Is recycling newspaper better than composting it?

Some say paper can be recycled seven times before fiber gets too weak; returning to rags

By Gregory Jackson

newspaper composting or recycling

Paper, it makes up 40 percent of our landfills, the most by one type of material.  So with two possible recycling methods why is not more paper getting recycled or composted?

When I was a student at John Carroll University I participated in SIFE, Students in Free Enterprise, where one of our projects was selling greeting cards made from banana peel – the fiber was made from banana fibers – and we sold some and donated the money to a cause.  However paper is still largely manufactured the same way from wood, about 84 percent to 91 percent from waste wood that was traditionally burnt for other commodities.

In the 1800’s paper manufactures used discarded linen rags to make paper, but as reading demand increased there was not enough rags.  Actually, the use of rags for making paper goes back to the 1600’s when the Rittenhouse family created the first paper mill in the U.S. to use recycled rags for paper.

During the 2008 financial crises, per ton value of old newspaper went from $130 to $40 per ton and the demand continued to drop for the printed newspaper (although demand had been dropping since at least 2000 thanks to digital media delivery, instead of paper).  However 41 percent of packaging is made of paper, like boxes.

One week we found cardboard boxes in our compost at Willow Community Garden.  The cardboard was not shredded and tapping was left on it.  As Charles Yarmesch, our director of transportation began cutting the boxes with a pocket knife we gave up on using at as compost:  The material in such a bulky state would take at least 2 years to breakdown, but would make great material for pathway lining to suppress weeds or old, unwanted grass to build new beds upon.

Yet if you are a Baby Boomer, an old fashion reader who likes paper, or a school student in school who receives a free copy of the New York Times or Wall Street Journal should you compost it or recycle it?

Paper is a brown material in compost, meaning it is of similar material as leaves and would be a descent material for mixing with coffee grounds or food trimmings; while there was praise for soy-based inks there is an excellent chance that the soy was made from genetically modified soybeans.

The jury is still out on whether genetically modified organisms can trans-genetically get absorbed from your compost.  In compost processes pH drops to acidic when first beginning or adding material to your pile, then goes closer to alkaline (higher pH) then neutralizes near 7.  Is this pH fluctuation enough to “kill” genetically modified organisms?

What about product lifecycle?

After all, we are not directly eating dirt.  Is there a biological process that would prevent a crop from genetic modification uptake?  While newsprint ink makes up about 2 percent of the weight in newspaper, the addition of this material to your compost would be bad if you were trying to breakdown a compost pile of old New York Times papers.  If you must compost the paper, shred and tear it really good and mix it with a diverse amount of organic material, if you must use it.

Using old newspapers for creating new paths is a great idea.  You would lay down newspaper (do not use any glossy paper in any organic applications, they contain heavy metals) on top of grass or weedy area, and then cover with your favorite finishing pathway:  mulch, stone, pavers, soil.

In an ideal world, newsprint and paper composting is best done through an industrial process where ink is removed to make deinked pulp (invented by Justus Claproth), but you would not have access to a paper recycler who deinks their paper waste and scraps.

Most paper producers practice reforestation of tree supplies under the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), look for paper that is FSC certified because these paper manufacturers follow strict harvest guidelines for sustainable forestry practices.

What about recycling your New York Times?

It is better than throwing it away.  Consider that recycling one ton of paper saves 4,000 kWh of electricity, 17 matured trees, three cubic yards of landfill space, and two barrels of oil.  If half the paper in the world were recycled, we would save 20 million acres of forest.

Depending on lignin strength some believe one piece of paper can be recycled up to seven times before it no longer can be recycled.  What happens to these papers?

Sustainable infrastructure is still being built.  Nobody knows how many times a piece of paper has been recycled; the only ones who know are the quality assurance professionals who measure strength for final paper product approval.  If it fails then it will get tossed into a bailer for disposal – this discarded paper after being deinked – should be used to build new paths or raised bed liners.  And a second look into the craft pulping process where lignin is removed to produce durable fibers could be designed for endless recycling, if possible.  While craft pulping uses twice as much wood, maybe there is a way to make paper endlessly recyclable, similar to glass or aluminum.  Glass can be recycled forever.

In 1998, larger newspaper companies used to print required 300 paper rolls per day (1.5 ton paper rolls at 50 inches wide).  Today that number has dropped to about 80 paper rolls per day and lesser width paper, according to those familiar with the newspaper business.

