Myth Busted – You can compost paper

We at Green Action Centre often hear from people asking what they can do with paper products like heavily soiled pizza boxes that they are told they should not recycle. What do you do when you are faced with this situation? Can you put it in your compost bin?

Tell us about your experience with paper products that you can’t recycle.

Myth Busted!

Most paper materials are both recyclable and compostable. The question might be which is the best option for a specific situation. For paper that is not recyclable, such as that greasy pizza box, the options are either compost it or throw it in the trash. Composting is definitely the better option here and based on the responses to our myth, just tear it up into small pieces and toss it in. One Green Action Centre staffer says that she tears off the parts that are not greasy, like the top and sides, and recycles that portion. The greasy part goes to the compost bin.

Kevin’s response to the myth got a discussion on the thermal paper used for receipts and whether the BPA contained in these receipts represented a serious concern for your compost. No clear answer emerged from the discussion and it would appear that more research may be needed on this subject. While receipts represent only a very small proportion of the final compost product, for now each of us will have to decide for ourselves whether these are better recycled and kept out of our compost.

A question that did not emerge from this discussion was whether it is better to recycle paper or compost it? It’s great that we have two alternatives for our waste that doesn’t involve sending it to the landfill and in some cases we need both.

When it comes to most paper, recycling is the slightly better option. One of the reasons for this is that when we recycle our paper we reduce the number of trees that need to be harvested. In addition recycling paper requires less energy, uses less water, and creates less air pollution than paper production from virgin materials.

There are those times however when composting is the better alternative. We already know that those greasy pizza boxes are best composted, but are there other paper products that are better composted? Well there are those soiled napkins and tissues that you can’t recycle. And what about that shredded paper, might it be better to compost? It’s already in small pieces and will break down quickly in your compost pile. If you check out the City of Winnipeg’s FAQ’s on recycling you’ll find that you need to pack it tightly in your Blue Box or you can put it into a large (77 litre) see through plastic bag. These large bags are then separated from the rest of the recycling and emptied by hand before the rest of the recyclables go through the automated plant. Once again each of us needs to decide for ourselves what works best, but please make sure that you keep it from blowing down the street.

There are also some papers that shouldn’t be recycled or composted such as glossy magazines and foil wrapping paper. These types of paper have strong dyes, heavy inks and other printing chemicals that make them unsuitable. The best option is to avoid them in the first place.

20 Responses

  1. sheldon moser | March 30, 2016 | 9:27 pm | Reply

    just looking into getting started with composting. I’m looking to use it on my farm, currently using lots of synthetic fertilizers.
    Hoping i can cut down on the use of those by composting and using compost teas. like i said I’m just looking to get started so please excuse my ignorance. i have at my disposal large amounts of recycled cardboard, grass clippings and used coffee grounds. Are those 3 ingredients enough to make a compost pile with? if so how would you recommend i construct my site/compost area?

    thanks in advance

    • Sylvie Hébert | May 20, 2016 | 5:47 am | Reply

      It’s great to hear that you are wanting to cut down on synthetic fertilizers, Sheldon. If you are on a farm and happen to have hay, I would recommend using that material as a “brown” source rather than cardboard as you would have to shred your cardboard somehow. In addition, it’s better to recycle unsoiled cardboard than to compost it. Are your grass clippings fresh or dry? If they are dry and brown, you could mix it with your coffee grounds which are “greens” and high in nitrogen. If your grass clippings are green then you will need to find another brown source to balance out your clippings. How you construct your pile depends on the aeration method you use. Chances are, you could just build a big pile and use a front-end loader to turn your pile, if you have one. Or perhaps you could build a static pile, which is basically building your pile in a way that ensure air flows through the pile…I recommend you search this on the internet to learn how to build one.

  2. Carole | March 3, 2016 | 4:04 pm | Reply

    You can compost brown cardboard. I compost thick brown cardboard boxes. If you soak them in a water bath for a few days, you will find the layers separate and if the box has a colourful, glossy printed coating, this will then be easily peeled away, leaving the brown cardboard. It is very easy then to rip the cardboard up, when wet, into small bits that can go in the compost bay. We hot compost – using 3 bays system. Has to be each bay is 1m3 in volume though to build the heat up. All breaks down in a matter of weeks. Faster way to compost.

    • Krati | March 21, 2016 | 11:21 am | Reply

      Hi Carol, your materials get composted in week. Wow. That is nice. I built my very first composting bin 2 weeks back and nothing in it has composted. I put hay (since it was freely available to me), straw from a shrub that needed trimming, kitchen food wastes and today put newspapers in it. I do not have a shredder (and don’t want to buy another expensive machinery this year) and so I do paper shredding manually. I also manually shred straw (as much as I can). I also put some soil from my garden in the compost. The soil had worms so I thought they will start the process. I turn up the pile every 2-3 days. Since most of the stuff in my pile is slightly bigger, turning up by myself is a tad bit hard. I do what I can. I am not sure why nothing has composted.

  3. Document Shredding Rockland NY | October 2, 2014 | 9:43 am | Reply

    The best option for shredded paper seems to either recycle it or compost it. Thanks for sharing.

