Near Zero-Waste Dog Park?
The Tale (Tail?) of Dog Waste Composting Programs
By Rose Seemann
If you maintain an off-leash dog park, you know that the poop piles up fast in the trash bins. Wrangling this trash is not the happiest duty for the maintenance crew. But when you look at this icky issue through the lens of opportunity instead of drudgery, the picture changes.
A busy dog park frequented by 50 to 75 dogs a day generates nearly 1½ tons of canine waste a year. Add to that waste 25,000 plastic pick-up bags, and you've got quite a toxic mix streaming to the local landfill. Once sealed in underground liners, that waste remains essentially intact and slowly emits methane.
On-site dog waste composting is a sustainable practice that can put a park on the fast track to near zero waste. In addition to diverting organics, composting reduces poop volume by 50 percent, takes plastic out of circulation, saves fossil fuel for transport, and gives visitors a chance to help keep the park clean and green. Additional bonus: free fertilizer!
Notre-Dame-de-Grace Dog Run's composting project was the subject of a 2004 Concordia University master's degree study. The park hosts more than 50 dogs per day in an economically diverse Montreal neighborhood. A tight-knit volunteer group toyed with the idea of composting dog waste for years before teaming up with the local university to put their idea to the test. Together the association and school contributed $700 to kick off the program. A city recycler donated nine round 3-by-3-foot lidded bins. A local carpenter delivered free sawdust.
A student and six NDG volunteers set up and evaluated the program in just two months. After a brief training period, park visitors gladly switched from pick-up bags to using an array of plastic scoopers, shovels and dust bins hung along the fence for their use. The visitors deposited poop directly into one of the active compost bins. Every day NDG volunteers visiting with their dogs covered accumulating waste generously with sawdust.
According to Jim Fares, NDG association president at the time, turning the compost twice required approximately 1 ½ volunteer hours per week. Once a year a volunteer team harvested and bagged finished compost and tied the bags to the fence. Jim said that visitors quickly claimed the compost, which produced "huge flowers." At one point, the soil amendment was donated to a local botanic garden.
The program worked efficiently for five years. During that time, visitors remained cooperative. There were no complaints of odor and no theft or vandalism (although the plastic scoopers tended to break in the winter). The loop of poop-to-compost-to-plants moved along without a hitch.
The system broke down when the original team of committed volunteers dwindled without replacements—a familiar story with many well-meaning groups. In 2010, the NDG Dog Run Association asked the city to take over collecting the waste. But there's an upside to the story. Visitors continue to pick up using scoopers and still deposit the waste into dedicated bins. Fares believes that the waste is streamed to the city's existing wet composting program or will be in the near future due to Montreal's zero-waste policies.
Denali National Park is a wildlife preserve that has been successfully composting dog waste for 35 years. This preserve covers 6 million acres surrounding Mount McKinley and is bisected by a single ribbon of road. The park is 120 miles southwest of Fairbanks, Alaska.
Denali is the only national park that maintains a working sled dog team, a program that dates back to the 1920s. The sled dogs, all Alaskan huskies, have cultural significance, demonstrating the area's Native American and early explorer heritage to the 75,000 tourists who visit the kennels each season. And because Denali is limited to using motorized vehicles as "minimum tools," park staff relies on dog sleds to patrol and maintain the park's 6 million acres through the long winter months.
Thirty sled dogs produce around 50 pounds of poop a day—around the same weight as some of the huskies. In 1980 the kennel staff decided to start composting the waste to minimize buildup and keep the area clean. The finished compost is used in area flower beds and gardens. The Denali website notes that the compost is "odorless," "jam-packed with nutrients" and "helps retain soil moisture," eliminating the need for fertilizers and pesticides.
Kennel manager Jennifer Raffaeli said that from April through September, she and a "team lead," a seasonal staff of two paid workers and three students provide tours, maintain the dogs' health, clean the kennels and process compost. "Everyone thinks of just the fun, fluffy parts of the job," she said. "But taking responsibility for the dog waste and showing respect for nature are the other side of the picture."
Raffaeli said that staff enjoy all aspects of working the kennels. She has no trouble lining up workers. The students apply for the program through a conservation association. A team of three staffers spend one hour a day scooping and cleaning and one person turns the compost two hours per week. The staff is well trained and committed to nature preservation. During the park's deep freeze, the poop piles are simply layered with sawdust and "over wintered" until they are workable.
Composting dog waste is easy. See the references below for all the details. Successfully maintaining a program is trickier. Denali's keys to success: enthusiastic leadership; well-trained, committed help; and tie-in with an ongoing sustainability education program.
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