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.

14 Responses

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!
    able

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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….

  9. 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.

  10. 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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*