Is Paper Biodegradable? Unravelling the Paper Chain

Is paper biodegradable - pipe of newspaper

Is paper biodegradable or is recycling the eco friendliest way to dispose of paper waste? What about composting? We’ve got all the answers!


Reducing our plastic waste is already high on our agendas. So now it’s time to tackle our paper problems. We know that paper is recyclable but is recycling our only means of disposal? 

Is paper biodegradable? Can it be added to our compost heaps? Is it better to compost paper products rather than recycle them? 

What about different types of paper? Should they all be treated the same? Should we stop putting all our paper and card into the recycling bin and do something else with it? 

Here’s a look at some common paper products and the best ways of disposing of them.

recycling plant

Biodegradable, Compostable, Recyclable or Something Else? 

‘Biodegradable’ describes anything that’s able to decompose naturally, under the right conditions. 

While that sounds great, the reality is that most products will eventually decompose. This includes everything from plastic bottles to metal cans and food waste. 

There’s no time limit for biodegradable products. Something can be biodegradable even if it breaks down in 1,000 years. (Plastic, we’re looking at you.) 

Compostable items also decompose naturally, but at a much faster rate. Something that’s compostable usually breaks down within a year. It decomposes into a substance which is beneficial to the soil. 

Most paper is made from wood pulp or other natural sources which are all biodegradable. Paper fibres are often chemically treated during manufacture, but they’re still biodegradable. 

As paper takes less than six months to decompose, it’s also considered compostable as well as biodegradable.

paper processing

Can I Compost Paper at Home?

Composting paper at home is both safe and beneficial to your compost heap. All non-glossy and shredded paper can be added to a home compost heap. As can paper with low quality fibres, such as paper towels and toilet paper.

Paper waste even absorbs excess water, which is of great benefit to a healthy compost heap. 

It’s amazing how quickly paper can decompose. Train tickets take as little as two weeks and cardboard in just two months.

Glossy, laminated or other plastic treated papers aren’t generally compostable. These types of papers take far longer to decompose. There are also concerns that the inks and chemicals used in their production could contaminate the soil.

What’s the Best Way to Dispose of Paper? Recycling or Composting?

Both recycling and composting are better than sending paper waste to landfill. But which is better if we’re doing our best to live sustainably?

Recycling plants need water, electricity, and, often, fossil fuels to function. Yet the process of recycling paper is still less energy intensive than manufacturing new paper from virgin fibres. 

Quality paper fibres, such as those used in office printing paper, can be recycled. But even these fibres reduce in quality each time they’re recycled. 

With each cycle, these paper fibres become shorter, and less ‘pristine’. This means that high quality paper fibres can only be recycled five to seven times. 

Low quality fibres, such as those used in napkins and tissues, may not be recyclable at all. When these fibres become contaminated (such as by contact with greasy foods or human waste), they’re rarely recycled. 

Composting greasy, dirty, or low quality paper fibres is an excellent way to avoid sending unrecyclable papers to landfill.

But composting should not replace recycling altogether. If we compost all our used paper products then there’s a danger that demand for virgin fibres will increase. This could lead to more deforestation.

tissues

Help! Is Paper Biodegradable? 

Still confused about what paper is biodegradable, compostable or recyclable? Add different product labelling on biodegradable packaging into the mix and it can be a minefield. 

Here’s our breakdown on the most commonly used paper products.

Is Cardboard Biodegradable?

Yes. Cardboard is biodegradable as it’s broken down relatively quickly. (Depending on the right environmental conditions.)

Is Cardboard Compostable?

Yes. Both corrugated and flat cardboard is compostable. With enough moisture and soil, it can decompose naturally in two months. 

Wax or plastic coated cardboard products, such as paper cups, will take much longer. A drink carton can take five years to decompose.

Is Toilet Paper Biodegradable?

Yes. Toilet paper is typically made from wood pulp which is biodegradable. But the amount of time required depends on the strength and thickness of the paper. 

Biodegradable, plastic free toilet paper breaks down more efficiently than standard toilet paper.

toilet paper

Is Wax Paper Compostable?

Yes and no. Wax Paper is a reusable cling film alternative. It’s compostable if the wax coating is made from beeswax, soy wax, or a vegetable oil based paraffin. 

Some wax papers use petroleum based paraffin which can contaminate the soil.

Is Tissue Paper Recyclable? 

Yes and no. Tissue paper that is used for gift wrap or packaging is recyclable. 

But tissue paper is often made from recycled pulp which has shorter fibres and is difficult to recycle. Tissue paper can only be recycled if it’s made from good quality fibre. 

Always check the packet for the recycling symbol. When in doubt, compost tissue paper instead.

Is Parchment Paper Compostable? 

No. Parchment or greaseproof paper is neither recyclable or compostable. 

Although made from paper, it’s coated with non-stick materials, such as silicone. It’s also treated with chemicals to increase its heat resistance.

used parchment paper

Is Wrapping Paper Recyclable? 

Yes and no. Wrapping paper is recyclable if it’s made from plain paper without glitter or plastic added to it.

Often wrapping papers are laminated, dyed, or contain non-paper fibres. These are all problematic for paper recycling mills. 

If your local recycling unit does accept wrapping paper then you still need to remove any Sellotape or plastic decorations. You can also use the ‘Scrunch Test’ to check if your paper is recyclable.

Can I Recycle Shredded Paper?

In theory, yes, but often, no. Shredded paper is recyclable but the paper fibres become damaged by shredding. 

Shredded paper in mixed recycling bins can cause problems at the recycling plant too. It’s difficult to separate from other materials and may clog machinery. For this reason, most councils don’t accept shredded paper.

You can dispose of shredded paper at your local household waste recycling centre by putting it directly into the paper and cardboard bin. 

Or you can reuse your shredded paper as packaging, pet bedding, or compost.

shredded paper

Are Paper Towels Recyclable?

Yes, but they shouldn’t go into the recycling bin. Kitchen roll, napkins, toilet paper, and tissues used to clean up unsanitary waste and are not suitable for recycling. 

Most recycling centres do not have the facilities to clean contaminated paper fibres. Aim to compost them instead.

Are Pizza Boxes Recyclable?

It’s complicated. As pizza boxes are made from corrugated cardboard, they should be 100% recyclable. 

Unfortunately, the boxes are only recyclable if they’re clean. Clean tops and sides of pizza boxes can be recycled. If the base is contaminated by grease from the pizza, it’s non-recyclable.

pizza boxes

Paper Chains: Not Just for Christmas 

So, is paper biodegradable? Yes. On the whole, paper is both biodegradable and compostable. But, whenever possible, we should recycle paper rather than composting it. 

Recycled paper fibres can be mixed with sustainably sourced virgin fibres to create more eco friendly paper products. 

By recycling paper instead of composting, we reduce the demand for virgin tree fibres for paper production. This then helps to reduce deforestation. 

For the paper that cannot be recycled, composting is an eco friendly way of dealing with it. Instead of sending greasy food containers, used tissues and shredded documents to landfill, we can put them to use in the soil. And we can’t say greener than that!