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Because You Asked

When Should I Compost Paper Instead of Recycling It? 5

By Recyclebank |

Can paper only be recycled seven times? Generally yes, but the story’s a bit more complex than that. Get the facts on smart paper disposal choices.

Updated On 06/26/2018 | Originally Published On 08/16/2016

Dear Recyclebank: I recycle and compost everything I can, but paper is always a question. I know it can only be recycled about 7 times, so how can I tell when it is greener to compost it? –Lisa

Dear Lisa:
Don’t let the “7 times” statistic (the EPA actually puts the figure at between five and seven times) dissuade you from recycling some paper. Instead, think of it as a reminder that paper isn’t infinitely recyclable, and we should use it as smartly as possible.

A piece of paper’s structural integrity, and thus its ability to be recycled, depend heavily on the length of its fibers. As paper is shredded, pulped, and processed during recycling, its fibers get shorter and less flexible — so when new paper is made from recycled paper fibers, some amount of virgin wood pulp is often added in order to help reinforce the material’s strength.

As paper fibers are recycled more times, they become less useful for certain purposes. The high-quality office paper you might use in your printer requires the strength and flexibility of longer fibers, meaning it usually has to be made from paper fibers that have only undergone the recycling process a few times. Items like newsprint, tissue paper, wrapping paper, and pressed cardboard can more easily be produced from lower-quality fibers that have been through several recycled lives already.

Any paper your hauler accepts still has long enough fibers to be a valuable recyclable.

Unaccepted papers could be denied for a number of reasons, including (but not limited to) low-quality fibers. If unaccepted papers are compostable, that is a much more valuable way to dispose of them than throwing them in the trash — but if the paper is recyclable, recycle it!

Here are some more tips to help you make the best decision

High-quality office paper is under-recycled compared to the overall paper-recycling rate. Only about half of the office paper we use makes it to the recycling plant, even though in the US, 66.8 percent of all paper was recovered for recycling in 2015. If you’ve got office paper, recycle it! (Unless it’s shredded, which not only damages the fibers but also makes it hard to manage in machinery. Check your local facility’s requirements to see if they accept it.)

On the other hand, napkins, paper towels, tissues, and tissue paper are made from much lower quality material and are rarely recyclable. This goes double (for these and other contaminated paper products) if they’re already contaminated with food, liquid, or glitter and the like. So the recycling bin is a no-go for all of these, but the compost pile is a better choice than the trash can for napkins and paper towels as long as they are not contaminated with cleaning chemicals or the like. Though tissues are compostable, the germs on used tissues make many people hesitant to add them to a home compost pile. Reuse tissue paper as much as possible before composting uncontaminated sheets.

When in doubt, ask your local handler or check your city’s website for municipal guidelines. If it falls in a recyclable category, it’s generally better to take the chance that it may be usable, rather than withholding material that will have to be generated elsewhere.

As always, buy paper with post-consumer recycled content when you can. While paper can’t be recycled forever, the longer we can maintain a material’s usefulness by recycling it, the less energy is consumed and the fewer raw materials need to be consumed. That’s a win for sustainability!

SOURCES: Conservatree, Environmental Protection Agency, Grist, Paper Recycles, Recycle Nation, Stanford Magazine

Do you compost at home? Or want to start? Let us know in the comments!

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  • Betty K. 1 month ago
    Can plastic forks, etc. be put in with recycling if the plastic wrap is removed first?
  • Joseph B. 1 month ago
    glad you set me straight on recycling paper.
  • joanna l. 3 months ago
    When I learned the fact that shredded paper is not good for recycling, I wondered what to do with documents that I had to shred, like bank records...I checked the website for my city and luckily they accept it. It can be mixed with other paper but not put in a plastic bag by itself.
    • joanna l. 3 months ago
      I am saying that you should start by checking with your city to find out if and how you should recycle items. I also learned that the backs of labels are not accepted in nyc.
  • Cheryl T. 3 months ago
    If worried about contamination of paper, I use a glass jar with a lid for old used oil. when 2/3 of the way filled I insert old receipts, used paper towels and napkins into the jar to absorb the oil before placing it into an old supermarket plastic bag the placing it into the garbage. This slows the contamination of oil in the landfills.
  • joanna l. 4 months ago
    I would never compost paper, I think that its too filled with chemicals and the thermal receipts contain BPA. I don't want any of that in my garden.
    • Linda W. 3 months ago
      Hi, Joanna: yes, the thermal type receipts are always a bad idea in recycling or composting. I always just throw them out right away.
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