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How to Build Your Own Pet Waste Digester

dog waste digester

Story at-a-glance -

  • Regarding dog poop and how to dispose of it is a conundrum across the U.S., especially when it’s been deposited on public property or areas other than the owner’s property
  • There are always people who fail to clean up after their pets; many towns and cities have tried to solve that by passing ordinances and imposing fines on individuals for failing to do so
  • Because plastic bags are petroleum based, they’re often not biodegradable, and can kill sea turtles and other marine life, for instance, when they mistake them for jellyfish and eat them
  • Even doggy bags labeled “biodegradable” may not be what manufacturers have claimed, and the FTC warns that compostable claims for most are “generally untrue”
  • Building your own pet waste digester as a DIY project could be completed over a weekend or even a few hours, and a step-by-step guide shows how easy and effective it could be for disposing of the dog waste dilemma

When you take your dog for a walk that results in a “BM,” you’re not likely to give it much thought. You simply pick the “prize” up in one of the little plastic bags you have stashed in your pocket and deposit it into the nearest trash can as soon as possible.

But have you ever considered what happens to that plastic bag and the pet poop inside it? It’s a conundrum in countless cities and town across the U.S. While everyone wants pet owners to pick up their pet’s waste, especially if it’s been deposited on public property or areas other than the owner’s property, several issues have materialized.

Live Science1 says that among the 83 million dogs across the U.S., around 10.6 million tons of poop is generated per year. That’s a lot of poop and a lot of plastic. It’s hard to know what to do, though, since it’s illegal in some areas for pet waste to be tossed in the trash; the lack of oxygen in decomposing pet waste in landfills produces methane, a greenhouse gas.

According to Mike Levenston at City Farmer, a demonstration garden and compost site managed by the Office of Urban Agriculture in Vancouver, B.C:

“In the city, garbage collectors don't want dog waste to go into the truck because it gets messy and the bags explode. The sewage people don't want it down the toilet because it has a lot of grit on it and mucks it up. So there's really nothing environmental that you can do.”2

Dilemmas Dealing With Dog Waste

Over the past few decades, at least two problems have arisen regarding dog waste disposal. First, there are always people who fail to clean up after their pets. Many towns and cities have tried to solve that by passing ordinances and imposing fines on individuals for failing to do so.

The Austin Chronicle, for instance, recently revealed that a violation would carry a fine of $500, and urged dog owners to “(keep) those doggy bags handy.”3 The second issue is that plastic, considered a great invention 40 years ago, has become problematic for a number of reasons. Because doggy bags (not to mention other types of plastic) are petroleum based, they’re often not biodegradable.

For instance, plastic bags can kill sea turtles and other marine life when they mistake them for jellyfish and eat them, according to the nonprofit conservation organization See Turtles.4

Rhode Island’s Department of Health announced that dog waste in storm drains and waterways could make people sick, so pet owners should “take a bag with you for quick waste pick-up,”5 even suggesting double bagging before throwing the package into the trash.

Some people have assumed that dog waste could serve as a natural fertilizer for vegetable and flower gardens, but it turns out that’s not recommended. Unlike cow or horse manure, which consists primarily of plant matter, dogs, being carnivores, produce waste that is unsuitable for gardens. Doody Calls explains why:

“Dog waste carries disease-causing bacteria that can be transmitted directly to humans and make them sick. Ringworm, roundworm, salmonella and giardia are examples of such bacteria, all of which are found in dog feces and are easily transferable upon contact.

(The) roundworm, for example, is one of the most common parasites found in dog doo and it can remain infectious in contaminated soil and water for years. How prevalent is roundworm? A recent CDC study found that 14 percent of Americans tested positive for them.”6

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Problems With Plastic Doggy Bags

According to the FTC, even doggy bags labeled “biodegradable” or “compostable” may not be what manufacturers have claimed, causing another issue for consumers. The FTC reported, “Dog waste is generally not safe to compost at home, and very few facilities accept this waste. Therefore, compostable claims for these products are generally untrue.”7

Huffington Post8 notes that more than 3,000 hits came with a search for biodegradable dog poop bags on Amazon,9 but described the claims as “meaningless.” In fact, the FTC sent warning letters to 20 dog poop bag manufacturers about their deceptive selling tactics.10

California was the first state to seriously consider banning plastic bags, starting with shopping bags in 2014.11 The National Conference of State Legislatures has enacted plastic bag legislation in eight states: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont.12

Connecticut Post13 suggested utilizing previously used bread bags and other single-use plastic baggies (for which several states are charging 10 cents each), considering the use of eco-friendly bags made from such bio-materials as corn or vegetable oils, or going with a specialized facility, such as the Green Pet Compost Company,14 based in Oregon, but there are better solutions.

The Merits of Building Your Own Pet Waste Digester

Experts now say the best solution is to compost dog waste in your own yard using a plastic trash container. According to Levenston, it’s environmentally safe as it slowly decomposes due to septic starter, available at most hardware stores. However, he emphasizes, it’s important to note that composted dog waste should not go into your garden. Additionally:

“Within 48 hours, the septic tank starter (which is caustic and promotes natural bacterial growth) will have begun its work and you can add more dog doo. You can then begin to add it daily. This waste biodegrades and flows into the subsoil.”15

The Bark16 offers instructions for how to build your own pet waste digester, explaining that as a DIY project, it could be completed over a weekend or even a few hours. Here's a step-by-step guide for building your own pet waster digester:

  1. Take an old garbage can, drill a dozen or so holes in the sides, then cut out the bottom. (A keyhole works well.)
  2. Dig a hole in the ground deep enough for the garbage can.
  3. Toss some rocks or gravel in the hole for drainage and position the top of the garbage can to be slightly higher than the soil level.
  4. Place the lid on top.
  5. When you scoop up dog poop, put it in the can and sprinkle in some septic starter (available at hardware stores or online) and add some water.

If you’re wondering why anyone would go to all that trouble, consider this concept, shared by a project known as Sustainable Atwood in Madison, Wisconsin: it’s illegal for pet waste to be tossed in the trash in some areas because the lack of oxygen in decomposing pet waste in landfills produces methane, a greenhouse gas. In fact:

“Wait at least (two) years before harvesting a digester used for pet waste, and never put this finished compost near edible crops. If you are composting pet waste, be sure to locate the digester far from your veggie garden and fruit bearing trees or plants so the leachate doesn't reach your food crops.”17

This way, rather than adding to the waste piling up in landfills, you can convert it in a way that averts all the methods that are potentially harmful to the environment.