By Sophia Bennett on January 22, 2014

When you shred paper, it is much more difficult to get recycling centers to accept it. What is the green-minded citizen to do?

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Paper is one of the most recyclable items out there, with a recycling rate of up to 60% in the U.S. But, here is a strange recycling anomaly: When you shred paper, it is much more difficult to get recycling centers to accept it.

The reason? Old paper gets recycled back into new paper. Anyone who has made paper at home knows that to do it, you create a pulp and spread it on a screen to dry. While those making paper by hand can get away with using tiny bits in their pulp, mills depend on long paper fibers that will catch and stick to their gigantic screens. Small pieces are likely to pass through the screens and create a big mess.

Speaking of messes, collecting shredding paper can be a nightmare as well. Unless it is well contained in a bag or other receptacle, it will mix with other recyclables in the recycling bin and create a headache for the hauler. Painstaking hand separation is the only way to untangle it, and even the most dedicated recycling company in the world is not going to pay someone to do that.

For that reason, shredded paper has a lower value. Since it is harder to market, local governments and recycling companies are less likely to accept it.

So, what is the green-minded citizen to do? It is a good idea not to shred paper unless it is necessary for confidentiality. Eco-Cycle in Boulder, CO, recommends ripping off the part of the paper with sensitive information and putting the rest of the page in the recycling bin intact. Did that credit card offer or medical bill come with advertisements or a return envelope? Chuck those in the bin and put only the statement through the shredder.

Know someone who is shred happy? Share this handy document from Paper Recycles that describes which items should be shredded and which should not.

Shredded paper recyclers are harder to find, but they do exist

There are some good options for dealing with paper that must be chopped into confetti-sized pieces. Shredding companies have to find a way to offload the mountains of paper shards they create. Find out if they recycle and take items to them. Most work mainly with commercial clients, but they may do events with local governments that are open to the general public or have specified days when anyone can drop off items for disposal.

Another option is to find out if your workplace has a contract with a local shredding company. Since shredding companies may charge by volume, it is a good idea to check with your boss and see if it is OK to bring items from home.

Some local governments will accept shredded paper at the curb or at recycling centers if it is bagged. Unfortunately, most recommend putting shredded paper in a plastic bag, which is likely to end up in the landfill. Some forward-thinking local governments allow people to package the shards in more eco-friendly ways. For example, Minneapolis; Kansas City, MO; and Portland allow homeowners to put them in a paper bag. In San Francisco, shredded paper can go in a bag or a recyclable paper envelope. These paper products can presumably be recycled at the same time. Each community’s only request is that the container be stapled shut so the contents cannot escape and litter city streets.

Applications for reusing shredded paper

Shredded paper makes a great “brown” material for the compost bin. This can be particularly handy in the summer, when carbon sources like dead leaves are harder to come by. Make sure any paper that goes in the bin is free of plastic, staples and other contaminants.

King County, WA (which includes Seattle), allows residents to put shredded paper in their curbside composting bin along with vegetative waste and food scraps. The paper helps absorb liquids and odors. However, few cities seem open to this option at this time. If your community provides green waste containers, check with them before adding paper.

Other uses for shredded paper include packing material (an eco-friendly alternative to Styrofoam peanuts), animal bedding, kindling, Easter basket grass and, for the crafty at heart, a raw material for making your own paper. The blog 365 Days of DIY suggests pressing that paper into muffin tins to make tiny cups for starting seeds.

Reducing the amount of shredded paper is always best

The best way to avoid piles of shredded paper is to cut down on the amount of paper with confidential information. Most banks, investment firms and other financial services companies offer online statements rather than paper ones, which can cut back on the amount of sensitive material you receive.

To eliminate those unwanted pre-approved credit card offers that come in the mail, visit the Federal Trade Commission website, which explains how to remove your name from junk mail lists. That should cut your overall paper consumption — and what’s not to like about that?

About the author

Sophia Bennett is a freelance writer based in Eugene, OR. Her work has been featured in more than a dozen magazines, newspapers and blogs. She is a dedicated home recycler, an avid thrift store shopper and a huge compost nerd.

Sophia's other professional experience include six years with the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County, an internationally recognized leader in the field of nonprofit waste-based business development, and a year as an economic development and recycling coordinator in the U.K. She's volunteered with the Oregon State University Extension Service Compost Specialist program and Willamette Farm and Food Coalition. In her spare time she enjoys cooking, reading, crafts, gardening and spending time with her husband and twin daughters.


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