the environmental impact of natural cat litters and learn how switching to eco-friendly options like corn, wheat, and pine can benefit our planet.

As more cat owners become conscious of their environmental footprint, the choice of cat litter moves beyond mere preference to an eco-friendly decision. Natural cat litters, made from biodegradable materials like corn, wheat, and recycled paper, promise a greener alternative to their clay-based counterparts. But what exactly are the environmental impacts of these biodegradable options?

Traditional clay-based cat litters are quite effective, but did you know they often end up sitting in landfills for centuries without breaking down? That’s a lot of waste, considering that each cat can generate around 0.24 tons of litter waste annually.

With around 94.2 million pet cats in the U.S., we’re talking about millions of tons of litter that need to be disposed of every year!

The shift towards more sustainable living has many thoughtful pet owners looking for eco-friendly alternatives that are kinder to our planet. That’s where natural litters come into play.

But it’s not just about choosing eco-friendly cat litter; there are benefits to these natural alternatives too. Besides being planet-friendly, many of these products are also non-toxic and free of synthetic fragrances that could irritate you or your cat’s senses.

In this article, we delve deep into the pros and cons of natural cat litters, exploring how they contribute to sustainability, the challenges they pose, and what every eco-conscious pet owner should know before making the switch.

What Are Natural Cat Litters?

cat in litter tray full of biodegradable litter

First, let’s define what natural cat litters are.

Natural cat litters are made from a variety of biodegradable materials and are an alternative to conventional clay or silica-based litters. Think of them as the eco-friendly cousin of the litter world. Here’s what makes them special:

Made from Biodegradable Materials:

Such as recycled paper, wood shavings, pine pellets, wheat, corn, walnut shells, and even grass seeds. These materials, chosen for their natural absorbency and odor-controlling properties, are not only sustainable but often provide a more natural experience for your cat.


Most natural litters forego artificial fragrances and chemicals, reducing the risk of allergies or respiratory issues for both you and your kitty.

Unlike clay litters, which are typically mined and may contain chemicals, natural litters break down more easily in the environment and are often compostable. This makes them a popular choice for eco-conscious pet owners looking to reduce their environmental impact while providing their cats with a safe, effective option for their daily needs.

Environmental Benefits of Natural Cat Litters

cat in litter tray surrounded by plants

When we talk about cat litters, our choices don’t just impact us and our feline friends; it also makes a significant difference to the environment.

As a vet who deeply cares about all life on our planet, I’ve seen firsthand how natural cat litters can be a game-changer. So let’s talk benefits of natural cat litters for the environment:

Biodegradability and Compostability

Biodegradable cat litters have a superpower: they break down quickly in the environment once disposed of. This means less hassle for waste management and less guilt for you and me.

Natural cat litters, derived from organic materials such as corn, wheat, and pine, are designed to break down more quickly and cleanly in the environment compared to traditional clay-based litters, which do not decompose and can contribute to landfill mass.

Some natural litters go a step further by being compostable, allowing them to be processed in a compost bin and ultimately used to enrich soil. This composting capability not only reduces waste but also turns used litter into a resource, promoting a circular economy approach in pet care products.

However it’s important to check the label before putting used cat litter into your garden, especially if you’re growing vegetables to eat yourself – not all litters are safe for our edible gardens due to potential pathogens. Keep it to non-edible plants and always compost properly.

Sustainable Sourcing

Another huge benefit of natural cat litters is that they are sustainably sourced. That means that the materials used are replenished at a rate equal to or greater than they are used – they are referred to as renewable materials.

The wheat and corn used to make biodegradable cat litters are easily grown and replaced. Whereas paper-based litters come from recycled paper. This has the effect of reducing the carbon footprint associated with these materials and conserving natural resources.

And it’s not just about using renewable resources, but also how they are harvested. Responsible sourcing ensures that materials are gathered in a way that protects natural habitats and doesn’t contribute to deforestation or ecosystem damage.

Better for your Cat’s Health

Natural cat litters are generally considered better for your cat’s health due to their lack of synthetic chemicals and fragrances, which are often found in clay-based litters.

Many traditional litters contain silica dust, which can be harmful when inhaled by both cats and their owners. In contrast, natural litters produce far less dust, reducing the risk of respiratory issues and allergies.

