Over the centuries, writing and typing on paper have been one of the most important methods of communication. We also use it to make packaging for various products. Most people consider paper items and packaging to be safer for the environment than plastics. For instance, paper cups are generally more sustainable than non-biodegradable plastic cups.
However, one might wonder if looking at the level of paper waste in the environment. For an item or product to be safe for the environment, it has to be recyclable, biodegradable, or compostable. So, is paper biodegradable? Are the various forms of paper biodegradable?
The answer is yes and no. Paper is biodegradable. However, some paper types are not biodegradable.
This article explores the meanings of biodegradable, compost, and recycling. It provides answers to the question, is paper biodegradable? While explaining some of the types of paper we use regularly.
People often wonder, is paper biodegradable? Yes, paper in its basic form is biodegradable. That is paper without plastic treatments, coatings, or contents. Because of this, it is advisable to use paper products as an alternative to plastic cups or plastic packaging. Paper is biodegradable because it is sourced from organic plant materials. Also, paper is recyclable and compostable.
Recycling paper up to 7 times before the paper fibers break down to the unrecyclable point is possible. However, it takes some time for the paper to decompose. Unlike biodegradable plastics, which take hundreds of years to decompose, biodegradable paper takes two to six weeks.
Biodegradable paper products can decompose in any environment free from chemicals or plastics. Composting paper is easy. You can add paper to your compost pile and control the conditions to speed up biodegrading.
To compost paper, you need adequate water, heat, oxygen, and humidity. You can also add worms to the compost pile because worms enjoy eating biodegradable waste like paper.
Biodegradable papers are office printing paper, toilet paper, and shredded paper. Having your own compost or recycling bin helps prevent both paper and food waste. Therefore, properly disposing of toilet paper and cardboard helps avoid waste paper.
We have all heard the terms biodegradable, recyclable, and decomposable at various times. However, let's break each term down because sometimes we use the terms interchangeably.
Biodegradable materials can break down naturally because of interactions with elements, bacteria, and other living organisms. Biodegradable materials break down within 180 days. When these items break down, they do not harm the environment.
A Compostable item is made from organic materials that can turn into nutrients for the soil. Food waste is the most common compostable material, but you can also compost dead flowers from pure cotton and untreated wood. Compostable items are perfect for the environment because they break down naturally without processing.
You can compost waste in your home if there is enough oxygen, and you move the pile around to let air reach all areas.
Recyclable items are reusable as raw material, or you can upcycle them into something else. For instance, we can recycle glass, paper, aluminum foil, and other items like cans and plastic. Additionally, a new breed of compostable plastics purports improved biodegradability (read more: eco-friendly plastic). Different regions worldwide have recycling regulations for regular and special items like batteries, e-waste, or electronics.
Further reading: Biodegradable vs. Compostable - What's the Difference?
The manufacturing process of paper has remained the same over the centuries. You can make paper from any fiber, like silk, cotton, bamboo, wood, hemp, flax, wheat straw, and sugar cane waste. Now, manufacturers mainly produce paper from wood and recycled paper products.
Most believe that paper is an invention native to China as an alternative to silk. In ancient times, there were no machines to produce paper. Instead, they made paper one sheet at a time. The paper's size depends on the mold and frame used to lift the sheet from a vat of stock.
Producing pulp from wood chips is the first step in the paper production process. It is the primary raw material for paper production. The two methods used to create pulp are chemical pulping and mechanical pulping. Chemical pulping breaks down the complex organic polymer in the cell walls of plant materials with different chemical compounds.
These chemical compounds include sodium hydroxide and sodium sulfide. Chemical pulping produces higher-quality papers and is more expensive than mechanical pulping. Mechanical pulping is a paper production process that uses mechanical methods to reduce the lignocellulosic materials2.
Manufacturers use machines to remove the bark of the wood and grind it. In the early stages of mechanical pulp production, they used natural sandstone to produce up to 6 tons of pulp daily. The sandstone is 27 inches wide and has a radius of 54 inches. Also, the grinder doesn’t operate automatically. They usually load the wood by hand.
However, the grinders used recently are automatic and powered by electric motors. Paper mills can connect each grinder to a 10,000 horsepower motor, with the pulp stone rolling at 360 revolutions per minute. This type of power can produce 130 to 150 tons of pulp daily.
Manufacturers use calcium and sodium hypochlorites to bleach paper pulp to achieve the white color we associate with papers. The dark color lignin comes off during the bleaching process. Then, they filter the pulp on a woven screen, forming a matted paper fiber sheet. Next, they press and squeeze the sheet to remove the water. After getting most of the water out, evaporation dries whatever moisture remains.
