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How Kitty Litter went from happy accident to $2 billion industry

Edward Lowe launched Kitty Litter in 1947; he sold the company in 1990 for $200 million. (Courtesy of the Edward Lowe Foundation)

Kitty Litter turned 68 in January. That’s 334 in cat years — long enough for one man’s accidental invention to become a $2 billion industry.

The product’s huge profits, however, are matched by a hefty unintended consequence: In the United States alone, pet litters gobble up 5 billion pounds of mined clay each year. Most of that ends up in landfills, quite literally soiled.

Here’s how the litter industry got this way.

When World War II ended, a man named Edward Lowe returned from military duty and went to work for his father in South Bend, Ind. The pair sold bulk shipments of sand, sawdust and clay to heavy industries in the area. According to an archivist named Heidi Connor, who until recently managed Lowe's papers, local companies such as Whirlpool originally used sawdust to soak up oil spills. The risk of fire, however, made clay a preferred replacement.

Lowe would ultimately make millions from what happened next. One day in 1947, his father received a sample shipment of a new clay product — but he was already loyal to a different brand. “He would have nothing to do with this order of clay, and left it in their storage garage,” Connor says. It sat around until one of Ed Lowe’s acquaintances, Kaye Draper, asked him if he knew any good absorbents for pet waste.

At the time, the pet industry was still young. In 1947, cats were often left to roam outdoors. Pet owners who brought felines inside tended to bring a bit of the outdoors with them. Some owners used ash or soil. Draper filled her cat box with sand.

The problem, of course, was that sand releases a fine silica dust—and it tends to track paw prints all over the house. So Lowe suggested that she test out the sample material that was sitting in storage. It was made of fuller's earth, which is useful for its positively charged crystal structure. Because positive ions attract water, the clay can absorb large quantities of cat waste while controlling odors.

Lowe launched the brand Kitty Litter to harness his surprise finding. At first, he gave out samples at cat shows and farm and garden stores. Eventually, he set up a network of brokers who distributed the product nationally.

Competitors including Clorox were quick to launch rival brands. A cat-litter arms race ensued: Lowe expanded his research and development budget to $4 million, in hopes of producing a litter that was highly absorbent, low in odor and light in weight. To this end, he even built a custom research facility with professional litter sniffers, and he began referring to his conference room as the “war room.”

Of course, every war has its dirty secrets. Hundreds of cat years after Lowe’s discovery, clay remains a key raw material for a dizzying array of litter products. The sheer quantity produced each year has a weighty environmental impact.

According to the American Pet Products Association, there are 95 million pet cats in America. That’s three times the cat population in 1970, which helps explain why huge multinationals have been drawn to the litter market. Pet products are a growing industry, and those millions of cats require a lot of clay.

Using statistics from the U.S. Geological Survey, it's possible to figure out exactly how much. In 2012, 2.4 million tons of clay were used to make pet litter. That's enough to fill 180,000 dump trucks. (By comparison, the solid waste output of Rhode Island was just 1.5 million tons in 2012.)

The clays that become cat litter are extracted from open-pit mines in 11 states. The portion that becomes cat litter has a short life span: Though extracted as a virgin material, used litter soon ends up back in the ground — at the dump. Producers recommend throwing used litter away, because flushing can cause plumbing problems and spread parasites.

In principle, clay litter is largely made of dirt, so this shouldn’t be especially harmful. But modern litters include chemical scents, clumping agents and anti-dust sprays including PTFE, a plastic better known as Teflon. All those additives end up in the trash, too.

There are alternatives to clay-based litters, including products made from newspaper and corn. Some cats don’t like them, though, and even litters made from recycled materials get thrown away.

With all this in mind, the legacy of Edward Lowe — who died in 1995 — is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the product he pioneered made indoor cat ownership simpler and cleaner. The rise of commercial cat litters may even explain why indoor cat populations grew so quickly, to the point that felines have overtaken canines as America’s most popular pet. At the same time, cat litters made consumers dependent on a supply chain that converts a natural resource into waste.

For Lowe, however, cat litter was pay dirt. Once he realized its potential, he devoted his life to refining and marketing it. He sold the company for $200 million in 1990, and it was eventually acquired by Ralston Purina and then Nestlé.

“They used to call it a ‘tee-hee’ industry,” former Lowe archivist Connor says. “We’re laughing all the way to the bank.”

Gross is a freelance writer and public radio producer.