Not only that, natural cat litters are typically softer and more comfortable underfoot, making them particularly beneficial for cats with sensitive paws or those recovering from surgery. By minimizing exposure to potentially harmful chemicals and irritants, natural litters provide a safer and healthier toileting environment for your feline friends.

Odor control

Contrary to what you might initially think, natural cat litters can be highly effective at controlling odors, often matching or surpassing synthetic alternatives.

For instance, pine naturally neutralizes ammonia smells, which are a common byproduct of cat urine, while corn and wheat can effectively trap odors without the need for added artificial fragrances that can irritate cats and humans alike. These materials work by clumping around waste, which isolates odors and makes the litter box easier to clean.

This natural method of odor control ensures that the litter box remains fresh naturally, providing a pleasant environment for both the pet and the owner. But odor control isn’t just about the type of cat litter you use; how you manage and clean your litter box can have a massive impact on how smelly it is.

Drawbacks of Natural Cat Litters

lorry transporting cat litter

It’s important to note that while natural/biodegradable cat litters offer several benefits, there are also some drawbacks and concerns associated with their use:

Carbon Footprint

I’ve seen biodegradable cat litters gaining popularity, but it’s important to remember that their production and transportation still contribute to carbon emissions since energy is required for these processes. Admittedly, this is often less than conventional litters, but it’s not zero.

Post-production, these litters must travel from the manufacturing site to stores or directly to consumers. This transportation segment can significantly add to the carbon emissions.

  • Local vs. Global: Locally sourced litters have a lower carbon footprint.
  • Shipping Method: Road freight versus sea or air, with the latter being more carbon-intensive.

A product’s eco-friendliness is also influenced by the distance the product has traveled, often referred to as ‘food miles’ or in this case, let’s cheekily call it ‘litter miles’. If we are sourcing these eco-friendly cat litters from the other side of the globe, the carbon savings could potentially be offset by transport emissions.

Research has shown the considerable climate impact of pet ownership, with pet food and associated products contributing to high levels of carbon dioxide emissions. The production of ingredients for pet food and associated products like cat litter is equivalent to emissions from countries such as Mozambique and the Philippines.

As someone keen on reducing their personal impact, I choose to recommend natural litters that prioritize local sourcing and sustainable production methods.

Allergic Reactions

One primary concern is the potential for allergies or sensitivities. Some natural litters, such as those made from corn, wheat, or pine, can trigger allergic reactions in both cats and humans. For cats especially, inhaling fine particles from certain biodegradable litters may lead to respiratory issues if the cat is prone to allergies or asthma.

Land Use and Waste

Although natural litter is biodegradable and often marketed as more environmentally friendly, the production and sourcing of the materials (like farming corn or cutting pine) require resources and can have environmental impacts of their own. For cat owners looking at the environmental angle, it’s crucial to consider the full lifecycle of the litter material.

We must question if the fields grown for plant-based litter are replacing natural habitats or food crops. The former contributes to habitat destruction, while the latter deals with food security issues.

The resources used vary based on the type of natural litter:

  • Corn: Requires substantial land and water to grow.
  • Wheat: Also demands significant land, but often uses less water than corn.
  • Wood: Often derived from lumber scraps; thus, has lower land impact.

Water Pollution

Even natural litters can cause water pollution if not disposed of properly. Flushing cat waste inadvertently spreads pathogens and parasites that may affect local wildlife and water sources.

Health Risks Associated with Composting

While many natural litters are compostable, composting cat waste properly can be challenging due to the potential transmission of microorganisms that cause disease.

For example, one such concern is the spread oftoxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease that can be harmful to humans, particularly pregnant women. Therefore, it’s important for owners to manage composting with care and ensure it is not used on food crops.

Comparing Natural vs. Traditional Cat Litters

two cat litter trays side by side

So now that you know the pros and cons of natural cat litters, how do they stack up against traditional clay-based litters?

