Dear Dot: Compost or Recycle Paper and Cardboard?

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The answer is not as simple as you'd think.

Dear Dot, In my town, we have curbside paper/cardboard recycling, but we also have municipal composting that accepts paper/cardboard. Is it better to recycle paper or compost it?

—Nikki

Dear Nikki,

When I first considered your question, I thought the answer would be simple: composting, of course. Recycling requires resources — trucks and fuel to collect the materials, machinery to recycle, more trucks and fuel to get recycled materials to the manufacturer. Composting, I figured, just invites nature to do its thing, though municipal composting does require machines and resources to generate heat. 

But let’s back up for a moment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2018, the latest year for which they have data, 17.2 million tons of paper and paperboard products were landfilled, comprising almost 12% of total landfill. A further 4.2 million tons were combusted. And so I ask, with the two other options you asked about so widely available, why, why, WHY is paper ever going into a trash bin? C’mon people, putting paper in a recycle bin or compost pile is simply doing the bare minimum. 

The good news is that most of us are! Paper and paperboard is among the most recyclable products with 46 million tons recycled in 2018, for a recycling rate of 68.2%. 

And, indeed, it is recycling over composting that our partners at Earth911 recommend for paper products.

They explain their reasoning thus: “By composting paper, we remove it from the recycling stream. In doing so it’s true that we conserve recycling resources but we also now increase the need to deplete forests to make up the difference and create new paper. Our voracious need for paper products means that raw material has to come from somewhere, and reducing the amount of paper being recycled may simply mean an increased demand for new deforestation.”

The exception is soiled paper, such as a pizza box stained with grease. In that case, your municipal compost – or your backyard pile – is the answer. 

But there’s one final step: We must help create the market for recycled paper products by purchasing them. Always choose paper products made of at least some recycled paper, ideally 100% post-consumer. That goes for toilet paper too – it mystifies me that everyone doesn’t purchase toilet paper made from recycled paper (and, for goodness’ sake, it’s NOT made from recycled toilet paper! More on that in an upcoming column). Bluedot is walking Dot’s talk by publishing on 33% recycled stock with a non-glossy finish so it’s more easily recycled (though we hope you’ll hang on to it or pass it along). 

Treehugglingly,

Dot

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