Since January, I have focused this column on the importance of recycling organics, but there is one category of organics requiring caution before composting: paper.
Organics include anything once alive and therefore capable of rotting.
Diverting organics from landfills is important because when these items rot in the absence of oxygen, they emit methane, which is many times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a climate- changing gas.
Applying this reasoning to their own garbage, a few readers have emailed me asking about non-recyclable paper.
Paper is made from trees, a living organism, so shouldn’t paper also be easy to compost?
And is composting the best option for unrecyclable paper, such paper contaminated with food or coated with a non-stick surface?
The short answer is, “Mostly, no.” Some non-recyclable paper is compostable, but most types could cause problems at compost facilities.
“Brown paper napkins, brown paper bags people use to bag their food scraps, and uncoated, greasy pizza boxes, and pressed-pulp egg cartons are easy to compost,” said Robert Ford, a business development manager with Synagro, which composts in Kern County most of the food scraps collected for recycling from Ventura County.
People wanting to divert as many recyclables as possible from landfills commonly ask about difficult-to-manage items.
For example, Ms. Lilith of Ventura asked whether take-out food containers made of compressed paper can be recycled.
These containers are problematic because they could contain chemicals known as PFAS, Ford said.
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl compounds, or PFAS, are often called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment.
Composting facilities avoid pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags and other coated paper products known to contain PFAS because of the suspected health consequences.
Exposure to the chemicals has been linked to certain cancers, weakened immunity, thyroid disease, and other health effects, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Other non-recyclable paper also often contains material composters want to keep out of their high-quality soil amendments.
Chlorine-bleached paper products such as white napkins contain dioxins, which also take a long time to break down in the environment and can cause cancer.
“The bleach from white napkins could become a problem if we got too much,” Ford said.
Other paper items, such as ice cream tubs, are plasticized.
A thin coating of plastic makes the packaging useful for storing and dispensing products, but it would degrade the quality of compost and interfere with compost operations if included in organics loads.
“Waxed paper is actually coated in plastic, so it doesn’t break down like food or other organics. We keep it out so it doesn’t get in the way or make our compost look trashy,” said Sharbel Eid, general manager of Recology’s compost facility in Kern County, another destination for Ventura County organics.
Recycling paper into paper products is better than composting it because recycling recovers more resources and delivers a higher value product.
However, many paper products cannot be recycled.
Daniel Marks, the marketing director for Berg Mills, which brokers much of the recyclables from Ventura County, explained why any food-contaminated paper should be left out of the recycling stream.
Inspectors at paper mills have a “no food waste” standard, Marks said. If your egg carton has some egg on it, or the bottom of your pizza box has a little cheese stuck to it, and if these items end up on the side of a bale an inspector happens to see, the recyclables could be downgraded in value. Possibly, an entire bale, or perhaps an entire load, could be rejected for recycling.
Disposing of unrecyclable and non-compostable paper products may be heartbreaking to environmentalists devoted to minimizing their garbage, but the good news is that these organics are less likely to emit methane.
William Rathje, a research fellow at Stanford University and a professor at the University of Arizona, excavated landfills several years ago to study American consumption patterns.
He found paper sometimes remained relatively intact. In fact, he was able to date landfill strata by looking at the still-readable dates on entombed newspapers.
Recycle what you can, compost when possible, but some items must still be disposed in landfills.
This article was written by David Goldstein, an environmental resource analyst with the Ventura County Public Works Agency.
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