All sorts of unorthodox materials can be composted. If you’re an avid shopper at stores that give you brown paper bags to carry your goods in, you might be wondering whether these are compostable. I looked into this question for myself and thought I’d share what I found out.
Brown paper bags can be composted. They are considered a brown compost material and are a source of carbon, a necessary part of any composting bin. It is important that you cut the bags into small pieces so they more easily break down. Large pieces can block oxygen from moving through the compost pile.
Composting is an excellent way to recycle and reuse many of the things we typically throw away, including paper and paper bags. By adding compost to the soil in a garden, you can grow healthier, more vibrant plants and vegetables. However, it is important that you understand how paper decomposes and whether the type of paper you want to add to your composting bin is appropriate for that purpose or whether it is better to find an alternative means of recycling it.
Is It Better to Recycle or Compost Paper?
Paper is one of the most misunderstood items when it comes to recycling or composting. There are so many different types of paper, making it imperative you are aware of the contents of your paper before deciding which route to take and if either is appropriate.
Only paper that is organic can be composted since everything in a compost pile needs to be organic. If your paper contains any chemicals, coatings, or is manufactured instead of organically created, it cannot be composted. Paper that is too thin or is contaminated cannot be recycled but, if organic, may make an excellent addition to your composting bin.
Most companies that pick up curbside recycling will take paper to be recycled. However, oftentimes well-intentioned, environmentally-conscious people will put all of their paper into the recycling bin, only to have that paper end up in a landfill.
If you place your paper in the same bin with your empty cans of tomatoes, milk cartons, or other food containers, you run a good chance that the residual contents of those containers will contaminate the paper, thus rendering the entire pile of paper unrecyclable. Although food residue can be removed from plastic and glass, the same is not true for paper.
Thin papers, such as tissues and napkins, cannot be recycled but are great in the compost container as long as they are not contaminated with any of the food products or other chemicals that should not be composted. Copier paper and brown paper can also be composted as long as they have been shredded into smaller pieces to accelerate the composting process.
Here is a breakdown of common types of paper and their recycling or composting potential.
- Copier paper – this can be recycled or composted as long as it is not colored paper or paper with a high gloss as these can contain chemicals that do not make it a good candidate for either
- Store receipts – these cannot be recycled or composted because they are coated with BPA
- Tissues and napkins – these are typically too thin to be recycled, but they make an excellent addition to the compost pile, as long as they have not been dirtied with glue, cleaning chemicals or germs from any virus that might thrive in the warm environment of the compost bin
- Brown shopping bags – these are recyclable and compostable
- Newspapers – these are also good for recycling or composting
- Shredded paper – this cannot be recycled but, if it is free of chemicals or excessive dyes, it can be composted
Do Brown Paper Bags Compost?
Brown paper bags make an excellent addition to any composting bin. Compost is a mixture of “brown” waste, “green” waste and water. You can pile these items on top of a wooden palate or place them all in a composting bin.
A composting bin can be purchased at any gardening or big box store, or you can make one at home. It is important that you use equal parts brown and green waste, layered alternately on top of one another, and rotate the pile frequently, in order to achieve the appropriate acidity in the compost and thereby turning it into an effective soil enhancer for growing any type of plant. National Geographic has an excellent web page available that explains the entire composting process for beginners.
Do Brown Paper Bags Decompose?
Any type of paper, including brown paper bags, decompose since they are made of organic materials. Brown paper bags are made from a material called Kraft paper, which is made from wood chips. The wood chips are heated to break them down into a solid pulp. That pulp is then washed and bleached and eventually made into brown paper.
When brown paper bags are shredded and put into a composting bin, the decomposition of the brown paper begins. When Kraft paper is made, the heating of the wood chips removes the lignin that makes wood rigid is removed, and the end product has only cellulose fibers. These cellulose fibers are easily decomposed by the bacteria in the composting bin. Again, it is important to cut or shred the brown paper into smaller pieces and not simply throw an intact brown bag into the compost pile. Large pieces of paper will block air from circulating through your pile and can affect the overall integrity of the compost.
How Long Does It Take a Brown Bag to Decompose?
A paper bag takes about 30 days to decompose if shredded and placed in a composting bin or simply left to the elements, including rain and oxygen. The controversy arises when you consider that 80% of paper bags end up in landfills. Buried in a landfill, where there is no oxygen, they may take years to decompose, thereby adding to the size of the landfill.
Not so long ago, people judged the eco-friendliness of a product by how long it took to decompose. By using only this measure, plastic bags would be the obvious villain since they take 5-10 years to decompose naturally. However, as more research emerges, the production, transportation, and waste created by paper bags far exceed that of plastic bags.
Plastic bags cost less to make and weigh far less to ship, which reduces the carbon footprint of the shipper. However, paper bags are made from wood, a renewable resource, and plastic bags are manufactured from polyethylene, a non-renewable resource.
Statistically, plastic bags are recycled more often than paper bags and take up less space in a landfill.
The debate rages on.
The important thing to remember is that whichever bag you choose to use, you should consider what you are planning to do with that bag when you are done with it.
If you’ve got an excess supply of brown paper bags, you can get rid of them in an environmentally friendly manner by composting them. These bags are a good source of carbon, which is a crucial component in compost.
If you do decide to compost your brown paper bags, make sure you chop them up into little pieces before adding them to your pile. If the pieces are too large, they will inhibit the ability of oxygen to move around in your pile, which will decrease the efficiency of the composting process.
By the way, if you happen to be in the market for a good composter, here is my favorite one that can be found on Amazon.
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