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Composting Paper

How to use cardboard and newspaper in your compost pile.

Shredded PaperIn a previous post, we recommended adding paper or cardboard to a compost heap that’s too moist. Paper will absorb water as well as provide short-term air space to aide in circulation if it’s crumpled. That suggestion, as pointed out by one of our more careful readers, brought up an entirely different subject: is composting paper safe? The answer is yes. And no.

Paper — made from wood pulp — seems a likely addition to compost because of its source: nature. Newspapers have long been held as a good source of “brown” component in the brown-green, carbon-nitrogen balance that compost piles need (so much so that adding too much paper will tip the balance). But paper might also contain some harmful ingredients in the form of inks, dyes and other treatments.

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These days, most newspaper inks are soy-based, a good thing for the environment (though the soy used in inks is likely from GMO sources). But some inks may still contain petro-chemicals or pigments if they include color as most papers do. Also newsprint may hold some chlorine from the bleaching process. Newspaper is bleached less than most commercial office papers but may still contain some chlorine. This is a good reason not to compost office paper, mail or magazines. Slick papers of the sort used by magazines are also treated with petro-chemicals, so that they won’t yellow and break down as quickly as newsprint. The best idea is to recycle all white, slick or otherwise treated papers.

But newspapers? Apparently the jury is still out. The Sierra Club’s Mr. Green says there’s a study that newsprint contains less toxic material than straw or grass and is therefore safe to use. He doesn’t cite the study and though we found many references to Mr. Green’s claim, we couldn’t find a study that directly addresses his statement (readers, can you help?). It’s well known that grasses and straw treated with herbicides and other sprays aren’t healthy additions to compost and may even kill some plants (organic farms, lawns, and gardens mean clean grass and straw going into compost). Some composters dismiss the small risk of adding toxins to the pile by including newspaper, arguing that the microorganisms that facilitate the composting process also help break down the toxins. Cornell University’s compost page suggests that the risk of using even glossy paper are minimal. Over at City Food Growers, there’s a good accounting of the risks of using paper in you compost and garden and suggest there’s an easy solution…recycle! There are plenty of things to keep your compost heaps, well, heaping. If you do use newsprint, be sure it’s shredded. If not, it may still be in you pile a year later, impeding good circulation of air and moisture.

A note on cardboard: Modern brown, corrugated cardboard uses neither coloring or glues and is okay to use in compost (or as mulch). Just be sure it’s shredded. White or colored cardboard? Again, some say the risks are small. Personally, your conscientious Planet Natural Blogger wouldn’t use them.

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Eric Vinje founded Planet Natural with his father Wayne in 1991, originally running it as a grasshopper bait mail-order business out of a garage.

Eric is now retired, but is still a renowned gardener known for his expertise in composting, organic gardening and pest control, utilizing pesticide-free options, such as beneficial insects.

Eric believes when you do something good for the environment, the effects will benefit generations to come.

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25 Responses to “Composting Paper”

  1. Ilias on January 20th, 2013 at 3:52 pm #

    Leaves, straw, coffee grounds and tea bags, grass clippings, fall leaves, animal manures (cow, horse, pig, chicken) do not use cat or dog droppings, fruit rinds-skins-pits, newspaper and cardboard, ashes from the fireplace and dryer lint. Pretty much anything that consists of organic compounds. But don’t use meat products because they lure in unwanted pests. Just remember to keep the compost pile moist and turn using a pitch fork on a regular basis so oxygen can reach the middle of the pile and allow the decomposition to keep happening.

    • Quizative on February 14th, 2014 at 7:26 pm #

      People scare other people away from composting. Perhaps if you are on limited space and need to use the compost faster some of these ideas may be necessary but I have composted for years. I started off using 4×4 skids that I salvaged free. I nailed 3 sides together and put the 4th on hinges so I could swing it wide open. I put everything in my compost. The bedding and manure from my chicken coup, all scraps including eggshells (and I dont rinse them) coffee grounds, old garden plants, leaves and grass clippings, even weeds from weeding the flower beds. The heat kills the seeds.

      I dont turn it… I just let it sit and sit. Although sometimes the chickens are in there scratching and picking through the newest scraps or for the biggest juicy worms. I dont water it… nature does that…its called rain. I built a 2nd one and when that gets full I start the 2nd. when I need compost, I go to the oldest one and remove from the bottom. This is not rocket science. My PH is always fine maybe slightly acidic which most plants love. If I am planting something that needs a more alkaline ph… I had a bit of lime. I dust plants with lime to keep bugs away naturally so I usually want it slightly acid knowing I am adding lime to dust in.

