If you want to make your cat care eco-friendlier while saving money, consider switching to an alternative cat litter. My cats use pine pellets which are both sustainably-sourced and biodegradable and, most importantly, the cats approve.
For happy indoor cats also see What to Buy Your Cats (Beyond the Basics).
Switching to Eco-Friendly Cat Litter
Many of us have used the popular grocery store cat litters made from clay, sand, or other crystalline materials but there are other options available which can both save money and have a lower impact on the environment.
While no cat litter is zero waste, some leave a much lighter footprint than others.
Eco-Friendly Product Checklist
When choosing any product for sustainability, look at the entire cycle from production to disposal:
- Is it sustainable? Does it use materials that deplete or destroy natural resources?
- What’s the carbon footprint from cradle to grave?
- Are workers treated fairly? Earning a living wage?
- Is the packaging biodegradable? Is there plastic waste?
- Is it produced locally or will it be shipped great distances?
- Is it affordable? Saving money saves time and energy.
- Will it be safe for my cats and will they like it?
- Is it compostable? Or does it go to landfill?
Clay-based cat litters are not considered the best choice for a number of reasons.
- How the clay is mined, a process known as “strip mining” – See Bentonite at Wikipedia
Also, sodium bentonite can be toxic when ingested.
- Dust from the clay—airborne particles that cats and humans may inhale.
- Waste goes to landfill – clay litter is not compostable or biodegradable and will alter soil structure.
- Cost and weight | It’s heavy to haul those heavy boxes home so frequently!.
Using Pine Pellets for Cat Litter Boxes
Alternative Kitty Litters
Costs range from low to high but all have environmental advantages.
- Grass seed
- Hardwood and cedar
- Paper / newspaper
After looking over all the options, the one that ticks the most boxes for us is pine pellets.
You may also find the same thing made from various types of wood (Amazon).
They are low-cost—one bag can last for months—and, because they contain pine (and nothing else) they are biodegradable, compostable, and sustainable. The pellets are made from pine sawdust leftover from other manufacturing so no new trees are logged to create it.
The sawdust is kiln-dried or exposed to high pressure steam to form small pellets that readily revert back to sawdust when exposed to liquid (including cat pee). That’s the key as you’ll see.
There are no fragrances, additives, or other ingredients: these pellets are 100% pine. And because they are hot-processed, there is no concern with pine residue for cats.
Pine pellets are sold to a few different markets. The very same product is packaged for heat stoves that use wood pellets, as a bedding product for horse stalls, as small animal bedding, and specifically for cat little boxes.
What you use will depend on what’s available where you are.
At our local farm supply store, wood stove pellets would have been the cheapest option ($7.99 CAD / 35 lbs) but they were sold out so we got horse stall pellets instead ($9.99 CAD for 35 lbs). Prices are approximately 30% lower in US dollars.
Pine pellets marketed as cat litter are $10-20 CAD for basically the same product although there are some variations including softer pellets for more delicate paws.
With two cats, we use just under six bags a year.
How Pine Pellets Work
Pine pellets are used in a sifting cat litter box. This is a two-layer litter box with small slits or holes in the base of the top bin.
Sifting Cat Litter Box | Amazon
As mentioned, pine pellets are water soluble so, when a cat pees in the litter box, the dampened pine pellets become sawdust again.
Solid waste is removed with a litter scoop.
During daily care, the box can be shaken or the damp pellets pushed with a scoop, causing the sawdust to fall through the slots to the lower bin.
Depending on how many cats you have, the sawdust may need emptying every week or every few weeks.
There is more on disposing of the solid waste and sawdust below.
Introducing Cats to a New Litter Box
You probably already know how your cats will respond to a new litter box setup—either dismissive or a little suspicious.
Our cats came from a troubled background where they faced a lot of uncertainty, so we introduce new things slowly, not wanting to risk any regressive behavior.
Other cats are fine so long as basic needs are met and may not care or notice.
To get ours used to the pine pellets, which look and feel a lot different than the old clay-based litter, I just started adding a handful of pellets to the existing litter box each day. After a week of increasing the amounts, I swapped out the old box for the new one.
I kept everything else the same – the scoop and location – so it all still seemed familiar enough to accept.
Daily Cat Box Care Routine
We have two cats and I empty waste from their box twice a day.
Solid waste is placed in a backyard animal waste composter, kept separate from other compost.
To keep the box tidy, I use the litter scoop to push the pellets around, causing any sawdust to fall to the bin below. If you can, find a scoop with slots the right size to allow the pellets fall through but hold the pet waste so no pellets get tossed out.
When enough sawdust has accumulated, which takes a few weeks, it is added to the outdoor pet waste composter.
I have not noticed any problem with odors in our home or the composter.
The cats do leave a trace of sawdust on the floor near the box but it’s less than they used to track with the clay product.
I much prefer this to sending masses of clumping clay litter in plastic bags to landfill.
How to Safely Dispose of Cat Waste
It is never recommended to flush clay-based litter because it expands when wet and can clog plumbing pipes. Sand and silicone litter also cause problems.
When you switch to pine pellets (and other dissolvable natural products), it may seem logical to flush solid cat waste but that too is problematic.
Cat waste can contain hazardous bacteria and parasites including Toxoplasma gondii that should not go into our sewers or, consequently, our water systems. Waste management systems cannot filter them out and they are they harmful for pregnant woman and wildlife.
Your local waste collection service can provide the recommended disposal options for your area.
Some have green bin programs that accept pet waste.
Others recommend placing it in garbage that goes to landfill. If this is your only option, use truly biodegradable bags instead of plastic if you can.
But, if you have room, a pet waste compost bin is an eco-friendlier way to divert it.
Composting Cat Waste
As mentioned you will need to dedicate an outdoor compost bin for cat (or other pet) waste only and not combine it with other compost used for food gardens.
This will be a ‘hot’ compost system that naturally heats the waste above 145°F for an extended period of time to kill off the pathogens.
If this type of composting interests you, I suggest getting guidance from experts in your area. It’s completely do-able when done right.
Ultimately, any steps in a greener direction help, and it’s good to have so many options available.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