Thinking about composting to cut down on all those plastic bags? It’s possible—but takes time, patience, and know-how to produce a safe and usable compost.

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Dog doo: It adds up. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that three quarters of a pound of waste per day (274 pounds per year) is produced by the average dog. Of course this amount depends on the weight and size of the dog, but this statistic gives you an idea of output. Think about how much poo is produced by the dogs in your neighborhood, your town, or even your entire state. All those potty walks add up fast!

Most pet poo goes into the trash (which is better than leaving it on the ground where it can spread disease and damage ecosystems), meaning poop bags find their way to the landfill and are sometimes washed into storm drains and out to larger water sources like rivers and lakes. The World Wildlife Federation estimates that a standard plastic bag takes 20 years to break down, turning into tinier and tinier pieces of plastic over time that have a big negative impact on wildlife and ocean quality in the process. 

If you're wondering if there is an alternative to all those plastic dog poop bags—there is! Composting your pets' poo is one way to cut down on the amount of pet waste and plastic that makes it into the landfill, but does require some preparation and know-how in order for it to be used safely in your garden and on your yard. (Cat lovers, not so fast: If you're looking for a gardening outlet for Kitty's litter box waste, we've got some *crappy* news—experts do not recommend composting cat feces.)

To Compost, Or Not to Compost?

If you compost your vegetable peelings and yard debris, you may have already eyed your compost bin or pile and thought, "Hmmmm, could I toss doggie doo into that?" The short answer is yes, but you need to know what you are doing before you start adding all that fecal matter to the bin. Jeff Lowenfels, garden columnist for the Alaska Dispatch and author of the book Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web, knows his way around a compost heap. He says that while pet parents can compost pet waste, "there are serious problems with composting pet waste if it's not done correctly." The reason why is that there are health problems associated with improperly composted dog manure. 

Problems With Composting Dog Waste: Poo Pathogens

So here's the rub: there are microorganisms known as pathogens—stuff like bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can all cause disease—found in pet poo. Thorough composting will eliminate these pathogens, but that still leaves the process in the hands of the composter (and room for user error). Lowenfels wrote a column on the subject in the Anchorage Daily News where he sums up the challenge: "Most of our home compost piles only heat up in the centers. We turn them, but there are portions of the pile that often do not get hot enough to kill the worm larvae and other organisms that can cause some really nasty health problems." That means that improperly and under-composted poo can still carry pathogens that could make you sick if you used the compost in your garden. 

So is it worth it to compost your dog's poop? Well, that depends on how much time and energy you're willing to dedicate to your compost pile. But while composting safely may not be as simple as throwing Fido's fecal deposit into the bin and forgetting it, it does make a difference on your pet's environmental impact: A 1991 survey of a compost project using the waste from Alaskan sled dog kennels even concluded that composting can actually reduce the volume of dog waste by 50 percent—no small number considering how many potty breaks your pup has each year!

Jack Russell Terrier near flower garden
Credit: Tanya Kalian / Shutterstock

Here's How to Compost Dog Poop Correctly

Think you're ready to give poop composting a try? First, you'll need to choose the best method that'll work with your routine. There are three ways to compost: hot compost, cold compost, and vermicompost. But in order to compost animal waste the safe way, only the hot compost or vermicompost method will work. 

What Is Hot Composting?

The hot compost method is a recipe that uses nitrogen from "green" materials (such as food scraps, grass clippings, coffee grounds, and poo) and carbon from "brown" materials (such as fallen leaves, sawdust, shredded newspaper, and straw) combined with water. You layer the materials, turn them regularly, and they heat up—essentially cooking the ingredients to produce compost. You can use a compost bin (wire, plastic, wood) to create compost this way. An important tip to keep in mind: For the hot compost method to destroy pathogens found in animal waste, the compost must reach 145ºF for several days. 

What is the Vermicompost Method? 

Vermicompost is a composting method that uses redworms (called Red Wigglers) and microorganisms to convert organic materials into compost. The worms help decompose the waste, transforming it to make a nutrient-rich soil amendment. 

Do's and Don'ts for Using Compost Containing Animal Waste

Once your composted poo has turned into "black gold" for your garden, you'll want to follow a few key guidelines to ensure you don't accidentally spread pathogens to your flower beds. 

  • DON’T use composted animal waste in a food garden. If you are growing vegetables, berries, fruit trees, herbs, or even edible flowers—anything that produces food you will eat—use compost from another source. Not pet poop.
  • DON’T use composted animal waste around areas where children play, such as below swing sets or around play structures. 
  • DO use composted animal waste in landscaping beds and around trees and shrubs.
  • DO wear rubber gloves and wash hands after handling dogs or dog waste.

Composting Pet Waste Correctly Takes Time and Knowledge

If you're willing to invest the time (and materials) for composting your dog's feces correctly, it is possible to use your backyard composter to help turn that poop into rich organic material. But careful precautions must be taken to ensure your family, your pets, and your yard aren't exposed to disease-causing pathogens in the process. Eco-conscious pet parents looking to make a dent in their pets' environmental pawprint may find that composting is worth the effort. Check out this 2005 publication from the USDA for several additional tips and tricks geared toward pet parents who are ready to take the plunge.