Paper can quickly build up in your home or workplace, even if you go paper-free. You might shred some documents for privacy reasons or to try and contain the amount of paper, but what do you do with it? Recycling shredded paper is one option, but there are a few limits.
Can I Recycle Shredded Paper?
Shredded paper is recyclable, but it depends on how it's cut and the city rules. Cross-cut and confetti shreds are less likely to be recycled because the pieces are too small.
Every item sent for recycling has to be sorted before it can be processed and reproduced. Just as it sounds, sorting involves separating products into groups. Paper products, for example, are separated by cardboard, newspaper, magazines, office paper, and others using screens, disc sorters, or rotating cogs.
Shredded paper can be a problem during these steps because the tiny pieces slip through screens or get caught in discs and cogs. Plus, if the facilities use a vacuum to move, pieces end up blown around rather than being processed.
Some cities won’t accept shredded paper for these reasons. A good rule of thumb is to shred as few documents as possible, usually only sensitive documents, and leave all others loose. Those loose sheets will eventually break down as part of the pulp and paper process, so it’s best to leave them as they are to make the process easier.
Is Shredded Paper Biodegradable?
Paper is a wood-based product, which means it will degrade much the way wood does. Bacteria and fungi in the soil feed on the natural cellulose in paper and break it down, making it a good option for compost. If your city doesn’t allow shredded paper recycling, check the city compost program.
Bleached vs. unbleached paper. Bleached paper is more biodegradable than unbleached. The bleaching process removes natural paper compounds called lignins that are hard for bacteria to digest. With these gone, bacteria can quickly break down the bleached paper. Unbleached paper is still biodegradable; it just takes longer.
Coated paper. Polyethylene-coated or laminated paper is not biodegradable. The paper itself breaks down, but the plastic film doesn’t and will stay intact in your compost or landfill. Silicone or paraffin wax coatings will fully decompose without issue. Other chemical additives will slow down the process, but the paper will eventually break down.
How to Recycle Shredded Paper
Whether your city collects your recycling or you take it to a depot yourself, there are some simple guidelines for recycling shredded paper.
Check city trash rules. Start by learning about the recycling guidelines in your area and whether it’s a recycling or composting item. Check the rules about how to bag it for the curbside, too.
Don’t shred everything. The most important guideline is to think before you shred. Shredding weakens paper fibers, so the final recycled paper product has less quality. Reserve shredding for sensitive documents and leave everything else free in the paper bin.
Sensitive documents include any papers with personal information that should be kept private, such as:
- Bank statements
- Pre-approved credit card applications
- Investment account statements
- Pay stubs
- Tax forms
- Medical records
- Documents that have your social insurance number or credit card number
Use a long-cut shredder. Cross-cut and confetti machines shred your papers into tiny pieces. These are excellent for concealing sensitive information but terrible for recycling machines. Many cities will only collect long-cut shreds in recycling, so use the right shredder if you can.
Put it in a cardboard box. Your city is more likely to pick up shredded paper if it’s in a cardboard box or paper bag. Staple the box or bag and place it by the curbside. Don’t put it in a clear plastic bag unless your city specifically asks you to.
Alternatives to Recycling Shredded Paper
If your city doesn’t allow shredded paper in recycling or city composting, there are other uses for it. Here’s how to get rid of shredded paper.
Backyard compost. If your city doesn’t have a compost program, build one in your backyard. You can add your food scraps, leaves, loose or shredded paper, and other items and use the nutrient-rich soil for your gardens.
Animal bedding. Donate your paper to shelters or pet shops, or switch to shredded paper instead of wood shavings in your pet cages. You can mix them to make your supplies last longer, too. Small amounts will work well with house pets like rabbits or gerbils. You could try this with livestock, too, but you’d need much more shredded paper.
Kitty litter. Shredded paper makes excellent kitty litter. Mix it with regular litter to help absorb waste or to make your supplies last longer. To switch completely paper, introduce it slowly over time.
Firestarter. Paper is highly flammable and makes the perfect fire starter. Stuff your shredded paper in a paper towel or toilet roll and add it to your wood stove or campfire for easy lighting. Most cities don’t allow you to burn plastic- and wax-coated paper in open fires, though. Check your city bylaws before lighting it.
Crafts and paper. If you have the desire and time, you can also use your shreds to make your own paper. It’s a time-consuming process but is one way to lower your waste footprint. You can also give it to your children for crafts, like papier-mâché.
Free shred days. Many cities offer a free shred day when you can shred your sensitive documents and the city gets rid of them for you. Check your city calendar of events and save your papers to shred all at once.
Trash. Finally, if you can’t find any other solution for shredded paper, place it in the trash. It will decompose over time.
Best Practice: Shred Sensitive Papers Only
Uncoated shredded paper is both recyclable and biodegradable, but collection can vary depending on where you live. For best results, limit shredding to sensitive documents only. If your city doesn’t accept it in recycling or composting, find other ways to use it, or put it in the trash. Most types of paper will decompose.