Supercharge your backyard composting, relieve pressure on the recycling industry, eliminate stinky compost problems, and get some serious eco-friendly karma points by diverting some of your junk mail to compost.
At Recycled & Renewed, we love recycling but we also love composting. Whereas 60-70% of paper and cardboard gets recycled (a pretty high number relative to other materials), I know for a fact that 100% of the paper I put in my compost stays out of a landfill (more on the environmental pros and cons below).
HELP! MY COMPOST SMELLS LIKE POOP
Do you know that the optimal ratio of “brown” (carbon rich) to “green” (nitrogen rich) materials for your compost bin is 30 to 1? That is by WEIGHT!
That means you have to balance all those heavy pails of vegetable scraps with 30 times more shredded paper, cardboard, sawdust, or something similar.
Otherwise you get the dreaded stinky, slimy, disgusting compost.
WHERE DO I GET CARBON SOURCES FOR MY COMPOST?
If you happen to be a carpenter with ready access to an unlimited source of sawdust or you live on a farm with piles of straw sitting around, you can stop reading here. Otherwise, where the heck do you get 30 times more carbon sources for your compost?
The most practical option is the constant stream of pointless mailings shoved into your mailbox, the piles of Amazon boxes clogging up your recycling bin, or that Sunday newspaper that you are too busy to read.
Paper is super rich in carbon, weighing in at a 200 to 1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen. But the heavy weight is cardboard, coming in at a hefty 560 to 1 ratio, a veritable George Foreman of the compost circuit (that’s boxing lingo, I think).
Another option are leaves in the fall. But you need to shred them first or you get an anaerobic compost pile once those big ole’ leaves get a little wet. They will mat down your pile as if you threw a heavy wet blanket on that rocking microorganism party in your bin – don’t be a wet blanket and ruin the party.
But how do you shred a bunch of dirty leaves? I’m sure there are ways, but are they practical? I think not.
HOW TO COMPOST MAIL?
Composting is a great answer to the question of what to do with all that junk mail (make sure you stay away from glossy inks, see below). You basically have two choices for composting your mail. We recommend buying a shredder. The other, much more time-consuming option is ripping up the paper with your hands.
Things to consider when choosing a shredder:
- You need a micro-cut shredder. Crosscut shredders, which makes little strips of paper, will get matted down when wet and cause problems in your compost pile.
- Try to max out on the number of pages you can shred at once without breaking the bank (large capacity shredders are really expensive)
The micro-cut shredder we recommend balances maxing out capacity (12 pages at a time) so you can shred cardboard but at a reasonable price.
For years we ripped up paper and thin cardboard by hand. Not a bad workout if you want to build hand strength and have nice muscular hands (I’m kidding, unless you are a hand model), but this is so much faster and easier.
Also, it has really supercharged the breakdown cycle of our compost pile. If your house is anything like ours, you have plenty of “greens” (food scraps and such) but less “browns” for your compost. The shredder approach really keeps your compost pile more balanced.
CAN I COMPOST CARDBOARD?
The reason you want to max out on the number of pages you can shred when you buy a shredder is the larger capacity shredders are good for composting cardboard. Larger capacity shredders have larger “mouths” that can fit pieces of cardboard.
Based on my research, I’d suggest buying some oil (here is a link to the kind we bought from Amazon) and using it frequently for composting cardboard. Shredding thick corrugated cardboard boxes continuously could wear your shredder out.
Based on our experience, I recommend shredding thinner cardboard to add to your compost pile and keep the thicker cardboard mostly to the recycling bin (I think occasional thick cardboard is fine, but boxes and boxes might be too much).
CAN YOU COMPOST PAPER WITH INK?
Based on my research, there are some precautions to take when composting your junk mail, cardboard, and other paper with printing on it.
Some high glossy mail and magazines have ink in them that contain ingredients you don’t want in your soil, such as metals. I suggest avoiding those and putting them in your recycling bin.
However, your mail that is printed on regular office paper is fine for composting. All those bank statements, credit card statements, charity solicitations, etc., can be shredded and put in your compost. Newspapers are fine since they are now generally printed with soy-based inks.
COMPOST VS. LANDFILL – WHAT IS BETTER FOR THE EARTH?
This is a tricky question but let’s get some of the less convoluted versions of this question out of the way.
When it comes to paper that you are going to shred anyway – bank statements, credit card statements, anything with sensitive information – composting it is best. Most recycling programs do not accept recycled paper.
Shredding paper actually degrades its integrity, making it harder to recycle. My guess is a micro-cut shredder like the one we recommend makes the paper even less suitable for recycling.
Now what about diverting recyclable paper from the recycling stream and into your compost? This question is less clear. Based on my research it seems to be an open question, I could not find a scientifically backed-up article that actually compares the two.
THE CASE FOR RECYCLING PAPER
On the recycling side of the argument, recycling paper definitely saves energy, saves water, and reduces greenhouse emissions. Recycling one ton of paper saves enough energy to power the average home for six months and 7,000 gallons of water (that would fill up my 50 gallon rain barrel every day for around five months!)
When paper is placed in landfills, it produces methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas up to 34 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.
According to the EPA, paper is the largest (in terms of weight but excluding steel) type of material being recycled in the US. In terms of the percent of paper that actually gets recycled is relatively high (when compared to other materials like plastic). Sixty to seventy percent of paper entering the recycling stream is recycled.
THE CASE FOR COMPOSTING YOUR JUNK MAIL, CARDBOARD, AND NEWSPAPER
However, as obvious from the percentage above, not all the paper you place in your recycling bin is recycled. Since the trade war with China and their refusal to take our trash (can you blame them?), the recycling system has been flooded with recyclable material, including paper. I don’t have any evidence but I assume that has lowered the amount of paper actually getting recycled.
There is one thing you can be sure of when you shred your junk mail, cardboard, and newspaper and stick it in your compost – it is not going to a landfill.
In fact, it is not getting put on a pollution-spewing truck and driven dozens of miles, it isn’t getting dumped into a big pile and pushed around by large machines, driven up conveyor belts, sorted by large machines…I think you get the point. Composting the paper avoids all that processing energy (of course it saves energy once it is recycled though).
Also, according to the Sustainable Packaging Coalition demand for recycled fiber is generally believed to exceed supply. But it isn’t like people aren’t putting enough paper in their recycling bins. It is actually constrained by the number of mills available to process the recycled material.
The bottom-line is diverting a portion of your recyclable paper to the compost will likely not impact the recycling industry. If anything, putting my amateur economist hat on, constraining the supply a bit would potentially mean the balance between demand and supply would get even further unbalanced. I would think that would spur more investment in capacity to process paper for recycling as prices for this more and more scarce resource are driven up.
APPENDIX – KUDOS TO AMAZON FOR (NEARLY) ZERO WASTE PACKAGING
I wanted to note that Amazon, probably not the most sustainable company in the world, did a good job with this shredder. You all know that our site has a pet-peeve about unnecessary packaging waste, especially plastic waste.
This unit came with almost zero plastic (the tape may have had minimal plastic in it) and was fully recyclable or compostable. It was basically a cardboard box with two cardboard inserts, pictured below. Good job Jeff Bezoz, more of that approach would be very much appreciated here at Recycled & Renewed!
Do you have any thoughts on the environmental benefits of shredding junk mail to compost versus recycling it? Am I wrong about negative impacts of diverting paper to the compost and away from recycling?