by David Goldstein

Since food recycling programs started in Ventura County in January, local environmental advocates have focused on communicating the importance of recycling organics, but there is one category of organics requiring caution before composting. 

Organics include anything once alive and therefore capable of rotting, and diverting organics from landfills is important because when these items rot in the absence of oxygen, methane gas is produced. Methane is many times more powerful than carbon as a climate changing emission.

Applying this reasoning to their own garbage, a few people have emailed me asking, “What about non-recyclable paper?” Paper is made from trees, and trees were alive, so shouldn’t paper also be easy to compost? And is composting the best option for unrecyclable paper, such as 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 of non-recyclable paper 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,” explained Robert Ford, a business development manager with Synagro Technologies, which composts in Kern County most of the food scraps collected for recycling from Ventura County. 

However, typical of inquiries from people wanting to divert as much as possible from landfills, the questions are more often about difficult-to-manage items. For example, Ms. Lilith (her full name), of Ventura, posted to me, via Nextdoor: “. . . There are some take out containers and I just bought a meat . . . tray made of compressed paper. Is there anything that can be done with them other than the trash?”

Ford provided an answer. “Take out” containers and compressed paper meat trays “…could present a PFAS issue,” he said. By PFAS, Ford is referring to polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are chemicals designed for non-stick surfaces. Although found in products ranging from cookware to dental floss, according to peoplespharmacy.com, suspected health consequences cause composters to avoid these items. 

Non-stick surfaces are also barriers to composting items ranging from coated pizza boxes to coated popcorn bags. Other non-recyclable paper also often contains material composters want to keep out of their high-quality soil amendments. For example, “The bleach from white napkins could become a problem if we got too much,” according to Ford. 

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.

Sharbel Eid, general manager of Recology’s compost facility in Kern County, another destination for Ventura County organics, elaborated, “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.”

Recycling paper is better than composting, because recycling recovers more resources and delivers a higher-value product. Many paper products cannot be recycled, however. Daniel Marks, CEO of Berg Mill Supply, 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 explained. If your egg carton has a little 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, this category of organics is less likely to emit significant methane.

The late William Rathje, a research fellow in archaeology and consulting professor in anthropology at Stanford University and professor at the University of Arizona, excavated landfills several years ago as part of anthropological studies on 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 of in landfills.

David Goldstein is an Environmental Resource Analyst with the Ventura County Public Works Agency and may be reached at 805-658-4312 or david.goldstein@ventura.org