Is paper biodegradable? Can it be composted?

  • Date: May 14, 2022

Although many of us have attempted to reduce our paper use, or even go fully paper-less, the human race still use extraordinary amounts of paper! From junk mail to confidential shredded waste, paper is still everywhere. The environment is harmed when the paper is being produced, but also it means we have an absurd amount of paper-related waste too. But will it last forever in landfill like many other materials? Or is paper biodegradable? Yes, but it’s a bit more complicated than that! Lets take a closer look…

Is paper biodegradable?

A material is deemed to be biodegradable if it can be broken down naturally by micro-organisms. Paper is biodegradable. Different types of paper will take different lengths of time to decompose naturally, however, most paper will have biodegraded in a couple of months. If, worst-case-scenario, it ends up landfill it will not be there for decades – unlike lots of synthetic materials.

Can paper be composted?

It is a common misconception that if an item is biodegradable, it automatically qualifies to be added to the compost pile. This is not the case, unfortunately. For an item to be compostable it must contribute positively to a nutrient-rich compost. In addition, items that it contains chemicals will cause harm to your garden must be avoided.  

Compostable materials generally fit into two distinct categories. ‘Brown’ materials are carbon-rich, whilst ‘green’ materials are nitrogen-rich. Although paper is not the most nutrient-rich material out there, it contributes to the ‘brown’ carbon-rich component. Any experienced composter will tell you that having a good mixture of ‘browns’ and ‘greens’ is vitally important to maintain a healthy compost pile. It will ensure that the microbes can do their thing – and help you avoid ant-infestations, a smelly pile or even spontaneous combustion…

Different ratios are suggested depending on what source you look at. We suggest a simple 1:1 ratio of ‘brown’ to ‘green’ parts. Simple to manage and no complicated ratios to calculate! You may need to tweak things as you go along, composting is not an exact science – but you should be on the right track with a 1:1 ratio. If you are new to the composting world, check out some basic beginner questions here

Some considerations for paper composting…

All paper is not created equally, which add some complications to composting process! Some paper is covered in chemical-laden inks whilst others are less-processed. Many sources suggest that you should avoid adding glossy paper – magazines, takeaway menus and suchlike. The ‘shiny’ effect is often created with synthetic substances that you don’t want to contaminate the pile. Ultimately, it is your decision. However, with the option of recycling available for paper we know what option we would use! With paper, you are spoilt for choice – there really is no reason to send it to landfill.

It is important that you cut your paper into smaller pieces before adding it to the pile. An electric shredder is great but if you don’t have one, cutting it by hand will work well too. Shredded paper will help create gaps that all for better air flow. This allows oxygen to circulate which, in turn, helps the microbes work optimally and prevents a foul-smelling heap.

The bottom line

Paper is biodegradable and can be composted. Be mindful of the type of paper though, chemical-laden glossy paper may do your garden more harm than good. Although composting is a great way to divert your paper from landfill, recycling it is slightly more planet-friendly way to dispose of it. Recycling it ultimately means that less trees need to be cut down. Although the process of recycling does require energy and causes greenhouse gas emissions, it is less harmful for the environment than producing brand new paper.