Can You Compost Brown Paper Bags?

  • By: Sam Richards
  • Date: July 25, 2023
  • Time to read: 9 min.

We find ourselves in a pivotal time in human history, where our decisions and actions bear significant consequences for our planet. As the realities of climate change, pollution, and resource scarcity become ever more apparent, the need for sustainable practices in every facet of our lives has never been more urgent. One such practice, which has been garnering attention for its ability to mitigate waste and improve soil health, is composting.

Composting is a natural process that transforms organic materials, like food scraps and garden waste, into nutrient-dense soil. This process does more than simply reduce the amount of waste we send to landfills; it also helps to lock carbon into the soil, promoting soil fertility and aiding in the growth of plants and crops.

Among the plethora of materials that can be composted, a rather common household item poses a frequent question: the brown paper bag. Often found holding our groceries or lunch, these bags are ubiquitous worldwide, touted as a more environmentally-friendly alternative to plastic bags. However, it leads to the question: can these brown paper bags be composted? In this article, we aim to explore the viability and the process of composting brown paper bags, alongside their impacts and potential benefits.

Understanding Brown Paper Bags

Brown paper bags, a common feature in retail outlets, homes, and packed lunches worldwide, are typically crafted from a material known as kraft paper. This term originates from the German word ‘kraft,’ meaning strength—a fitting name considering the robust nature of these bags. Kraft paper is produced from chemical pulp derived from softwood trees, such as pine and spruce. These trees are chosen specifically for their long fibers, which provide the paper with its characteristic strength and durability.

From the perspective of environmental impact, the manufacture of brown paper bags is a mixed bag. On one hand, they are made from a renewable resource — trees. Moreover, these bags are biodegradable and recyclable, reducing their impact on the environment post-use. However, the production process itself can be quite resource-intensive, involving extensive water use, deforestation, and the release of harmful chemicals.

Nonetheless, these bags present an opportunity for reuse and repurposing beyond their initial role. Their organic composition, specifically, offers a promising potential for composting. Before delving into that, it’s essential to note that not all brown paper bags are identical. Some bags may contain chemical additives or may be treated with specific substances to increase their resistance to wear and tear. Other bags may be printed with inks that are not compost-friendly. As such, an understanding of what exactly constitutes your brown paper bag is vital to ensure a safe and effective composting process.

Potential Issues with Composting Paper Bags

While the concept of composting brown paper bags might seem straightforward, there are several factors that warrant careful consideration. Not all paper bags are created equal, and their suitability for composting can vary widely based on their composition and the treatments they’ve undergone.

Firstly, one has to look out for bags that have been laminated or treated with a waterproofing agent. Such treatments are designed to increase the bag’s durability, especially in handling moist or wet items. However, these coatings often contain plastic or other non-compostable materials that don’t break down in a compost pile and can introduce harmful residues into your compost.

Secondly, the inks used in printing designs, logos, or information on the bags can pose another issue. While many companies have shifted towards using soy-based inks, which are more environmentally friendly and compostable, some still use petroleum-based inks. These types of inks could contain heavy metals or other toxic substances that would be harmful to the beneficial microorganisms in your compost pile, potentially contaminating the compost and the soil in which it’s used.

Lastly, the glue used to hold the bag together is another potential concern. Certain types of adhesives may not break down during composting and could contain harmful chemicals.

Therefore, before adding any brown paper bag to your compost pile, it’s important to ascertain its composition and whether it has been treated or printed with compost-safe materials. If in doubt, it’s better to opt for recycling the bag, or better yet, reusing it as often as possible before disposal.

Composting Brown Paper Bags

When you toss a brown paper bag into your compost heap, you’re doing more than just reducing waste. You’re contributing to a complex ecosystem of organic materials and organisms that work together to break down and recycle nutrients. Brown paper bags fall into a category of compost materials known as ‘browns,’ which provide the necessary carbon source for your compost pile.

‘Browns’ are essential to a healthy composting process for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they act as a counterbalance to the ‘green’ nitrogen-rich materials like vegetable peels, coffee grounds, or grass clippings. Having the right balance of green to brown materials—generally a 1:2 ratio—ensures your compost pile remains a hospitable environment for the microorganisms that do the heavy lifting in breaking down your compost materials.

Secondly, the carbon from the brown materials provides the primary energy source for these microorganisms, while the nitrogen from green materials facilitates protein production. A healthy balance of these elements allows for the most efficient and odor-free composting process.

Unbleached, untreated brown paper bags are a great source of carbon for your compost pile. Their high carbon content helps to balance out the nitrogen in your green materials and allows the microorganisms to do their work efficiently. This balance is not only crucial to the decomposition process, but it also aids in controlling odor, preventing your compost pile from emitting a foul smell that can occur when there is an excess of nitrogen.

By composting brown paper bags, you’re essentially allowing them to return to their organic roots, providing a valuable resource for your garden while reducing the amount of waste that ends up in landfills. It’s a win-win for both you and the environment.

How to Compost Brown Paper Bags

The process of composting brown paper bags is simple and straightforward, but it does require a bit of know-how to ensure optimal decomposition and a nutrient-rich end product.

