I have said it before and I will say it again, I LOVE composting. And why wouldn’t I? It’s the environment's best friend! But more and more I am being asked by my friends and family, “can I compost paper?”. Paper is so prevalent in our everyday life, from newspaper to tissue paper, to paper plates and cups… it’s everywhere. When not properly disposed of, it wreaks havoc on the environment. In the USA, we throw out A LOT of paper a year…in fact, the paper makes up 26% of ALL landfill waste! Yikes.
All of this is to say, knowing how to compost paper properly can make a huge difference and put you on the right path on your zero-waste journey.
So, you want to compost paper, here’s what you need to know!
First and foremost, what is compost? Compost is a nutrient-rich mixture of decomposed organic matter. This mixture is sometimes referred to as humus (and no, not the kind you eat)! Compost can be used to enrich the soil with nutrients, and it does a fantastic job at this. In fact, there are BILLIONS of microorganisms per one gram of compost.
So, why do I love composting so much? Composting is great for the environment! By composting leftover paper waste from your kitchen, office, and bathroom, you are helping divert waste that would have otherwise gone to a landfill. You are also helping to conserve water, reduce the need for chemical and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, help with soil drainage, and so much more!
Second, composting at home is easy! In recent years, there have been many advancements in sustainable technology making it easy for us to compost from almost anywhere, and at any time of the year (even in the winter). If you are composting in a small space like an apartment, for example, you should really try vermicomposting. Vermicomposting bins tend to be less smelly because they use worms to break down the organic materials and are low maintenance for those who are just getting started with composting.
Finally, composting can help save you money! If you are growing a home veggie garden, adding compost to your soil can help give it that extra boost you need to grow healthy, nutritious veggies. And by making your own compost, you no longer need to buy it from the store. Double bonus!
What types of paper can be composted?
Before we talk about what kinds of paper can be composted, we first must understand the difference between green matter and brown matter. Green matter is nitrogen-rich waste, normally made of fresh and wet materials, like coffee grounds, freezer burnt veggies, and spoiled food. Brown matter on the other hand, is your carbon-rich waste that is typically dry and hard, like dead leaves, broken eggshells, and PAPER! You want to try to have a 2:1 ratio of green to brown matter if you are composting at home.
While paper is a great brown matter option to add to your compost bin, not all paper is compostable! Before we dive into your go-to list of what kind of paper is compostable (and what is not), let’s answer some of the most common questions surrounding composting paper.
Are paper products biodegradable or compostable?
Contrary to popular belief, biodegradable and compostable mean two different things.
Generally speaking, “compostable” means an item can be broken down with the presence of microorganisms or worms and oxygen. While “biodegradable” means that an item can break down with or without oxygen. Biodegradable items might not produce nutrient-rich compost at the end of their lifecycle. This is because when an item biodegrades, all the unwanted by-products that make up that item will also break down and persist in the soil, and ultimately pollute our landfills.
With this being said, the paper will eventually biodegrade, but might not always be compostable. So, if you are buying paper-based items labeled “biodegradable”, hoping to add them to your compost bin, I would suggest you continue reading just to double check!
So, now that we have an idea of what kind of paper we can and can’t compost, let’s look at some examples!
Compostable paper from the kitchen
You'd be surprised to know how much paper we actually use in the kitchen, let's break it down, shall we?
Can you compost paper with food on it?
While this might seem a little silly (most food is compostable, right?), if you are vermicomposting, you might actually be upsetting your worms if you add paper products with non-compostable food residue on them to your bin. Common non-compostable foods include dairy, butter, animal fat, grease, condiments, citrus, onions, and garlic!
Are paper plates biodegradable or compostable?
Contrary to popular belief, biodegradable and compostable mean two different things. Generally speaking, compostable means an item can be broken down with the presence of microorganisms or worms and oxygen.
While biodegradable means that an item can break down with or without oxygen. Biodegradable items might not produce nutrient-rich compost at the end of their lifecycle. When an item biodegrades, all the unwanted by-products that make up that item will also break down and persist in the soil, and ultimately pollute our landfills.
With this being said, paper plates will eventually biodegrade, but might not be compostable.
So, if you are buying paper-based items labeled “biodegradable”, hoping to add them to your compost bin, I would suggest you continue reading just to double check!
Can you compost paper plates?
Ah, paper plates… these can be so confusing to compost! While paper plates might seem like an easy compost-friendly choice, they are often actually not compostable. There are two main reasons for this. During production, paper plates are often bleached with chlorine compounds, this step doesn’t really serve many purposes beyond giving paper plates a clean, bright appearance. They are also often coated in wax or plastic, preventing the plate from soaking up grease or food oils.
Albeit effective, these steps prevent paper plates from being fully compostable. Instead, I would recommend only purchasing plates that are labeled "PLA", "plastic-free", and "compostable" if you choose to go that route. If you compost paper plates, I also suggest breaking them up into smaller sections to speed up the decomposition process.
Can you compost egg cartons?
Egg cartons are fine to compost as long as you shred or cut them up first, otherwise, they might take a longer time to decompose. If the egg carton has been contaminated with cracked eggs, I would also avoid composting the carton. Since eggs are a dairy product and cannot be composted, this might interfere with the microorganisms in your compost bin. If you are interested, check out my other tips and trips for sustainable egg buying!
