Even when you decide to live a more environmentally friendly lifestyle, perhaps you decided that nows the time to finally ditch the plastic, invest in an electric car or cut down on your meat consumption. As you throw away the last of the plastic ketchup bottles from your kitchen, cancel the phone upgrade to make the most of your 2 year old mobile, and replace the fairy liquid for a packaging-free soap bar, your pet brushes past your leg with a broken toy in its mouth, looking forlornly at its food bowl. Immediately, you jump in the car and buy a new plastic toy and a range of treats, snacks and foods for your pet, indiscriminately swathed with plastic packaging with questionable places of origin.
Regardless of our green dreams, pets tend to exist outside of the sustainable alternatives we adopt for ourselves. With hard-hitting marketing aimed straight for your responsibility of your furry baby whom you only communicate with through sounds and looks, pet care manufacturers know just how to get you to spend more, and your pets consume more. Tales of ‘human-grade’ food with essential nutrients to keep their coat glossy, mental stimuli in the form of injection moulded plastic pellets, and electronic innovations like a video-call treat dispenser can circumvent our eco sensibilities through our love of the furry ones that live in the house.
But with a rising human population on track to overtake the level of resources we have available, so too is the population of domesticated animals. Estimates say that over 60% of the world’s households have a pet, and like their owners, they have considerable environmental impact. Despite being human-kinds loyal companions for over 16’000 years in the case of dogs, human consumption levels are also increasing domestic pets consumption levels. Like us, pets consume energy and resources from a variety of sectors, from food, water, waste, consumption and power. Cats and dogs are estimated to consume up to a third of their human’s energy usage and are accountable for over a quarter of all environmental impacts from animals. Despite these overwhelming numbers, the pet care industry continues to thrive, rising by 3% each year since 2012.
As with human food, what we feed our pets is responsible for a vast number of environmentally damaging practices and consequences. Unlike the rigid standards we hold ourselves to, be it free-range, organic, or buying local, packaged pet foods are held to far lower quality by the manufacturers and us. The meat protein is often from far below standard humane procedures that are so stringent for foods for human consumption. Even without the meat, the amount of soy-based biscuits and gravy-pouches contributes to enormous amounts of deforestation. Despite a growing number of independent makers who boast ethical origins, the reliance of resources and fossil fuel energy for the packaging, transport, stocking, and distributing of the sacks and boxes of kibble has to be accounted for. After it’s been scoffed down by Rover and Felix, there is a considerable level of packaging waste, mainly from non-recyclable plastic pouches from treats and gelatinous foods that end up in a landfill.
As for where the food ends up; the little presents your dog leaves in your garden, and your cat leaves in someone else’s, pet waste is incredibly damaging to the environment in ways that are less apparent. Putting dog poo that would otherwise decompose into the ground, is instead incarcerated into plastic bags that contain the rancid contents for over 500 years in a landfill. Kitty litter is responsible for swathes of mining throughout the world for bentonite clay to make the fragrant and absorbent pellets.
The garish colours of imported plastic paraphernalia, abound with squeakers, fluff and jingle bells, we impart our need for new and shiny goods onto our pets. While for ourselves we may question the ethics of how and where our clothes, gadgets and furnishings were made, the same rule of thumb is rarely applied to our pets products. Manufactured overseas where regulation and human rights are seldom enforced, it’s likely that Tibbles newest plastic feathered friend has a far darker origin story than the bright colours would portray. Beyond the sensory overload of the pet toy aisle, the range of toiletries for pets arranged on shelves looks identical to those in Boots. Like the growing pharmaceutical industry for humans, so too is the one for our pets; shampoos, conditioners, spa treatments, even cosmetic surgery are abundant in the pet industry, spewing vast amounts of pollutants into the environment through the waterways.
Domesticated animals are not fundamentally damaging to the environment, but our resource-heavy lifestyles are not only changing the impact of how humans live but also our pets. With a planet buckling under the strain of our own lifestyles, it’s not feasible for our pets to as well. Pets have an important place in the homes of humans, but when they would probably be just as happy with a stick, a ball of (natural) wool and non-processed foods that are more similar to their natural diets, perhaps we need to think about who those environmentally harmful products are really for?