Composting is only possible when you have organic materials that are biodegradable.
This means the materials you decide to put in your compost pile must be capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms to be decayed. Materials that come from plants and animals are examples of organic waste. These are biodegradable and can be decomposed in nature.
Most people associate organic materials with food waste because it’s derived from a living thing and associate inorganic waste with something that is purely man-made.
Paper is a manmade material but is derived from living entities (trees) and is therefore classified as organic material. Paper is biodegradable and can be decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms.
However, there are exceptions to the rule. Some paper should not be composted because it might contain toxic heavy metals and high foil content that doesn’t decompose.
Is all paper compostable?
Paper is derived from plants, which means it is compostable.
It is a carbon-based material that has become an integral part of most people’s composting setup at home. Tear your cardboard into small pieces, chuck it in a compost pile together with food scraps and soil and you’re able to decompose it.
However, some people in the composting community suggest that glossy, waxed, and printed paper should not be composted.
For the longest time – inks, glues, and glosses used by cardboard manufacturers weren’t water-made and eco-friendly. For that reason, glossy cardboard and printed newspapers posed the risk of leaking harmful chemicals back into the soil.
Nowadays with the growing environmental awareness – paper and printing manufacturers have been compelled to opt for more eco-friendly alternatives. In other words, most of the contemporary inks, glues, and glosses are water-based and also made from organic materials such as vegetable oil, soybean, and kaolin (a type of clay), which means they break down naturally just like other organic matter.
With that being said – it’s still possible that some manufacturers and printers may still be using petroleum-based ingredients to obtain certain hues.
Therefore, if you want to compost glossy or waxed cardboard and printer paper, you have to first figure out whatever they’re made from. It’s up to you to choose what kind of paper you compost, but if you want to be on the safe side, sticking to clean and untouched paper will give you peace of mind.
These are the most safe papers for composting:
- junk mail (without glossy paper)
- personal letters
- cardboard boxes (not printed)
- newspapers (they use water-based ink)
- memo paper and scrap paper
This is by no means a comprehensive list of all the various papers you can safely put in a compost pile as there are countless that can still be considered safe.
How to prepare paper for composting
The first thing you have to do before throwing paper into a compost pile is to remove the cellophane, acrylic, or silicone-based sticky tape or labels on it. These materials do not degrade with the rest of the compost.
Forgetting to remove sticky tapes will result in compost contamination from micro-plastics, greenhouse gases, and toxic chemicals leaching into the soil.
Secondly, it’s advised that you break down larger pieces of paper (or other organic waste) prior to placing them in the compost pile. By shredding or tearing paper into smaller pieces you can better supply the bacteria or living organisms with the oxygen they need to break down the organic matter.
Additionally, you also prevent the core temperature of the compost from rising which leads to a slow decomposition or may halt it entirely. You can measure the temperature of your compost pile using the Reotemp thermometer (link to Amazon) which is touted by composting experts to last a lifetime.
With that being said, shredding paper manually is tough, especially if you’re at a certain age or have developed medical conditions that limit repetitive movement. To significantly speed up the shredding process most people have an electric shredder like this one from Amazon to shred their cardboard into thin strips. This will spare you a lot of headaches in the future, we promise.
Don’t add too much paper to your compost
Too much paper in a compost pile is not a good idea. You must have a favorable carbon-to-nitrogen ratio for the waste to decompose. The ideal ratio is said to be 30 carbon to 1 nitrogen but you will find it varies based on the source.
If you find yourself in a situation where your pile is taking too long to decompose, it may be related to the fact it has excess carbon. To circumvent this problem just add nitrogen-rich material like kitchen scraps, grass clippings, or seaweed to the compost pile.
How to quickly compost paper
There are different ways in which you can compost paper, but we believe the one we are about to show you reduces the amount of time you have to wait before getting your hands on a natural, eco-friendly fertilizer.
Here’s how you can quickly compost paper:
- Start your compost pile with carbon
The first step is to start your compost pile or compost bin (this one from Amazon is highly affordable and keeps your garden tidy) and add a 4-inch layer of shredded paper or cardboard. Place it alongside other carbon-rich materials such as dead leaves, ash, or straw.
- Add moisture to the pile
Sprinkle your compost pile with water to make the carbon-rich (or brown) materials damp to create the right environment for the bacteria to break down organic matter. Keeping your compost moist also discourages rodents from invading your compost pile, although if you use a compost bin or tumbler, that won’t be an issue.
- Add nitrogen-rich materials
Add a 4-inch layer of nitrogen-rich materials (i.e: kitchen waste, grass clippings, seaweed) on top of the carbon-rich material. The nitrogen-rich matter is also referred to as “greens” in composting circles.
- Create more layers
Continue creating layers in the same order (carbon, nitrogen, carbon, nitrogen) until you’re at your last layer, which will be limited to how tall your bin is. Once that’s done, add a 2-inch layer of soil to the compost.
- Aerate your compost
Aerating your compost pile doesn’t have to be a tantamount of work, especially if you’re using a compost tumbler like the Miracle-Gro, a specially insulated bin that rotates the compost and keeps it aerated.
However, this type of compost equipment is expensive, so most people will want to use a pitchfork to turn the pile. Turn the compost 5 days after creating the initial pile to maintain an oxygen-rich environment in which the microbes can thrive. This will also prevent the compost from getting too warm, which would kill the microbes.
After this initial aeration, turn the pile every 7 to 14 days.
- Maintain the moisture
Once you aerate your pile, you have to verify whether or not it is dry. If that is the case, you have to dampen it until it becomes soft again. You can do so by using a watering can with rain or hose water. Rainwater is always the best option because it’s pH neutral and contains fewer trace chemicals like chlorine and fluoride.
When dampening your pile for the first time, you must check it every 3 to 7 days.
- Add more layers
Once you have more space available, you can continue adding more layers of carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich materials. If you start running out of space, you can always create a new compost pile and start the process all over again.
Should you compost or recycle paper?
Besides composting – recycling paper also seems to be an alternative that prevents sending waste to the landfill.
According to the composting experts at the Green Action Centre, recycling is regarded as a slightly better option than composting. One of the reasons is associated with the fact that we can reduce the number of trees that need to be harvested. Additionally, recycling paper also requires less energy, uses less water, and creates less air pollution than producing more paper from trees.
However, there are also occasions in which composting is the better alternative. Greasy pizza boxes cannot be recycled (due to the food waste on them), but they can be composted since they contain elements essential in composting (carbon and nitrogen).
There are also other soiled items like napkins or tissues that can’t be recycled and are better composted. Shredded paper is something that can be recycled but presents several challenges to recycling centers – unless you tie up your shredded paper bag before adding it to your recycling bin. However, if you have your paper down to small shreds, they can decompose quickly in a compost pile.
Finally, there are also other forms of paper such as glossy magazines and foil wrapping paper. While the use of eco-friendly inks or dyes is becoming widespread, some manufacturers or printing companies may still rely on options that are filled with heavy metals as well as other properties that may soil the compost and the soil.
Therefore, before you decide to recycle or compost the paper you have in your hands, you have to first figure out what’s best for you (as well as the environment).
Paper is a compostable material because it can biodegrade in nature.
However, before you toss the paper in a compost pile, you have to first understand if the paper is made with chemicals that would harm your compost.
In this article, I’ve included a shortlist of papers that are widely regarded as safe for composting and should give you an idea of what compostable paper looks like.
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