“Now we print on 47 7/8 inch wide paper rolls that saves about $800 per roll,” said these people.  “They can’t run a roll that’s under 1-foot width.  So we sort the unprinted paper from the unsold papers from the inner tubing and bundle them separately for recycling.”

The unprinted paper is excellent for art students and artists.  In fact, unused paper (think of it like toilet paper – as you use the paper the roll gets closer to the cardboard center you would finish the rest and compost or recycle the cardboard holder – but instead the 47-inch wide paper can have up to 1-foot width of unused paper) could be as long as 1,000 to 2,000 feet.

“Our printing batch run cannot use paper rolls less than 1-foot wide.”

This 1-foot is enough paper to supply all of a major city’s school districts and the art community.  While larger newspaper companies do have comprehensive recycling operations in place, we believe repurposing commodities like paper is better than recycling it.

The amount of hauling required to recycle produces a sizable carbon footprint, energy to make good paper good again, and reduce the need for art schools to purchase paper can help school districts, who usually limit arts educational programming on failed levies or budget cuts.  To inspire students for artistic scholarship based on repurposed paper, tells a story.

Our view on paper recycling depends on the type of bundled paper considered for recycling; we would look into which waste product has re-use value.  For example, the unused paper rolls, where production staff spend time unraveling the unused paper and laying them for “pallet-friendly” configuration that resemble how you purchase linens and fabrics, would remain on the rolls.

On the unused paper rolls we would help divert two types of recyclable material into two types of re-purposing material:  paper and rolls.  Paper and rolls could be used for art.  Combination of two types could be changed up either way:  collecting unwrapped unused white paper (separated from the tubes) or keeping them together.

For recycling newsprint, deinking technology is used and quality assurance of lignin is assessed to determine if a paper is worthy of recycling, companies like Graphic Packaging and others.  Yet, paper has permanence in its function and while most of the paper is now used for packaging, any effort to use paper in permanence is more efficient, considering if paper manufactures know when paper may be on its last fiber, before it no longer can be recycled.

Digital news aggregation and successful news apps like Flipboard for mobile-friendly news delivery delivers 24-hour, seven days a week by the second (thanks to the Refresh button) makes daily paper “outdated” within its distribution.  Instead newsprint should be more novelty these days.

If the paper were printed once or twice per week on newsprint, the value of the paper would go up and more detailed journalism could be achieved, providing readers with in depth source-verified news differentiation from digital media competition.  Digital media is a divided consortium of millions of bloggers and hundreds of journalists around the world; I may find interest in an online LA Times article last month.  Paper is not only not necessary, but inadequate for this application.

Articles written by journalists who work at traditional newsprint companies are required to write 25+ articles per day just to keep up, becoming generalists in everything and an expert in nothing.  The reading audience does not need two sources of news that provide the same shallow coverage as up-to-the-minute deadlines, but rather deliberate and intentional coverage that Internet seems to not have time for; Internet readers are more target content readers anyway.  Instead, if journalists were focusing in on writing for a 2-day per week paper with synchronized online content, and then months later these articles will be read.  News printed in the paper will not.

News in newsprint has returned to an art.  And those who work in 24-hour facilities who are overworked would get time off to spend with family and friends, especially during holidays, evenings, and weekends.

Thus there are some excellent ways to recycle/repurpose newspaper.

  1. If you are a business or organization that offers newspapers or newspaper recycling design your recycling receptacles in a way that allows “give a paper take a paper.”  Customers can circulate a day or two of papers, and then haul the papers out for recycling.  This way you are encouraging customers and users of paper recycling receptacles an interactive and reuse options.
  2. In landscape applications use old papers as new trail or path liners to prevent/suppress weed growth.  Simply set newspapers on top of old grass or proposed path area.  Cover paper with dirt, mulch, or raked leaves.  I would not recommend composting the paper as soy-based inks could be genetically modified and more research needs to be done on whether intergenerational genetic material is untaken into next season’s crop.  If you do decide to compost the newspaper, make sure you tear it first, it actually tears easily in vertical strips.
  3. Innovate ways to work with art schools for all newspaper printing waste workflow to benefit art education.
  4. Just buy the paper if a news headline grabs your attention for framing or scrapbooking.
  5. Recycle paper as a last option.

“Working here is like the movie Groundhog Day,” said someone familiar with the newspaper printing business.

We should return to making paper from linen such as recycled denim and clothing, or our personal favorite, print on banana peel fiber returning more to printing the news as an art and setting an example in the application of sustainable materials.  When we shared that thought with newspaper recyclers about using discarded jeans they smiled.

“There you go.”


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