  2. laurie on April 17th, 2014 at 5:26 pm #

    you can bury meats and other items that you don’t necessarily want to have sit in a compost pile making it gross. My mom buried everything for 10 years at a house we lived in and by the end of that time the garden soil was black and rich. I prefer the multiple bin route that the 2nd commenter here uses because I’m container gardening now and burying things is a big hassle.

  3. RUFINA CUAN on October 7th, 2016 at 4:24 am #

    I’m interested in composting, so I’ll give a try using only the smallest pail.. to serve as pot when the compost aged.

  4. Jack on February 2nd, 2017 at 3:32 pm #

    At one point the article states to not recycle office paper due to chlorine, and then the very next line states that it’s best to recycle office paper. I think the first “recycle” was meant to read “compost”.

    • E. Vinje on February 3rd, 2017 at 7:23 am #

      Nice catch Jack! Thanks for pointing it out!

    • Rusty Brown in Canada on August 22nd, 2018 at 10:40 am #

      Seems to me that any tiny trace of chlorine released in the compost pile would be immediately converted to sodium chloride or calcium chloride or magnesium chloride etc… by combining with these elements. Those are just simple and harmless salts in absolutely miniscule quantities. A total non-issue, apparently.

  5. Paul on July 15th, 2017 at 3:37 pm #

    I enjoy composting “made” items into soil, returning them all to the good earth. When our daughter was teaching gardening to high school and middle school students she was proud to tell them about her parents composting old and worn out clothing. They wondered about that until she explained that cotton and wool decomposed slowly eventually becoming soil. No sense wasting ratty robes, blue jeans, t-shirts and even underwear (cut off the spandex because there is miles of that stuff in waistbands). We also compost bits of meat and fat and also bones despite what naysayers insist. Bury them deep or put them in the bottom of a new compost pile. They will decompose. In forty years we have never had a bug or rodent problem.

    Another means of composting in a way is when making new garden bed. Instead of digging out grass we put layers of old cotton sheets over the grass and putting garden soil over the sheets. The sheets and grass will compost by the time planting season arrives and the soil will be friable. It works.

    Cardboard we use for temporary paths. It takes months for it to decompose. Eventually we cover those paths with fir bark chips.
    Life is good.

    • Grant Hawkins on April 16th, 2018 at 5:33 pm #

      Love the “Life is good” at the end.

  6. Alistair on October 3rd, 2017 at 6:41 pm #

    Hi in Bangkok l have a planter box garden about the size of two coffins. ln the middle is compost section about the size of a bar fridge. Its full of big Asian worms.
    I had a lot of office paper to throw out and l was afraid of the chemicals so l soaked it in water for a few days – rinsing off every now and then. I’ll put it in bit by bit.

    Regards Al

  7. djfoef on February 26th, 2018 at 11:03 am #

    Are worms hurt by rotating compost bins?

    • Grant on April 16th, 2018 at 5:35 pm #

      I don’t know for sure, but I’m sure a couple are injured or killed in the process, but turning improves the health of your pile and the availability of bacteria for the worms to eat – probably a net gain for the worm colony.

  8. gerry c on August 7th, 2018 at 8:43 pm #

    As I’m very limited on space i use a small compost tumbler and 2 static bins. I add egg cartons, office paper and any none shiny and not too colorful newspapers/junkmail. Like most I have way more green than browns available here in the outer suburbs. Most of my brown content is paper, garden trimmings and stored leaves from Autumn/Fall.

    I keep the fresh compostables rolling in the tumbler until it loses most of it’s heat then place it in a static bin that needs filling making room for the next tumbler batch. The static bins are aerated daily (when I remember) with one of those spiral aerators. Works beautifully in the warmer months but very little production in winter.

    Thanks for some good information and whatever it is you do – Do the best you can!

