Cleaning a litter box is a solitary labor of love. It’s got its own distinct aroma and its own set of essential tools: mainly a scooper and a small bag into which lucky cat owners deposit their “winnings.” But in NYC, cat lovers face a new challenge: their regular pipeline of free disposable plastic bags, collected from groceries and delis, is about to run dry.
Come March 1st, when the state outlaws most single use plastic bags, pet owners, like all New Yorkers, will have to adjust to the new rules.
“I think that once the bag ban goes into effect, I'm just gonna have to start buying [plastic bags],” said 35-year-old Caroline McCarthy, who lives in Brooklyn Heights and has a jet black cat named Minerva.
Cat owners like McCarthy prefer to scoop into a smaller bag for convenience; it spares them the effort of carrying the litter box over to a main trash can, and confining the litter to its own bag contains noxious odors.
The New York State bag ban prohibits the use of single-use plastic for most retailers including supermarkets, clothing stores and pharmacies. New York City as well as a few other New York counties will implement a five cent charge on paper bags, to dissuade the use of paper bags, which use more water during the production process and are heavier to ship, resulting in more carbon emissions.
Lawmakers and advocates say it’s an urgently needed environmental measure, meant to reign in the billions of plastic bags that litter streets and waterways and end up in landfills each year. New York City residents alone discard an estimated 10 billion single use plastic bags annually, around 1,700 tons of plastic each week, according to the city’s Sanitation Department.
There are some exemptions to the ban; including trash bags sold at stores, plastic bags used for food takeout, and bags used for bulk fruit or vegetables. And pharmacies can give them out for prescription drugs.
“There's still other bags that are going to be around that can be recycled," said Liz Moran, the environmental policy director at the New York Public Interest Research Group."For example, people have been concerned about, ‘OK, what kind of bags do I use to pick up after my dog when we go for a walk?’ It's not like bread bags are going to be banned or, you know, food take out bags. So there will still be bags that people can re-use if they want to.”
Long Island resident Katherine Trunk, 60, said she was considering switching to paper bags to collect her tabby cat Ginger’s dirty litter.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” she said. “I’m not giving up my cat, I love her dearly so [I’m] marching on.”
Samir Rum, 59, owner of the West Village pet store Pet Bar and cat-father to three, says he recommends another method; skipping the bag altogether and switching to certain kinds of litter that’s made of biodegradable materials like corn and wheat and is meant to be flushed down the toilet.
“It clumps and you take the big clumps and you flush it down the toilet and it breaks down by itself,” Rum said. “It’s easy and it’s safe for the sewer system.”
But the city’s Department of Environmental Protection warns against flushable litter, and asks New Yorkers to just flush the “four P’s” pee, poop, puke and (toilet) paper, not cat litter.
There is another alternative for ambitious cat owners. It’s the route taken by legendary jazz musician Charles Mingus with his cat Nightlife, though it’s been frowned on by some pet experts. In 1954, Mingus wrote a step-by-step guide for teaching your cat to use the toilet instead of a litter box called “The Charles Mingus CAT-alog for Toilet Training Your Cat” Studio 360 had actor Reg. E. Cathey record Mingus’s guide for a 2014 segment.
“It took me about three or four weeks to toilet train my cat, Nightlife. Most of the time is spent moving the box very gradually to the bathroom,” he wrote. “Do it very slowly and don't confuse him. And, remember, once the box is on the toilet, leave it a week or even two. The main thing to remember is not to rush or confuse him. Good luck.”
As for his dog-owning clients, Rum said most of them will not be impacted by the plastic bag ban.
“Ninety-nine percent of them have been buying the biodegradable bag anyway,” he said.
But not all dog-owners are in the habit of maintaining a supply of biodegradable bags. On a recent afternoon in the Washington Square Park dog run, writing teacher Joel Hinman said while his family uses biodegradable bags provided by certain dog parks, when they take 3-year-old rescue Riley on walks, they turn to a dedicated stash of single-use plastic bags they store in a closet. Still, he said he wasn’t phased.
“I have no idea, I’m not even thinking about it,” Hinman said. “I mean I’m aware it’s happening...I’m gonna take instructions from the more aggressive environmentalists in my family, who are gonna say, ‘This is what we're doing’.”