[USCC] Safety in composting paper

Jim McNelly compost@cloudnet.com
Fri Nov 24 14:22:02 2000

At 03:34 PM 11/07/2000 +0000, you wrote:
>Hello, I am a local activist trying to educate residents of Otsego County 
>and New York state on hazards of backyard trash burning.  We are 
>encouraging persons to compost things like Paper towels used on dairy 
>farms, shredded newspapers, bailing twine, etc.  Is this a safe 
>practice?  Are there heavy metals and chlorine in paper that would 
>contaminate the soil.  Thank you for your help.  Martha B. Clarvoe

Hi Martha,

I was just browsing the list and noticed that no one replied to your inquiry.

For about five years I spent hours on bulletin boards, news groups, and 
discussion lists talking about composting issues.  By far and away the 
number one question has been the safety of paper in compost and in the 
soil.  Here is a summary of the issues and my responses.

The issues raised vary, but have included:

1. Printed paper contains heavy metals, particularly colored inks.

My information is that since lead printing plates were banned over 25 years 
ago, that North American paper is free of lead.  There may be some concerns 
about composting old books or paper from countries that still use lead 
printing plates.  Heavy metals in inks are insignificant and are at 
virtually background levels, certainly far below the EPA 503 rules.

2. Inks are made from hydrocarbons which are a biohazard.

Composting is a technique of treating many hydrocarbons through 
bioremediation into benign products.  Most hydrocarbons have volatilized 
off the paper long before the paper is composted anyway.  Using soy inks 
promotes sustainable and renewable inks, but has little effect on the 
safety of paper used for composting.

3. Glossy paper such as magazines should be avoided

It is clay that makes paper glossy and clay is not a biohazard or 
contaminant to the soil in levels, up to 20%, found in magazines.

4. Chlorine and dioxins are a contaminant in paper

They are both found in all types of bleached paper.  Chlorine is a concern 
in the production of paper, not in the paper itself.  Dioxins have been 
greatly reduced over the past decades and are in q-tips, napkins, feminine 
hygiene products, milk cartons, and virtually all bleached paper 
products.  If the dioxin levels in paper, which are in the parts per 
trillions, are a concern for the soil, then we are at the point where we 
should be banning all paper products.  It is not appropriate to single out 
composting as a carrier of dioxins.  The real culprit with dioxins is 
incineration, not composting.

5. Paper is a non-renewable resource and should be recycled, not composted

This is the argument of the Environmental Defense Fund which is countered 
by the position of the Composting Council in 1993 which states clearly that 
composting is recycling.  Recycling paper should occur where it is 
economically feasible and composting paper should occur where it is 
economically feasible.  Neither is better than the other.  Our soils need 
humus and the world needs more tree farms.  Philosophically, I am opposed 
to old growth and even old second growth forests being used to grow paper 
fiber.  But that is a separate issue from whether or not paper should be 
used in the composting process.

Jim~ McNelly "The Compost Man"
NaturTech Composting Systems, Inc.

Visit the US Composting Council site