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.
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.
I have a 55 gallon plastic barrel I want to make into a tumbling compost bin. Is it usable for this purpose since it had printer ink in it. I have put an entire gallon of bleach & dawn dish washing liquid in the barrel with very hot tap water. I filled the barrel to the top & let it sit for a week. I rinsed the barrel 10 times. There is still black inside the barrel. I’m not sure if its just stained from the ink or very hard dried ink. Do you think I can use it or should I get rid of it?
Hi Kim, that’s a great question! Awesome that you’re working to reuse something for your compost bin. I’m not an expert in the chemicals in play here, just as a disclaimer. However, what I can find on the topic so far suggests that if the ink was vegetable based or soy-based, then you should be ok to have some level of ink contamination in your compost without concern. However, it is my understanding that some inks contain chemicals of concern that the composting process may not break down, such as heavy metals. Part of your decision may depend on whether you will be using the finished compost for a food garden or an ornamental garden. Another resource you may want to inquire with is the Compost Council of Canada, which may be able to point you in the direction of some more specific research around this topic. I’m sorry I don’t have a clearer answer for you on this! Happy composting, and do let us know if you find an answer.
Thank you so much for your reply. I want to use the compost for both vegetable & ornamental gardens. I do know the ink was HP ink. I think it stained the plastic. Like I mentioned I’ve cleaned it out numerous times with dish soap & bleach, When I rinse the barrel the water is clear. I will definitely check in to it further.
For me personally, based on that, I would probably be comfortable using the barrel for composting. But, I can’t officially say it is safe, or what the risks would be. Something new to keep learning about!
I have a huge collection of used paper plates which has eatables particles attached to it and the Indian curry and masala which cannot be washed off. I want to compost those paper plates. Is it ethically okay to make compost from such paper plates? If so, how that can be achieved? The paper plates are sometimes kept in the bin for weeks and encounter flies. If properly kept away from flies and rodents inside plastics bags to keep it segregated can it be turned into compost?
That’s awesome that you’re looking to compost more! The answer to this question will depend on what kind of compost system you have access to. A commercial system would definitely be able to handle large amounts of food-contaminated paper plates (e.g. Compost Winnipeg). In a small backyard system, it sounds like the quantity you have would overwhelm it. Generally, in a small compost, you want to avoid large amounts of fats and meats (which some curries and masalas have – and makes them delicious!). If you are going to send these plates to a commercial compost, you’d be able to store them in a bin lined with a compostable bag, and that would reduce the amount of fly & rodent type vectors you would be contending with. Let us know if we can help you any further!
What about the greasy paper bags and burger containers from McDonalds?
As long as your compost bin is generally healthy, and it’s not being overwhelmed with grease, it should be able to handle moderate amounts of these materials provided you rip them up a bit. The burger containers are less desirable than the paper bags, as they are a heavily coated product, so it will depend on how many you have and how concerned you are about what chemicals may make their way into your compost. When it comes to home compost, MOST items are ok in moderation!
Would you folks at the centre consider doing a compost toxicity trial? It seems there is vast confusion as to what makes up the inks and finishes on receipts and glossy boxes/paper and their persistence after biological breakdown. To really busy some myths could you do some compost trials by including in separate heaps different forms of these questionable substances? Then have the compost lab tested for presence of unfavourables?
Our small town recycling programs are struggling to find a place to take cardboard for processing as the value of it has gone down so it’s costing more to recycle and some organizations are opting to burn it. I’m hoping composting will be a feasible large scale option that can be returned to agricultural lands to boost carbon and organic matter.
Hi Shannon, There has been some good research done by other organizations more able to conduct this sort of work than we are! I agree that there is uncertainty about some specifics around exactly what components break down under what conditions. The Compost Council of Canada is a good source, as is BioCycle magazine. Unfortunately we don’t have the funds or capacity right now to run such trials ourselves, much as we’d like to! I wish I had a better answer for you but rest assured that we are always doing our best to stay on top of the research as much as possible. The general conclusion I’ve come to so far is that -most-, though not all, pH imbalances and “organic” molecules break down well in a well-managed compost.
