One of the questions that came up in my household as we set up our new Pyramid garden composter was whether paper could be composted. In particular, we wondered about paper towels and napkins and whether these added any value.
They sure do add value and can be composted. Same for any kind of paper like newspapers, newsprint advertisements, printer paper, shredded paper from your office, paper cone filters, tea bags, and so on. (Personally I avoid glossy paper because I feel that it lengthens the composting process, but opinions vary.)
The reason paper is valuable for your garden composter (or wormery) is because of carbon. The ideal compost has a mixture of nitrogen and carbon. Nitrogen comes from so-called “green” matter like your kitchen leftovers, grass clippings and other soft green leafy things. Carbon comes from “brown” matter, which can be but isn’t always literally brown; it includes paper, dead leaves, branches, cardboard, and other tougher “woody” things.
The ideal mix is about a 30:1 carbon to nitrogen ratio–but if you’re like me you may find it difficult to meet that ratio unless you have a lot of autumn leaves, simply because of the large amount of kitchen waste available by comparison. If you put too much of this in the bin by itself it gets smelly and doesn’t have the right balance of nutrients.
Paper is a great way to increase your composter’s carbon content. It’s also readily available around the house, giving you a steady supply that helps you keep a good ratio in the bin.
Some people have concerns about chemicals and inks on paper getting in the composter, but in my opinion they are unfounded. Newspaper inks stopped using heavy metals and lead a long time ago, so nothing in the ink should be harmful in your garden. Certainly any paper you used for cleaning and which may have residual chemicals should not be composted, but that’s about it. (Edit: by the way this includes envelopes, which should not be composted due to the glue they use unless you are careful to remove any parts that have glue.)
What about composting versus recycling used paper? Both are good and each serve their purpose. Recycling paper helps spare the forests, while composting it returns it to nature in a place that needs it (my yard.) I just do some of both.
You can shred the paper before putting it in the bin to get quicker results–or just stick it in there as-is and let Mother Nature take its course. It’s all good.
The garden composter we use is so large and composts so quickly that it never seems to fill up, so we need a constant supply of brown matter to supplement the green all year round. Paper fits the bill perfectly!