Ask Eartha: Dispose of the doo; dog waste poses health problems
May 11, 2017
I don't like stepping in dog poop, so I try to keep karma on my side by always cleaning up after my own dog. Aside from smelly sneakers, are there any environmental reasons to pick up dog poop? It's biodegradable, isn't it?
— Zach, Breckenridge
It's that time of year when melting snow reveals all sorts of buried treasure, including mounds of thawed-out dog poop. There are nearly 70 million pet dogs in the U.S., and collectively, they produce more than 10 million tons of poop every year. Still, studies indicate that only 60 percent of dog owners scoop the poop on a regular basis — the rest must be innocently pretending not to see it. But as we all know, it's not pretty, and it's certainly no fun to step in. Cute as our dogs are, the crappy truth is that their poop is actually a hazard to human and environmental health.
Dog feces is teeming with fecal coliform bacteria — 23 million per gram — that live in mammal guts and are excreted in waste. Not all fecal coliforms cause illness, but some of the more well-known strains do, such as E. coli, salmonella and giardia.
Known as zoonotic bacteria, these bugs can spread from animals to humans. Trust me, if you've never had giardia, you're not missing out. Dog poo can also host parasites like roundworm or hookworm. Even scarier — some dog poop has been found to carry strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, such as MRSA. Phosphorous and nitrogen round out the list; they are mostly benign to humans, but not to the environment.
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At this point, you can be forgiven for feeling a little squeamish about picking up your dog's poop, but that doesn't mean you should leave little presents across the county for the rest of us. In fact, not picking up dog poop poses serious water-quality concerns.
You might think your dog's feces will remain innocently alongside a trail or road, but come mud season with melting snow and rain storms, the poop breaks down and the bacteria, parasites and other elements make their way into our local ponds, lakes, rivers and even drinking water. In fact, studies show that 20 to 30 percent of the bacteria present in urban watersheds comes from dog waste. Nitrogen and phosphorous aren't water friendly, either. While they occur naturally, excess amounts in water stimulate large algal blooms. When the algae decompose, they use up all the oxygen in waterways, starving other aquatic life. Some algal blooms lead to elevated bacterial levels, which can cause sickness in humans who drink tainted water.
So, what's a socially and environmentally responsible dog lover to do?
Well, pick up that poop, for one. And if you can, use eco-friendly bags made of recycled plastic or plants. After all, there's no need to produce virgin plastic bags just for carrying poo. For plant-based bags, certifications like "USDA Biobased" or "ASTM D6400" will ensure that your baggies are the real deal, environmentally speaking. Once scooped, make sure you don't conveniently forget your bag of canine excrement along the trail, either.
After you've packed out your dog's waste, you only have a few options for disposal. Even though poo is technically biodegradable, you don't want to put it in a backyard compost pile because the temperature doesn't get hot enough to kill pathogens.
You can't compost it through HC3's food scrap recycling program, either. Bokashi — the company with the viral video about super-fast indoor food waste composting — also makes a pet waste compost system. It's a great solution if you have a yard, but not if you live in a condo because you'll need yard space to let the fermented waste finish decomposing. Otherwise, to properly dispose of doggie doo, you need to throw it away.
Whether your dog's poops end up in the landfill or in a Bokashi composting bucket, keep that good karma on your side and remember that it's your civic duty to pick up the doodie.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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