Paper and cardboard are the largest components of household waste, making up 23% of the rubbish that gets thrown away by individuals.
Paper can be recycled, but keen zero-wasters might also have a home compost, which cuts out the energy costs involved in recycling and generates a useful product for the garden.
With so many different types of paper products in our daily lives, many composters ask – is paper compostable?
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Why should you compost paper?
Recycling paper is undoubtedly a better option than sending it to landfill, where it contributes to methane production, a potent greenhouse gas. Although recycling rates in the US have increased to around 68%, one of the highest rates for any material, paper makes up around 12% of all landfill waste.
Using recycled paper is also better for the environment than virgin paper. Per ton, it saves around 7,000 gallons of water, one ton of CO2 equivalents, and 24 trees, not to mention the chemicals used in the bleaching process. But the recycling process is not impact-free.
The process for recycling paper still requires energy to collect, transport, sort, pulp, de-ink, and press into new sheets. It also results in an ‘inky sludge’ waste product containing the ink, clay, and any other coatings on the paper, presenting a disposal problem.
Composting paper products, on the other hand, does not use any energy, very little water, and produces zero waste.
As an added bonus, the carbon in paper is actually beneficial to the compost that is eventually produced. Adding paper to compost contributes to the ‘brown’ material, which should ideally make up about half of what goes into your compost pile, to make the breakdown process as fast as possible and ensure you end up with a good nutrient balance for your garden.
Understanding how to compost paper is fairly simple. Make sure you only add compostable paper products, make the paper as small as possible, regularly turn the compost pile to ensure oxygen flow, and keep it moist.
What Kind of Paper Can be Composted?
Composting paper is a fantastic way to dispose of it relatively quickly and sustainably. But exactly how to compost paper depends on the type (and sometimes the amount) of paper products you’re looking at composting.
Remember, to achieve healthy compost, you need to have a mix of brown waste (which includes paper), and green waste (vegetables, fruits, grass, etc). So don’t go too heavy on the paper composting.
Can egg cartons be composted?
You can compost egg cartons that are made from cardboard, even if there is a little egg on them from an accidental crack. Composting paper egg cartons is the same as composting paper, but because it is thicker, rip up the cartons into smaller pieces to speed up the process.
Egg cartons that have been contaminated with cracked eggs should not be recycled, as it interferes with the recycling process and can even contaminate whole batches. This is the same with any recycled products – they should be free of any food or grease – whereas the composting process can handle this organic residue. Large amounts of meat or dairy should be avoided as it can create a smell and attract pests, but your paper products don’t have to be completely clean for composting.
Some egg cartons are made from plastic or polystyrene, which cannot be composted. Some plastic might be able to be recycled, but styrofoam products will need to be sent to landfill. The best way to deal with these products is to avoid them in the first place, and try to buy eggs that are sold in cardboard, or take your own egg tray to the farmer’s market!
Can you compost shredded paper?
Shredded paper can be composted, and in fact, because it has already been cut up into small pieces, it will degrade even quicker than other kinds of paper waste. Any sensitive information is also truly destroyed.
Effective composting also needs oxygen throughout the mixture, to prevent anaerobic breakdown (this is what happens in landfills), which produces methane – a stinky and harmful greenhouse gas. The aerated structure of shredded paper is a great aid in making sure that your compost contains plenty of air pockets, as well as regularly turning the pile.
Can you compost newspaper?
Newspapers can be added to your compost, but make sure you don’t add them as one big wad which will restrict oxygen flow. Shred, tear up, or scrunch up newspapers before they go into your compost bin.
Is toilet paper compostable?
Toilet paper itself is compostable, but it depends on what it was used for as to whether you should put it into your compost.
Any kind of toilet paper can be composted, but pests and unwanted bacteria can be a problem with any residue left on the paper. Urine is okay, but anything used for other bodily output needs to be flushed or disposed of in a special composting toilet. You should also avoid composting toilet paper that has been used with any chemicals, such as those found in traditional cleaning or beauty products.
Toilet paper is made from very short fibers and tears easily. When it enters the sewage system, it forms a thin sludge that can pass through pipes, and eventually ends up in the same tanks as the rest of the waste where it breaks down.
Is butcher paper compostable?
Traditional butcher paper is compostable, but you need to watch out for plastic, oil, or wax-coated paper.
Composting brown paper is usually preferable to composting white paper, as it doesn’t contain the same chemicals that are used in the bleaching process. These chemicals won’t prevent composting, but some people might not want to use them in their garden afterward.
Butcher paper is a great material to use around the home if you are trying to cut down on your waste. It can be used to wrap food, flowers, and even as a minimalist style of gift wrapping paper! Some products are lined with plastic, however, which will contaminate your entire compost pile, and some are lined with oil or wax which will prevent breakdown.
Check the labels for the composition of any products that you buy, particularly for food items, and try to buy butcher paper as simple rolls that you can then cut up for use.