Composting could definitely be an option for cardboard not finding recycling markets. It’s a great carbon-rich “browns” feedstock!
Can I use compost bags to recycle shredder paper?
I’m not 100% what you’re asking, but here’s some thoughts on shredded paper:
If you have access to a commercial composting service such as Compost Winnipeg, you can put shredded paper into the buckets/compostable bags provided to you through that service. The bag and the shredded paper inside it will break down nicely in an industrial scale composting facility.
However, compostable plastics do not break down well or at all in a smaller backyard bin. In that case, you should add the shredded paper directly into your compost bin without any bags wrapped around it.
Shredded paper can also be recycled. According to the City of Winnipeg website:
“Place shredded paper securely inside a clear plastic bag [and placed in your blue bin]. This is the ONLY exception to the “no plastic bag” policy.
Do not place shredded paper loose in your recycling container as it gets scattered and contaminated, making it unfit to be recycled.”
Hope that helps! Feel free to reply here to email firstname.lastname@example.org if you have further questions.
A further thought: if you’re putting shredded paper into the recycling in Winnipeg, you should NOT use certified-compostable bags. These are not designed to go through recycling systems and are not sturdy enough. Additionally, they cannot be recycled due to the composition of the bag. Put the shredded paper in a clear, traditional plastic bag, if you are going to recycle it.
Caution, electronic printers with slippery receipts are NOT paper, but a plastic – do not recycle, do not compost (in a decade.)
You’re right that you have to carefully check the type of receipt! There are SOME receipts that are purely paper-based, but most are “thermal paper” and contain BPA and plastics, making them unsuitable for composting or recycling. When in doubt, throw it out!
Many people here have mentioned recycling thermal receipts. In AZ we are not allowed to add thermal affected paper to the recycling bin much to my chagrin. Therefore, I have been throwing them away. I’m not thrilled with their leaching anything into the ground whether at the landfill or my compost bin, but people still insist on printing them at the stores and in unseemly lengths. I purchased 2 items at the grocer and came away with a 14inch receipt. I wouldn’t mind composting but will have to do more research.
A great point! A percentage of receipts are printed on paper treated with plastic, including BPA, and I totally understand the potential concern with composting those. Refusing receipts at the store can be a good way to start making an impact (though often they’ll just get printed anyway) – as can writing companies and asking them to use non-thermal paper or offer emailled receipts.
One of the ways around this, I am seeing, is more and more stores asking to send an email receipt. I set up an email through yahoo for this exact reason
Can printer paper be used in a vegetable garden without shredding it? I am interested in using it for weed control but have a medium size garden (110ft x 50ft). It seems like i would get better coverage and weed suppression if it was not shredded. Thoughts?
Printer paper composts well! I’ve seen newspaper and cardboard be used as weed suppression in a “lasagne gardening” type setup, and I would assume printer paper would function similarly. However, it does have longer pulp fibres than either newsprint or cardboard, so it’s possible it would behave differently. A Master Gardener would likely be able to answer your question better – we’re more experts at the rotting than the growing around here!
An I use shredded office paper (old documents) as bedding for worms. I live near Seattle and did not have success with the ” Green machine”. It is just sitting idly by.
Yes, I’m skeptical about the Green Machine/Nutrimill style of composting as well. I’ve heard of people who love it, but I’d rather stick to non-electric methods myself! Shredded office paper is also what we use for our worm bedding in the office 🙂
What about shredding fast food sandwich wrappings & composting them. Is that a big no-no? Also sugar substitute packages? Can labels?