Environmental Effects:

Natural Cat Litters:Traditional Cat Litters:
Made from biodegradable materials like corn, wheat, and walnut shell.Typically made of bentonite clay, which is obtained through mining, a process that can be disruptive to ecosystems.
Often compostable, meaning they can break down into natural elements in the right setting, reducing landfill impact.Not biodegradable, often ending up in landfills for many years.
Some brands offer packaging aimed to be recyclable by 2025, indicating a move towards full sustainability.May contain additives that are not eco-friendly.

Health Concerns:

Natural Cat Litters:Traditional Cat Litters:
Most are free of synthetic fragrances and chemicals, reducing the risk of allergic reactions and respiratory issues.Often contain potentially harmful chemicals. Clay litters, for instance, often contain silica dust, which is notorious for causing respiratory issues in both cats and their humans.
Also often have added artificial fragrances that can cause allergic reactions and serious complications over time.


Natural Cat Litters:Traditional Cat Litters:
Natural materials can still have good clumping ability and be effective at controlling odors.Known for their strong clumping abilities, which can make the cleaning process easier.
There are other techniques you can implement to improve odor control.Some are specifically formulated with additives, such as activated charcoal, to combat odors.

Consumer Considerations When Choosing Natural Cat Litters

shopping for cat litter

When it comes to selecting a natural cat litter, I always tell my clients that there’s more to consider than you might think.

Curious about what factors you should weigh? Let’s dig in.

Effectiveness and Cat Acceptance

As a veterinarian, I frequently discuss with pet parents the importance of choosing a cat litter that both meets their needs and that their feline friends will use consistently.

Let’s not pussyfoot around the issue: it’s all well and good if a particular litter is better for the environment but if it doesn’t function well at doing its job then our discerning companions are likely to turn up their noses!

What makes a litter effective? Here’s a quick checklist:

  • Clumping ability: Does it form easy-to-scoop lumps?
  • Odor control: How well does it mask that distinct ammonia smell?
  • Dust level: Does it keep the air clear and free of particulates?

Cats can be quite particular about their bathroom facilities. In fact, a study on the behavioural effects of different litter found that cats had clear preferences in their litter material, which directly impacted their litter box use.

But in my experience, biodegradable litters often check these boxes. Not only are they softer on the paws, but they’re also typically lower dust and come in unscented options. However, the catch is sometimes these eco-conscious choices might not be as adept at odor control as their non-biodegradable counterparts.

Cost Implications

As a veterinarian, I’m often asked whether biodegradable cat litters are cost-effective to use. The sticker price can give my clients sticker shock, but let me break it down for you.

Traditional clay-based litters may seem cheaper at checkout, but they’re less absorbent compared to natural options like those made from recycled paper or plant materials. So while natural litters may cost more initially, their high absorbency means you’ll use less product over time. Let’s look at a comparison:

Type of LitterInitial CostLong-Term Use Cost
Traditional Clay-BasedLowHigher

So, why might eco-friendly options be pricier? They often involve more complex production processes to ensure they are planet-friendly. But don’t let that upfront cost fool you. The benefits like biodegradability and reduced waste could make these litters the cost-effective choice, especially when considering the reduced environmental toll.


What are the differences in environmental impact between biodegradable and traditional clay-based cat litters?

Traditional clay-based cat litters can take years to decompose in landfills, while biodegradable litters, like those made from plant materials, decompose much more quickly and reduce our environmental footprint. This swift breakdown significantly eases the strain on waste management systems.

Can the dust from cat litter pose any risks to human health, and how can one mitigate such risks?

Absolutely, the dust from some cat litters can cause respiratory issues, especially in those with pre-existing conditions. To mitigate this, choose dust-free or low-dust options and maintain good ventilation while cleaning your cat’s litter box.

Are there any harmful ingredients commonly found in cat litter that pet owners should be aware of?

Yes, some cat litters contain chemicals and fragrances that can be harmful to cats and the environment. Though less common, be on the lookout for litters that are free from these and opt for natural, unscented ones instead.

How sustainable is the production process of popular natural cat litters compared to conventional ones?

Natural cat litters are often made from renewable resources such as corn, wheat, or recycled paper, making their production process more sustainable compared to clay-based litters that require strip mining.

What are the long-term environmental consequences of using crystal cat litter?

Crystal cat litter, often made from silica gel, does not biodegrade. It may absorb and release ammonia when in landfills. This contributes to air pollution and potential health hazards.

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