  1. Preparation: Start by tearing or shredding the brown paper bags into smaller pieces. This increases the surface area for decomposition, allowing the microorganisms in your compost pile to work more efficiently.
  2. Adding to Compost: Mix the shredded paper into your compost pile or bin. This is preferable to just adding a layer on top, as mixing the paper in can help maintain an even balance of materials and speed up the decomposition process.
  3. Maintaining Balance: A healthy compost pile maintains a balance between ‘green’ materials, which are rich in nitrogen, and ‘brown’ materials, rich in carbon. Your brown paper bags count as a ‘brown’ material and should make up around two-thirds of your compost pile.
  4. Monitoring the Compost: Regularly check your compost pile for moisture and temperature. It should be about as damp as a wrung-out sponge and should warm up as decomposition progresses. If it gets too dry, add some water. If it becomes too wet, add more ‘brown’ materials.
  5. Turning the Compost: Turning or stirring your compost pile every few weeks will help aerate it, providing the necessary oxygen for the composting process and speeding up decomposition.
  6. Patience: Finally, remember that composting is a natural process that takes time. Depending on the balance and diversity of materials in your compost pile and the weather conditions, it may take anywhere from 2 to 6 months for your brown paper bags to fully decompose.

By following these steps, you can easily incorporate brown paper bags into your composting routine and help create nutrient-rich soil for your garden, all while reducing your waste output.

Case Studies

Several case studies and experiments illustrate the feasibility and environmental benefits of composting brown paper bags. These studies provide practical insights into the timeframe and conditions required for successful composting, supporting the claim that brown paper bags are indeed a valuable addition to the compost pile.

  1. The Compost Council of Canada Study: In a comprehensive study, The Compost Council of Canada set out to explore the compostability of paper products, including brown paper bags. The researchers composted these materials in a controlled environment, maintaining an ideal balance of ‘green’ and ‘brown’ elements, moisture, and temperature. The results were impressive. They found that the brown paper bags and other paper products were completely composted within a span of 14 weeks. The end product was a nutrient-rich compost, void of any remnants of the paper bags, demonstrating the effectiveness of including paper bags in compost.
  2. San Francisco’s Local Composting Program: The City of San Francisco runs a successful composting program as part of its efforts to achieve zero waste. Residents are encouraged to compost their organic waste, including brown paper bags. The city provides green bins for the collection of such waste, which is then composted at a commercial facility. The program has reported successful composting of paper bags, turning them into nutrient-dense compost used for local agriculture, thereby closing the loop on organic waste.
  3. University of Washington’s Student Project: A group of students at the University of Washington conducted an experiment to compost different types of paper, including brown paper bags, in a worm bin. They shredded the paper bags and mixed them with food waste. After a period of about 12 weeks, they found that the worms had effectively broken down the paper bags along with the food waste, creating a rich, fertile compost.

These case studies highlight that, given the right conditions, brown paper bags can be effectively composted within a few weeks to months. They provide strong support for the inclusion of brown paper bags in home composting systems, underpinning their contributions to a circular economy and a sustainable future.

Composting vs. Recycling Brown Paper Bags

When it comes to environmentally friendly disposal of brown paper bags, two primary options come to mind: composting and recycling. Both methods have their merits and can significantly reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills. However, there are distinct differences between the two, which may influence your choice depending on your circumstances and goals.

Composting: As we’ve discussed throughout this article, composting brown paper bags offers a multitude of benefits. These bags, made primarily of organic materials, can break down in a compost pile to enrich the soil with carbon and other essential nutrients. Composting at home also reduces the energy and resources associated with transporting and processing waste. Furthermore, the compost you produce can be directly used in your garden, contributing to the growth of plants and reducing the need for chemical fertilizers.

However, composting does require effort and space. You’ll need to maintain a compost pile or bin, ensure a proper balance of green and brown materials, and regularly turn the compost to facilitate the decomposition process.

Recycling: On the other hand, recycling brown paper bags involves reprocessing them to create new paper products, which can save trees and reduce the demand for virgin paper pulp. Many municipal recycling programs accept brown paper bags, making recycling a convenient option for those without the space or time for composting.

However, recycling isn’t without its drawbacks. The recycling process can be energy-intensive and often involves the use of chemicals to remove inks and other contaminants. Additionally, paper can only be recycled a limited number of times before the fibers become too short to be useful.

In summary, both composting and recycling offer viable ways to dispose of brown paper bags in an environmentally responsible manner. Your choice between the two may depend on your access to composting or recycling facilities, your lifestyle, and your personal preferences. The critical point is to avoid sending these bags straight to the landfill, as they hold much potential for reuse and repurposing.


Our journey through the world of composting brown paper bags has been both enlightening and encouraging. These humble carriers, crafted from the strength of trees and used daily worldwide, hold immense potential beyond their primary role. They can contribute significantly to our ongoing pursuit of sustainable living and waste reduction.

Composting brown paper bags is not just an environmentally responsible practice—it’s also a rewarding endeavor that enriches our gardens and fosters a deeper connection with the natural cycles of life and decay. As we’ve learned, these bags, when composted, provide a crucial source of carbon for our compost piles, helping to maintain the balance necessary for efficient decomposition.

Despite potential issues concerning inks, glues, and treatments, a keen eye and cautious selection of compostable brown bags can sidestep these obstacles. Composting may not be as convenient as tossing bags into the recycling bin, but the benefits to our gardens and the reduction in waste transportation and processing make the extra effort worthwhile.

We’ve also learned from various case studies that composting brown paper bags is not just a theoretical concept but a feasible and practical reality, already in action and producing positive results.

Choosing between composting and recycling brown paper bags can be influenced by individual circumstances, preferences, and local waste management facilities. However, the overarching goal remains the same: to minimize waste, utilize resources wisely, and strive for a sustainable lifestyle.

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