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As Recycling Crashes, Consider Composting Paper and Cardboard

The New York Times reports today that the recycling market for materials like paper and cardboard has started to collapse. Recycling used to be profitable, but as municipalities and local recycling companies get reimbursed less for such materials, they have started to edge away from accepting them. And this dirty secret emerges: even the companies and cities that accept paper and cardboard nominally may not be actually recycling them in practice. Instead, paper and cardboard are being hoarded by the ton in hope of a resurgence in their price… and reporters Matt Richtel and Kate Galbraith hint that some of it is starting to be diverted to landfills.

Confronted with this shift, what’s a person to do? The Times doesn’t have any suggestions, but I’ve got one: if you’ve got the space, compost it. Grist indicates that the contamination in modern soy-based inks is pretty low in paper that isn’t shiny or glossy, so that composting newsprint and cardboard (but not magazines) should be pretty fine, especially in urban and suburban areas where (face it) you’ve got heavy metals in your soil already. Compost This concurs. Set up a second composting bin for paper products and use the results for flower beds rather than vegetable gardens if you’re especially concerned. Shred the paper to accelerate composting time.

On its way to the compost, you can make seed-starting pots from newspaper too.

5 comments to As Recycling Crashes, Consider Composting Paper and Cardboard

  • Mark

    Here in Charleston County, SC I’ve learned that some of our recycled paper is being incinerated.

  • Jim

    Wow! This sounds like something about which it’d be important to spread word. Do you have an online source for this information, or is it information you’ve independently obtained? Would a call on my part to Charleston County Solid Waste and Recycling confirm this?

  • Mark

    Here’s the newspaper article from the Charleston Post & Courier that I remember.

    http://www.charleston.net/news/2008/apr/28/runoff_from_fire_raises_health_concerns38880/

    The point of the article was about health concerns after a fire, but the article clearly states that the operation employed people to compress plastic bottles and cardboard into fuel for a cement plant. It wasn’t clear what the source of the plastic bottles and cardboard was.

    There has been no follow up in the newspaper as to this operation and whether there are other operations similar to it elsewhere in the county.

  • Mark

    I just found another story about this incident. It turns out it was a recycling facility after all.

    http://www.charleston.net/news/2008/apr/30/fish_kill_blamed_on_runoff_from_st_georg39021/

  • I’ve been using cardboard and newspaper as mulch in my garden. In fact, I started a new garden this past spring. I started the day after a good rain to ensure that the ground was wet and then covered the entire area in cardboard which then got a layer of straw about 3-4 inches thick. Newspaper works just as well as cardboard, just be sure it is non-glossy paper. You can substitute leaves, wood mulch, compost or a mix of things for the straw. A layer of compost and/or manure can also be added in before the compost to give the microbes an extra good start though it is not necessary. Not only did I hardly have to water my plants nearly as often but after 3-4 months the ground beneath, formerly very hard and compacted, covered in grass, was soft earth tilled by the earthworms. They did such a fantastic job that I can very easily push my fingers right into the earth! Apparently the cardboard/straw combination creates the perfect environment for the worms and from what I’ve read (and now experienced first hand) creating such a mulch protected area will vastly increase your earthworm population. It also creates the ideal environment for soil microbial life and mycorrhizal fungi which are essential for healthy plants.

    This sheet mulching method is essentially a model of the heavy leaf layer of natural forest systems. Not only does it save you the work of tilling the soil but it is much, much healthier for the soil and ensures that the cardboard/newspaper is not tossed into a landfill or incinerated.

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