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Question of the Week



Permalink What are some guidelines for using paper in compost?

A.W.
Virginia

Answer: I am pleased to provide you with information on composting paper.

Paper is considered a good carbon source for compost and can be included in a compost pile. It is best to talk to the farmers who may be taking your paper to see how much they can take. This quantity will depend on how much nitrogen they have available for composting. By having a balance of nitrogen (green materials) and carbon (brown materials), compost piles generate high temperatures needed to create the compost. The carbon to nitrogen ration of compost required in organic production needs to have an initial C:N ratio of between 25:1 and 40:1.

There are some issues to be aware of before adding any paper to a compost pile. According to Jim McNelly, a composting specialist at NaturTech Composting Systems, Inc., the issues involving composting paper include (1):

1. Printed paper contains heavy metals, particularly colored inks.

Information states that since lead printing plates were banned over 25 years ago, that North American paper is free of lead. There may be some concerns about composting old books or paper from countries that still use lead printing plates. Heavy metals in inks are insignificant and are at virtually background levels, certainly far below the EPA 503 rules.

2. Inks are made from hydrocarbons which are a biohazard.

Composting is a technique of treating many hydrocarbons through bioremediation into benign products. Most hydrocarbons have volatilized off the paper long before the paper is composted anyway. Using soy inks promotes sustainable and renewable inks, but has little effect on the safety of paper used for composting.

3. Glossy paper such as magazines should be avoided

It is clay that makes paper glossy and clay is not a biohazard or contaminant to the soil in levels, up to 20%, found in magazines.

4. Chlorine and dioxins are a contaminant in paper

They are both found in all types of bleached paper. Chlorine is a concern
in the production of paper, not in the paper itself. Dioxins have been greatly reduced over the past decades and are in q-tips, napkins, feminine hygiene products, milk cartons, and virtually all bleached paper products. If the dioxin levels in paper, which are in the parts per trillions, are a concern for the soil, then we are at the point where we should be banning all paper products. It is not appropriate to single out composting as a carrier of dioxins. The real culprit with dioxins is incineration, not composting.

5. Paper is a non-renewable resource and should be recycled, not composted

This is the argument of the Environmental Defense Fund which is countered by the position of the Composting Council in 1993 which states clearly that composting is recycling. Recycling paper should occur where it is economically feasible and composting paper should occur where it is economically feasible. Neither is better than the other.

In addition to the issues pointed out above, I would like to add that there are some issues related to composting envelopes. Envelopes contain glue for sealing and some contain plastic. It may be best to avoid envelopes from composting. For more information on composting, visit the U.S. Composting Council web site at: http://www.compostingcouncil.org.

References:

(1) McNelly, Jim. 2000. Safety in Composting Paper. U.S. Composting Council.

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