    • Cathy | January 23, 2015 | 12:00 pm | Reply

      If you get new cats or kittens in your household, shredded papper makes the best cat litter. If you have established cats who are used to clay litter, you may be able to switch them to paper by mixing the. Either way, you can compost the used litter.

      • Sylvie Hébert | February 9, 2015 | 4:02 pm | Reply

        Green Action Centre does not recommend composting pet waste in your regular compost bin due to risks of pathogens. There are resources on the internet that explains how to manage your dog and cat waste using pet waste digesters which is very different than your typical outdoor bin. Managing pet waste requires many precautions due to the risk of being exposed to pathogens, so it’s best to err on the side of caution.

  4. James Jones | May 20, 2014 | 9:40 am | Reply

    I bought a heavy duty paper shredder. It was a cheap one from Big Lots. I use it everyday and shred paper, cardboard, paper board, whatever. I then add to my compost along with kitchen waste, leaves, ect.

  5. Tim | May 18, 2014 | 4:35 am | Reply

    If the chemicals in paper contain contaminants i would suggest that if they are are at acceptable levels to allow people to be exposed to them in the paper they will be diluted and broken down in compost and soil.

    • Dave Elmore | May 18, 2014 | 9:41 am | Reply

      That’s a reasonable comment. Generally we find that people want to avoid chemicals when it comes to their gardens and so we recommend that they avoid the glossy papers that are not generally vegetable based inks. Some people may feel as you do that this is not an issue and so can certainly make their own decision to incorporate this kind of paper into their compost.

  6. jane jan7 | January 7, 2012 | 8:38 pm | Reply

    we shred receipts and other quesionable
    paper toadd toour recycling bin..the only paper products to be added into our edible
    compost is unbleached coffee filters..i am still not comfortbale w/ newspaper in any
    garden setting-call me atradtionailist!
    make sure your tree roots are protectedon thesouth and west sides re no snow!

  7. William | January 7, 2012 | 10:36 am | Reply

    Since I am an ornamental gardener and build my compost as an amendment, I compost most everything – pizza boxes, bacon paper, very greasy paper towelling, very small pieces of plastic, old metal twist ties, etc. If I don’t mind some if the bulk, it goes in the ground; if I want finer compost for top dressing, I screen out the weird stuff…

    I do respect the thoughts of creating an ultimate-organic-toxin free compost… it is not something I need to do at this time… my open compost piles (I have four+) are in the far corners of my yard, so I do not concern myself with raccoons, cats, mice, etc. that are attracted to grease-based VOCs – but these critters are part of the urban ecosystem… so I do not fight them.

  8. Lloyd | January 6, 2012 | 8:23 am | Reply

    Paper products are carbons so no problem composting them. One should keep in mind that there are almost no nutrients in paper or cardboard so compost made with a lot of paper would have less nutrients than a compost made with leaves as the main carbon.

  9. Kevin | January 5, 2012 | 1:36 pm | Reply

    What do you folks do with receipts? I’m more concerned about this. I had cut all mine up and added them to my shredded paper, but then later learned that the thermal receipts have BPA, which you wouldn’t want in your compost, right? Or does the BPA get taken care of by the worms or natural decomposition? It has to go somewhere, so I’m wondering whether there would be seepage.

    • Dave | January 5, 2012 | 2:37 pm | Reply

      I’m not sure I have an answer for you. Personally I shred my receipts and have both recycled and composted the shredded paper. I am not sure whether they represent a significant hazard. Research seems to indicate that approximately 40% of receipts could contain BPA. Combine this with the very small proportion that they represent of my shredded paper and in my compost pile as well as the fact that they get thoroughly mixed into the pile before then being spread over a large area of garden, I don’t consider the exposure to be an issue.

      That said, If someone has more information on BPA in receipts I’d love to hear it. I don’t think that I would use these in my vermicompost bin and I’m certainly glad I don’t work in the retail sector where I have to handle them all day.

  10. Madeline Nield | January 4, 2012 | 4:16 pm | Reply

    We also tear them up so they break down easier. We’ve done the same with cardboard boxes i.e. apple boxes that have outlived their service….

  11. Maureen | January 4, 2012 | 2:22 pm | Reply

    Oh yes – I tear those up into smaller pieces and add them to my compost. (They take too long to comost if you don’t break them into smaller pieces)

    • Dave Elmore | January 4, 2012 | 2:28 pm | Reply

      Agreed. I tear mine up as well and do the same for some of those compostable containers that some restaurants are using. Thanks for the feedback Maureen.

  12. Dave Elmore | May 28, 2014 | 1:36 pm | Reply

    Many people that compost tend to run low on dry materials (browns) and so shredded paper is a good alternative. Not being able to recycle your shredded paper might be a good reason to start composting.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Recycling: You May Be Doing It Wrong | Science | Smithsonian | Interesting Things

    […] Not all recyclers take mixed grade paper, and most curbside pick up programs determine what they can and can’t take based on the length of the shreds. Some recycling companies will only take long shreds; others won’t accept shreds at all. Many collectors ask that you contain the shreds in plastic bags, so if your curbside collection service doesn’t take plastic bags, they probably don’t take shredded paper. If the paper has been reduced to confetti, your best bet might be composting. […]

    May 28, 201412:23 pm

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