While pure paper products can be added to a compost bin, remember that plastic cannot: and many labels and fast food sandwich wrappers are plasticized. If the paper you want to compost looks or feels shiny or coated, or if it can hold water, it is likely better sent to the landfill. Items like sugar substitute packages should be compostable, but we’d recommend adding them to your recycling bin first! It’s better to recycle paper because it becomes new paper products, reducing the need for trees. Generally labels are plasticized and need to be landfilled; fast food sandwich wrappers you’ll have to examine. I haven’t tried them, if you do, let us know how it goes!
WAIT! Another there is an alternative to the landfill for plasticized paper and generally not recyclable products – a company called Terracycle who recycles these things for a fee (they do some for free that are sponsored by companies definitely worth a look! They have branches in most countries.
TerraCycle is indeed a good option here in Canada (https://www.terracycle.ca/en-CA/ for those interested in learning more). Unfortunately most of the categories cost money for the collection box. In Winnipeg, I recommend Winnipeg Recycling Service (call 204-299-7368 for their company) – they collect aluminum foil, filmy plastic, and a small amount of plasticized paper. Thanks for sharing 🙂
Do not use recycled paper in your compost because this paper has been bleached with CHLORINE and when it breaks down in your compost it produce dangerous DIOXINS.
This is a concern I hear from some people, so you’re not alone in this. I’d love to see if you’ve found any research showing that dioxins linger both in bleached paper and the compost that it’s placed in. Here’s one good article suggesting something similar to what you’re saying https://www.planetnatural.com/composting-paper/. However, I do compost white office paper printed with black ink, as I believe that the benefits of easy composting outweigh the potential small risk of trace chemicals. This is a personal decision and I encourage people to research the issues! It’s ALWAYS best to recycle paper over composting it because it will turn back into paper products, reducing the need for more trees to be harvested.
Not sure what your personal opinions are on the World Health Organization, but I would tend to trust their statements because they are backed up by science. Dioxins are persistent in the environment, which means that they would persist in the bleached paper products.
We completely agree that dioxins are something to be cautious of!
However, very little paper made today in North America uses chlorine bleach, which is the source of the dioxin concern. Here’s a quote from the Forest Products Association of Canada explaining: “Most of Canada’s pulp production uses Elemental
Chlorine-Free (ECF) bleaching. There are negligible
environmental risks to aquatic ecosystems and
no toxicological difference between wastewaters
generated from ECF-based or Totally Chlorine-Free
(TCF)-based bleaching. TCF bleaching can be used for
some products but it tends to produce bleached fibre
with somewhat reduced strength properties.” (from http://www.fpac.ca/publications/Mill_performance_EN_Dec_2011.pdf)
As with anything, be sure to depend on your personal comfort levels when it comes to what you do and don’t choose to compost! Personally I buy and use “unbleached” paper almost exclusively so I am not worried about the chemicals in it.
One thing I’d just add, for awareness purposes, is the concerns for folks who have bad allergies or chemical sensitivities. Paper can frequently have common allergens in it, which can make them problematic for gardeners who use compost made from them.
The two most common issues I am aware of are sulfites – commonly used in the form of Sodium dithionite, aka sodium hydrosulfite, to boost brightness in bleached paper (whether chlorine bleached or no). And then soy, which is very commonly used in inks, especially in newspapers and cardboard packaging like cereal boxes.
Composting can slightly effect the allergens, but won’t typically eliminate them completely, which can make for more risk in the gardening experience, but one that we can obviously avoid if we know what to look for. 🙂
(America Academy of allergy…’s statement about composting and its effect on allergens: https://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/library/allergy-library/composting-and-food-allergies )
You’re right that compost can be an issue for people with allergies, asthma, or who are immuno-compromised! Those people should be careful to consider their sensitivities and what is being added to their compost and how they are handling it. Thanks for pointing this out!
The best option for shredded paper seems to either recycle it or compost it. Thanks for sharing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Receipts generally can’t be composted as they’re mixed materials – due to the thermal printing usually used on them
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.
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.
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.
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.
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….
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)
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.
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.