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Do Factory Farms Need a Pooper-Scooper Law?

Pooper-scooper signage in the Metro-Washington DC area. Credit: Dan Klotz

Pooper-scooper signage in the Washington DC metropolitan area. Credit: Dan Klotz

In 1978, New York embraced a major public health and environmental innovation.  The idea was simple: human excrement is captured and treated (for the most part) before being released into the environment, so the excrement from dogs should be as well. The law, which became known as the “Pooper-Scooper Law,” mandated that all dog owners must collect their pets’ waste and deposit it in the trash so that it didn’t muck up the urban environment.

“If you’ve ever stepped in dog doo, you know how important it is to enforce the canine waste law,” said former NYC Mayor Ed Koch in a statement that marked the 25th anniversary of the law. “New Yorkers overwhelmingly do their duty and self-enforce. Those who don’t are not fit to call friend.”

The Pooper-Scooper Law generated a copious amount of controversy at the time, marking a conflict between people who did not want to live in communities riddled with dog poop and dog owners who didn’t want to be bothered. The idea was so controversial, in fact, that Koch was unable to convince the New York City Council to pass the law; he needed the New York State legislature to pass the law instead.

The pooper-scooper itself is a long-handled mechanical device that scoops the dog poop into a plastic bag so you can deposit the mess into the trash. Adding pet waste to household garbage is not the most effective way of handling the waste, perhaps, but at least the environmental contamination is limited.

Fast forward to 2013, 35 years after the pooper-scooper law’s debut, and the idea that domesticated small animal waste should not be deposited into the environment has been universally embraced.  Owners of large animals, however, have received a pass.

Industrial-scale livestock operations—known as factory farms—annually generate 500 million tons of manure in the United States, more than three times the amount generated by people in the U.S. The waste produced by a single dairy cow alone matches the amount generated by 20-40 people. Yet this waste is not bagged or treated or disinfected.  Instead, it is collected in large piles or pools (hogs in factory farms are fed laxatives so that their manure can be handled more easily) and then spread on neighboring farm fields.

Spreading manure on fields is an age-old practice still being used in most every part of the world. But factory farms produce so much waste that the plants cannot absorb all the nutrients, and hard rains wash the excess poop (along with other excess fertilizer) into nearby streams and rivers. In the water, the fecal bacteria stay alive and the nutrients help simple plants like plankton and algae flourish.

The end result? Livestock waste contributes to the dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay, and other troubled bodies of water. Nitrogen from the waste spread onto the fields also ends up contaminating the groundwater. And livestock waste generates enough methane and other greenhouse gases to accelerate climate change.

As the New York Times recently editorialized, in the past year the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided not to collect more information to determine the exact scope of the problem, to not expand the number of farms required to have a discharge permit (just over half currently need to), and to not issue new regulations governing discharges from feedlots (facilities that hold cattle and other livestock before they are sent to the slaughter house).  The issue of livestock waste is clearly one topic the agency won’t touch with a ten foot pole—or pooper-scooper.

The EPA’s authority to monitor livestock waste comes from the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and other laws that have established the need to protect our water. The scope of the problem is vast, but the damages are adding up too quickly to ignore. The livestock industry won’t tackle the issue of waste until our government stops looking the other way—while holding its nose.