A handy trick to test whether the butcher paper has a coating is to tear off a corner and put it into some water. When the paper part breaks down, you will be able to see if there is any leftover plastic or oily residue.
Can you compost paper plates?
Paper plates are another product that can be composted, even if they have a bit of food residue on them, but you need to watch out for plates that are coated with plastic or wax. Rip up the plates to make sure that the airflow to your compost pile is maintained.
When purchasing paper plates, look out for products that contain 100% paper, or another type of material like sugarcane, palm leaf, or bamboo. Plates that have been lined with plastic are not compostable, and wax-lined plates will compost very slowly.
Composting is a great option for used paper plates, as once they have been contaminated with food waste or grease they can no longer be recycled.
Or better yet, do away with paper plates altogether, and use something like these reusable plates made from sugarcane.
Are toilet paper rolls compostable?
Toilet rolls are compostable as they are made from cardboard. However, they do contain a small amount of glue to hold them together and also to stick the last couple of sheets onto the roll.
The tiny amount of glue will not affect the composting process itself, but you might not want to introduce it into your compost if you are going for an organic product or intend to use the compost on edibles. Some eco-friendly toilet paper companies use starch-based glues for their toilet rolls, a natural glue that is fine to add to any compost, but often you will need to contact them to check as it is not usually labeled.
Is kitchen roll compostable?
Kitchen roll itself is compostable, but similar to toilet paper, it depends on what it was used for as to whether you can add it to your compost pile.
Kitchen roll that has been used with chemical cleaning agents should not go into the compost and avoid any kitchen roll that was used to mop up large amounts of oil or grease. The bacteria that break down your compost find it hard to deal with too much greasy material, and it can end up sticking together in a hydrophobic lump.
Can you compost printer paper/paper with ink?
Inks used in modern printing processes are all non-toxic. However, if you are using your compost for edibles, you might prefer to avoid certain types of heavily printed material. Packaging that is certified as compostable also includes the inks used for printing, such as those used on zero waste tea bags.
Many inks are water-soluble or vegetable oil-based, but even mineral and petroleum-based inks will compost. If you are aiming for organic compost, however, or intend to use it on vegetables, you might want to recycle heavily printed products instead.
Most glossy paper products are made with clay or resins, which are also okay to compost, although some are also coated with plastic, which makes them unsuitable. This includes receipts, which are usually treated with bisphenol A (BPA) plastic, which will not compost.
Are paper napkins compostable?
Paper napkins are compostable, as long as they haven’t been used to clean something too oily or been used with chemicals. You might also want to avoid heavily printed napkins although the ink won’t interfere with the composting process itself.
Composting is a great option for paper napkins because they cannot be recycled. Because they are used for cleaning things, they are often contaminated, but even clean napkins will get jammed in the sorting mechanisms at recycling plants.
Can cereal boxes be composted?
Cereal boxes can be composted but they tend to be a heavily printed product and, depending on your preferences, you might not want to include them in your pile.
Alternatively, cereal boxes can be recycled, or you could try purchasing cereal from bulk food stores to cut out the container completely.
Related reading: How to compost pizza boxes
Is parchment paper compostable? (Greaseproof / Waxed / Baking paper)
Most parchment paper is not compostable. Many products are made greaseproof by using a silicone coating that will not degrade, or a wax coating that is difficult for bacteria in the compost to break down.
Waxed paper is also non-recyclable if it has food or grease on it. A good alternative is reusable, silicone baking sheets. You could also try using butter to grease butcher’s paper, but it isn’t quite as non-stick as commercially available products and you need to be careful not to overdo it in order for it to remain compostable.
Baking paper is a better alternative to aluminum foil, which is energy-intensive to produce. Although it is easily recyclable, after use in the kitchen it is often contaminated and in sheets that are too small to be sorted.
Can you compost wrapping paper?
Technically, you can compost wrapping paper, but because it is so highly glossed and printed, you probably do not want to.
Wrapping paper can be recycled instead of composting, even if it has sticky tape attached as this is separated out during the pulping process. You can also look for some alternatives – perhaps reusable cotton bags, or butcher’s paper tied with string for a nostalgic, minimalist look? Even fabric scraps can make wonderful wrapping paper. And recycled paper decorations, like origami folded stars, can add a celebratory feel without adding to landfill waste.
Can you compost magazines?
Magazines are highly inked and glossy, but also tend to use some kind of plastic on the cover which makes them unsuitable for composting. As they can easily be recycled, magazines should be avoided in the compost heap.
Alternatively, see if your used magazines can be used by your local library, or in your doctors’ waiting room instead.
Composting is a great way to reduce your waste and sustainably dispose of many paper products that cannot be recycled, or that take a lot of energy to be recycled.
Composting is zero waste, zero energy and you end up with a useful product to go back to the garden at the end.