Is Paper Biodegradable? The Answer May Surprise You…

Journal on wood desk

As people become more aware of the environment and adopt greener ways of living, it’s no surprise that there’s been a shift to using paper instead of plastic.

It makes sense, right? Paper is made from felled trees and processed into what we use today. If it came from nature, then it should obviously be biodegradable.

But in truth, that may not actually be the case.

That’s right, paper is not always as eco-friendly as it may seem. And it’s biodegradability is dependent on how it’s processed.

So let’s talk a bit about paper and whether or not it’s actually biodegradable, as well as discuss if it’s really as eco-friendly as it seems.

Is Paper Biodegradable? The Answer May Surprise You…

First, let’s address the elephant in the room.

Is Paper Actually Biodegradable?

Placing paper trash in green recycling bin

We are happy to report that paper is indeed biodegradable.

But what makes it biodegradable?

It’s biodegradable because the paper is often made from natural wood, which is an organic material that breaks down easily when exposed to bacteria, animals, insects, and even weather conditions.

Since paper is just a thin film of processed wood, it breaks down even more quickly than wood does.

Most research suggests that paper can be fully broken down anywhere from 2 weeks to 5 months, though it’s usually on the lower end.

If you really want to speed up the process, you can compost the paper instead.

This is especially useful for paper plates, as they cannot normally be recycled when stained with food. You can expect the composted paper to be broken down with 2 to 6 weeks.

How do you compost paper? It’s actually pretty simple.

First, you’ll need to get a compost bin. You can purchase one or make your own (it’s not hard).

Second, you’ll need to prepare your compost bin. There are many ways to do this, but here’s a super-quick guide:

How to Compost Paper (And Other Waste)

Three compost piles
  1. Purchase a compost bin or create your own (it’s not hard).
  2. Create a base by filling the bottom with shredded newspaper or leaves.
  3. Add dirt until the container is half full (or as much as the instructions for your bin specifies).
  4. Add your compostables (in this case paper).
  5. Mix the contents thoroughly.
  6. Moisten with lukewarm water (not too much or it will start to smell).
  7. Place the bin in a shaded area (the sun will dry out the compost, rendering it useless).
  8. Wait 2-3 months for the compost bin to work its magic.
  9. Collect your compost and use it as garden mulch, fertilizer, potting soil, or donate it to a local farmer. Just remember to keep at least a third of the compost in order to easily repeat this process.
  10. As a bonus, you can also add worms. They love eating biodegradable waste and pumping out fresh soil.

So then paper is always the way to go, right? Well, that depends.

The biodegradability of paper is mostly dependent on how processed it is. Paper that has been waxed or otherwise infused to other polymers, often done to strengthen the material, will NOT biodegrade so easily.

This is most common in paper plates. Companies will choose to reinforce their paper plates with these materials in order to improve the durability of the plates.

But in doing so, they’ve also made the paper plates far less likely to break down. It can take decades for these types of waxed paper plates to break down.

Is Paper Really Eco-Friendly?

Crumpled paper next to notepad

What if we told you that plastic may actually be more eco-friendly than paper?

Stop the presses! Life is a lie! How can that be?

Well, maybe that’s a bit of stretch. Traditional plastic certainly isn’t more eco-friendly than paper, not in a million years.

But compostable plastic? We may have a contender.

What you need to understand is that while the paper itself may not be the worst kind of litter, the way it’s made doesn’t do any favors for the environment.

11 million acres of trees are demolished every single year for the purposes of paper production. That alone calls into question the claim that paper is eco-friendly. Deforestation is a big problem that we are still trying to fight against.

But the manufacturing process is even worse. Paper mills in the United States are some of the LARGEST polluters of water.

They dump chemicals into bodies of water all of the time, most of which can create health risks.

Factory pumping smoke next to lake

Some chemicals involved in paper production include:

  • Elemental chlorine (burns the skin and can cause respiratory problems).
  • EDTA (causes kidney damage, skin problems, and much more).
  • Hydrogen peroxide (dangerous for the skin and eyes at higher concentrations).
  • Formaldehyde (lethal at low concentrations).
  • Methanol (extremely toxic and can cause blindness).