  9. Paul on January 29th, 2019 at 1:48 pm #

    In California I bought this plastic compost cover thing with a swinging lid. I’m in Arizona now and wanted to compost. So far I just dug a hole in the ground and I’m throwing whatever in there, then use a shovel and mix everything around. I don’t get much newspaper, but the one page I did use seems to have disappeared within three days. My son is going to get me some leaves from work. I don’t have horses but the last owner did so on my land I plenty of manure. I haven’t used coffee grounds yet but I just read about ashes. So far the only question I have is, instead of having some containing thing for the compost, anything wrong with using just the ground?

    • PiBMF on May 20th, 2019 at 2:43 pm #

      I used to use a structure to contain my compost but found it inhibited turning and took it down. My pile has just been on the ground for several years now and does just fine. The edges get a little dry as the pile spreads but that can be handled by turning with some frequency.

    • Elizabeth Ann Morales on June 13th, 2019 at 6:29 pm #

      I read somewhere that composting on the ground allows worms to come in and help the process along. I got rid of my tumbler because it wasn’t big enough and just switched over to composting on the ground about 3 weeks ago. So far, so good. I’ve turned it 3x. I think it works faster/better to cover the top of it. And I also just read that peeing (I know, gross) helps speed up the process.

  10. Bob on April 9th, 2019 at 9:48 pm #

    Compositing newsprint and cardboard in a worm farm is recommended. The manufacturers of the farms recommend it.

  11. Robert on May 3rd, 2019 at 12:19 pm #

    I normally use the reusable grocery bags, but when I forget to bring them along (more often than not) I ask for the paper bags. I run those over with the lawn mower and compost them. They’re a really good source of “brown” and works great.

  12. Thomas Cappiello on May 18th, 2019 at 9:40 am #

    There’s probably more chlorine in treated water than newpaper.

  13. Chris on May 19th, 2019 at 2:58 am #

    I have started putting unwanted cardboard boxes behind my compost bins. The bins are made of open wooden slats and vulnerable to weeds from the adjacent bank invading the compost. The cardboard gently rots but in the meanwhile acts as a barrier to the weeds. Also, when a bin looks like temporarily over-flowing (eg, with a pile of new grass cuttings) I pull out one of the most recent boxes and use it to build some temporary extra capacity into the top of a bin.

  14. Chuck Parker on June 4th, 2019 at 8:52 pm #

    Can you help us determine how long it takes for snap-coated or plastic coats magazine ad pages, flyers and brochures to biodegrade?
    Thank you

    • Jac on August 30th, 2019 at 10:54 am #

      Plastics vary between 25 and 1500 years.
      Wax coated papers usually go within a year.
      Glass does not.

  15. Andy Newbould on July 6th, 2019 at 2:01 pm #

    I’d been looking around trying to find an answer to the “white paper” debate (also referred to as office paper here. Having shredded personal documents, bank statements etc. i had been putting the shreddings into our green (compostable) waste bin until the local council informed me I should put this in with general re-cycling but now they’ve changed their mind again.

    I’d always avoided adding white paper to my compost bins due to the chlorine content, I also run a small wormery & the advice with that definitely said to use brown paper & card due to the bleach in white paper.

    Having read much of the advice & thought about this some more I think I conclude it probably depends if you are hot or cold composting. I suspect if you are putting together a good quantity of green material & starting a hot process then probably the chlorine in white paper will just react with other elements as suggested by 1 of the contributors here. For a cold process where you add a little material at a time & are probably relying on worms to help the process then the chlorine may be a problem killing or deterring the worms meaning the process will take longer
    Just a theory.

  16. Joanne Nakaya on August 28th, 2019 at 1:54 pm #

    I have been composting for about four years. I live in the desert. I used leftover cement blocks for the sides and back and it’s on the ground next to a chain link fence and a cement block wall. I turn it about once a month. It’s been slow but I know have a 5′ x 5′ pile of rich black compost. I compost veggies, leaves, garden leftovers, paper, eggs, coffee grounds. I’m going to add ash when it gets cold. I’m now adding lint.

  17. Susan on February 5th, 2020 at 9:57 pm #

    If you are wondering about how things “compost” or disintegrate in your area, just toss a banana peel and other “green” items under different bushes at your house. See how long it takes for them to “disappear” into the ground or look like the surrounding mulch/leaves/dirt. If you have a bush that looks a little “peaked”, dig a hole beside it and toss your lettuce leaves, coffee grounds, apple peels, etc., into it for a week. Then cover the hole and see if your bush looks better in a month. “Not sending green stuff to the landfill” doesn’t have to be complicated. The worms will help you out!

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