Natalie Robbins grew up loving cats, but hating cat litter. (You may be familiar with this phenomenon.) As the youngest child in her cat-embracing family, that task often fell squarely on her skeeved-out shoulders. Most litter on the market involves filling a small plastic tub with absorbent, odor-neutralizing material–like sawdust or clay–letting the cats do their business, then cleaning out the box every couple of weeks.
“Ugh, I hated it,” Robbins says. “Changing cat litter is dirty, smelly, and messy. And even then, the cat smell doesn’t go away: When you visit a friend who has a cat, you can usually smell it way before you get to the front door.”
Rather than just whining about it, like the average 12-year-old would do, Robbins set out to find a cleaner, more pleasant way to deal with cat waste. In college, she developed a prototype: a cardboard box filled with pine pellets that dissolve into dust when they come into contact with moisture. The real stroke of genius came in the design: The box has holes in it, so pellet dust falls to a lower level where it can be easily scooped up and thrown away. Every month, the whole cardboard box can be thrown out. (Unfortunately, it cannot be recycled because it contains potentially toxic animal waste.)
Over the last two years, after many friends asked her to make these litter boxes for them, Robbins decided to transform her idea into a full-fledged business, and Litter One was born. It operates much like Birchbox. After all, there are 45 million American households that have cats and a total of 95 million cats in the country, the majority of whom are craving an easier solution to their litter-changing woes.
Customers can subscribe to her service and receive a litter kit every month consisting of a cardboard litter box, pellets, a scoop, and 30 biodegradable bags to remove soiled litter every day. She’s received several awards in the pet industry for her product design, including the best new product at the Global Pet Expo and Cat Fancy Editors’ Choice Award. Robbins’s also been endorsed by Dr. Marty Becker, a vet who appears regularly on Good Morning America and The Dr. Oz Show. Now that she has graduated from college, Robbins is poised to shake up the $3 billion cat litter market.
She’s also keen to create a more sustainable approach to cat litter. That’s because 95% of cat owners currently use clay cat litter from companies like Fresh Step, Tidy Cats, and Blue Buffalo. Clay is bad for the environment because it is strip-mined and does not biodegrade in landfills. “There is twice as much cat litter in landfills than disposable diapers,” Robbins tells me. Some evidence also suggests that clay contains chemicals–such as silica and sodium bentonite–that might harm the cat’s health.
Cat owners can now search for natural alternatives, like pellets made from walnuts, wheat, and recycled newspaper. Robbins’s 100% pine pellets fall into this category and she tells me that she sources her pine from an organization that plants a new tree for each one felled.
Many of those new trees, of course, will then get peed on by other animals. But that’s another story.