Plants and wildlife that are exposed to these chemicals will obviously have health issues and potentially die. As for those that we consume, all of those chemicals end up back in our bodies as part of our diet. What goes around, comes around.

While companies that produce compostable plastic may also engage in these environmentally harmful practices, they at least aren’t chopping down millions of trees.

You should also keep in mind paper in landfills contribute to global warming. When papers decompose in a landfill, they release methane gas. This greenhouse gas has 21 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide, another problematic gas.

Thankfully, we have ways to limit these problems.

What Are Our Options For Being Eco-Friendly With Paper?

White paper next to green leaves

You should always make an effort to recycle, first and foremost. You can easily recycle the following types of paper:

  • Photography paper
  • Printing paper
  • Newspaper
  • Magazines (depending on how it’s processed)
  • Paper bags

These types of paper can be placed directly into a recycling bin. No special service or extra steps required.

The only thing you need to make sure of is that the paper is more-or-less clean. If the paper is covered in grease or anything else that would otherwise not be recyclable, then it cannot be recycled.

If you were to add it to the recycling bin anyway, it would either end up in a landfill or the entire bin will end up in a landfill. Instead, you should compost dirty paper for easy biodegradation.

Remember that the term “biodegradable” is not synonymous with “eco-friendly”. Always make an effort to limit throwing things away in general.

If you can’t recycle or compost, then you should try to repurpose your paper. Arts and crafts are a great way to extend the life of your otherwise used-up materials.

And if you want to make sure that you are being eco-friendly with your paper, you can always use “greener” paper. There are two forms of this type of paper:

1. Using Recycled Paper

Crumpled recycled paper on white backdrop

This is the paper that’s made with materials that have been previously recycled.

The main benefit of using recycled paper is that few to no trees are required to be cut down in order to make it. In terms of saving trees, this is the best option.

Recycling paper also keeps it out of landfills, ensuring that less methane gas is produced. This directly combats global warming, something we really need.

However, recycled paper has a rougher texture and feel that can be off-putting for many people. Certain printers may or may not be able to handle this paper.

There’s also the problem with the recycled materials themselves. Recycled paper can only be recycled 5 to 7 times before the material becomes too worn to be useful. At that point, it can only be thrown away.

But with that said, it’s still a much better option for the environment. Don’t be afraid to recycle paper!

2. Using FSC-Certified Paper

FSC Logo

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper is the best eco-friendly option for people who want to the familiar feel of paper.

The FSC is no joke. Their policies and standards are recognized all over the world.

“The Forest Stewardship Council is an international non-profit, multistakeholder organization established in 1993 that claims to promote responsible management of the world’s forests. It is an example of a market-based certification program used as a transnational environmental policy.”

Excerpt from Wikipedia

The companies that gain their certification have proven that the development of their product will not negatively impact forestry.

FSC-certified paper is paper that’s still cut down from trees. That’s why it feels the same as traditional paper. But these trees are ethically sourced and always replaced.

Best of all, the FSC ensures that deforestation is limited to only a small area compared to un-certified paper mills.

It’s good to have an organization that promotes eco-friendly paper production. It demonstrates that the demand for eco-friendly products is there and only growing stronger.

And FSC-certified paper can STILL be recycled. It’s like getting extra bang for your buck!

In Conclusion

Notepad with pen on light wooden desk

Let’s summarize the key points:

  1. Paper is biodegradable.
  2. Waxed paper or paper lined with plastic is not biodegradable.
  3. Paper production is not typically eco-friendly.
  4. Paper disposal in landfills is not eco-friendly.
  5. You should always try to use FSC-certified paper or recycled paper.
  6. You can still recycle FSC-certified paper.
  7. Don’t be afraid to recycle paper. It’s easy!
  8. Don’t be afraid to compost paper, especially paper plates.

We covered quite a bit! We hope that you found this information to be useful.

Paper is biodegradable, but we need to stay vigilant and make sure that we continue to be eco-friendly.

Earth is counting on us!

Wrap Up

That concludes our article! Now you can spread the word on whether or not the paper is biodegradable (or you can just send them to this article 😉 )

Questions, comments, concerns, or just wanna chat? Leave a comment below and we’ll get right back to you. We’d love to hear from you all.

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As always, thanks for reading! We appreciate you stopping by!

Let’s continue to strive for a greener, better way of living!