Once the sheet of pulp dries, the paper undergoes calendering. Calendaring is a finishing process that improves a paper's physical and mechanical properties. They apply various chemical coatings to the surface of the paper to give it a shiny appearance. These types of papers are matte, semi-matte, and glossy.
We use paper for various activities like writing, drawing, painting, packaging materials, etc. Depending on the usage of the paper, the manufacturing process and biodegradability of the paper fibers differ1.
Writing papers are different grades for newspapers, magazines, stationeries, ledgers, bank, and bond paper. A prominent example of a writing paper is a newsprint paper.
Newsprint paper is a cheap and low-quality paper stock made from groundwood pulp. Magazines and newspapers use groundwood pulp for its uniform formation and high opacity. The papers are bulky and receptive to printing ink. Another feature of newsprint paper is that it is not white; it turns yellow from extended exposure to light.
We use wrapping papers to protect food and delicate items. The wood pulp used to make the wrapping paper is from softwood. Then, they bleach the pulp before printing the graphic design on it.
Printing paper is just like writing paper. However, printer paper materials have coating finishes. They apply coating compounds to the sheets after they bleach the paper with a chlorine derivative. These coating compounds are clay, protein, and calcium carbonate. They improve the paper's weight, ink absorbance, and weight.
Kraft paper is a porous paper with high elasticity and high tear resistance. They mostly use it as packaging materials for products. The manufacturing process of kraft paper is known as the kraft process. Paper processing plants get wood pulp from softwood. The long fibers give the paper its strength, and they also add wet strength chemicals to improve the strength of the paper3.
Manufacturers use it as the base paper for sandpaper, wrapping paper for flower bouquets, and lining particle boards. They also use it as paper grocery bags, multi-wall sacks, and envelopes.
Wax paper is a wrapping paper used to store food in the kitchen. As its name suggests, the wax paper contains a wax coating that makes it moisture-proof. It is highly reusable. You can use it to line countertops when you're preparing baked items. You can also use it to line the inside of your baking pan.
Specialty papers are papers with specific properties and features. Using pulp coated with special chemicals, you can create specialty papers. These papers include paper currency, insulation paper, carbonless copy paper, coffee paper, etc.
Tissue paper is a lightweight paper produced from virgin and recycled paper. We use tissue paper in various aspects of our lives. We use it as facial tissues, paper towels, and table napkins. Is toilet paper biodegradable? Yes, tissue and toilet paper are some of the most biodegradable papers we have, and tissue paper is also recyclable.
Produced from sulfate pulp, tracing paper has low opacity, allowing light to pass through it. Its low opacity allows images to be traced on it. Architects, design engineers, and artists often use it.
There are various types of paper packaging used by businesses and companies. They are paper bags, paper cups, cardboard, etc. Manufacturers use ivory paper, duplex, and kraft paper.
Unfortunately, not all papers are biodegradable. Some papers are not safe for the environment because they contain components of non-biodegradable materials like plastics. Even paper mixed with biodegradable plastics is harmful to the environment.
Also, some papers could be more environmentally friendly because manufacturers use toxic chemicals on the pulp during production. So, these chemicals like methanol, toluene, and formaldehyde leach into the environment. Exposure to these chemicals impacts human health and the environment. Another set of paper products is paper cups, parchment paper, receipts, magazines, and photos.
Read more: Eco-Friendly Paper - All you need to know
Paper is biodegradable as long as it has no element of plastic in it. Also, you can easily repurpose and recycle paper. There are wide application ranges for paper. Recycling paper is relatively easy. You send paper to recycling plants or recycle them in your own home.
You could recycle shredded paper by making them into paper mache. Paper mache can beautify your home while also being functional. You can add a pile of shredded paper to your compost bin, and after the paper decomposes, you can add it to your mini indoor and outdoor garden.
It is important to know that items like paper cups are not biodegradable due to their plastic linings, but cardboard and toilet paper are biodegradable. Recycling paper reduces the amount of paper waste.
Ahmed, S & Hall, A & Ahmed, Shams. (2018). Comparative Biodegradability Assessment of Different Types of paper. Journal of Natural Sciences Research. 8.
Hiziroglu, S. (2016, July 1). Basics of Paper Manufacturing - Oklahoma State University. Basics of Paper Manufacturing | Oklahoma State University. Retrieved April 30, 2023, from
Gullichsen, J., & Paulapuro, H. (2000). Paper and board grades (pdf). TAPPI and Finnish Paper Engineers' Association.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.