Can you compost parchment paper?
You can compost parchment paper as long as it has no food oils on it and is unwaxed. I always try to buy non-glossy, unwaxed parchment paper that hasn’t been printed with a metallic foil so I can compost it afterward when I am cooking zero waste meals.
Can you compost butcher paper?
Like parchment paper, avoid composting butcher paper that has been coated with plastic, oil, or wax! While these additions are helpful to keep the paper intact, they will not decompose properly in your compost bin.
Can you compost pizza or cereal boxes?
If the paper has food residue on it, there is a good chance you cannot compost it. While this might seem a little silly (most food is compostable, right?) if you are vermicomposting you might actually be upsetting your worms if you add paper products with non-compostable food residue on them to your bin. Common non-compostable foods include dairy, butter, animal fat, grease, condiments, citrus, onions, and garlic! Cereal and pizza boxes should also be unbleached, unwaxed, and cut up into smaller pieces before composting.
Can you compost paper towels?
Yes! Paper towel rolls are a great brown item to add to your compost bin. Like egg cartons, shred them or cut them up first to speed up the decomposition process.
Can you compost paper napkins?
Paper napkins (and paper towels) are safe to compost as long as they are unbleached! By the way, reusable paper towels are the way to go.
Other things from the kitchen that are safe to compost include:
- Shredded paper (unbleached)
- Shredded brown bags (uncoated)
- Used paper coffee filters
Uncompostable Papers from Kitchen
- Brown bags or paper bags that have been coated (try using a compostable trash bag since they aren’t always recyclable)
- Coated cups, juice boxes, and milk cartons
- Coated takeaway coffee cups
Compostable paper from the office
Paper we use in the office comes in all shapes and sizes, but do you actually know what you can compost from the office?
Can you compost newspapers?
Uncoated newspaper is okay to compost and will be a valuable source of carbon in your compost bin! Be sure to check that the newspaper is untreated and doesn't have any glossy inserts or plastic coatings on it before adding it to your compost pile.
Can you compost paper with ink on it?
Shredded, unbleached paper is generally okay to compost. But like bleach, inks can sometimes be toxic and you should try and recycle this kind of paper instead. However, there are some exceptions to this rule (like newspapers).
Can you compost wrapping paper?
Wrapping paper is safe to compost as long as it's uncoated (so no Christmas glitter or foil please) and cut into smaller pieces. Used tissue paper can be composted, too!
Can you compost magazines?
Magazines are a good example of treated or glossy paper. These are a no-no for your compost bin! Magazines also contain inks that are potentially toxic and will release chemicals then the magazines break down in your soi
Can you compost glossy, wax, or coated paper?
Paper that has been coated with plastic, oil, or wax cannot be added to your compost bin. Receipt paper is a good illustration of this; this kind of paper is often treated with bisphenol A (BPA). BPA is typically used to make plastic and glossy paper products and this won’t decompose properly in your compost bin. If you have the option, always try and buy the non-glossy or untreated version of your paper product
Other items from the office that you CAN compost include:
- Paper envelopes (remove the plastic window)
- Cut up cardboard boxes (uncoated)
- Sticky notes
Uncompostable Papers from the office
- Coated receipts
Compostable paper from the bathroom
Paper products like toilet paper typically come from virgin forests which is the main driver for deforestation! It's why choosing eco-friendly toiler paper is key!
Can you compost toilet paper?
Used toilet paper (FYI: try and aim for the eco-friendly version) is okay to add to your compost bin. It also depends on what you used the toilet paper for… As a general rule, if your toilet paper has anything other than urine on it, it cannot be composted.
Can you compost cardboard rolls from toilet paper?
Toilet paper rolls cut up into smaller sections are also another great brown item to compost. Before you add these to your compost pile though, there are tons of great ways to reuse these around your home (like making seedling pots).
Other items from the bathroom you CAN compost include:
- Unused cardboard tampon applicators (blood can contain pathogens that would be transferred to your compost… although this is up for debate)
Uncompostable Papers from the office
- Used cardboard Tampon applicators
- Baby wipes
How long does it take for paper to decompose?
There are many different factors that might affect how long paper takes to decompose. If you are composting at home, this might include how well your compost bin is working, and the composting method you have chosen.
There are also things you can do to speed up the decomposition process, like breaking up paper into smaller pieces before adding it to your bin. Keeping a good moisture balance in your compost bin, mixing worm tea into your compost mixture, as well as maintaining the right mix of green and brown materials might also help to speed up the process. And if you are composting using microorganisms instead of worms, remember to move your compost around regularly!
A final word on composting paper products
Coming full circle here, when my friends and family ask, “can I compost paper?” I tell them yes, they can…IF (and only if) the paper has no food residue or ink, is uncoated, and is unbleached. I realize this now excludes a huge amount of the paper out there, but don’t worry! There are oftentimes compostable versions of the most common paper we buy already out there on the market. And if you cannot compost your paper, always opt for the next best option, recycling! Good luck!