Can You Compost Paper Bags? (And Are There Any Exceptions?)

  • By: Sam Richards
  • Date: July 30, 2023
  • Time to read: 9 min.

The art of composting, a process that transforms organic waste into nutrient-rich soil, is steadily gaining momentum as a key strategy in our pursuit of a more sustainable way of life. This ecological practice is renowned for its capacity to mitigate waste production while simultaneously enhancing soil fertility, thus creating a positive feedback loop that can significantly benefit both the environment and our gardens.

A question that often arises within this context pertains to the compostability of everyday items, specifically paper bags. As many of us encounter paper bags regularly – whether they’re used for groceries, takeout, or other shopping needs – understanding their impact and potential for composting becomes increasingly important.

In this article, we aim to delve into the world of composting paper bags, beginning by examining the composition of paper bags, and how this affects their ability to compost. We then highlight the benefits of including paper bags in your compost pile, outlining their contributions to the composting process. Potential issues and challenges with composting paper bags are also brought to light, presenting a balanced perspective on this topic. We also guide you on best practices for effectively composting paper bags at home. Additionally, we’ll compare the process of composting paper bags at home with composting at commercial facilities, to give a wider understanding of the topic.

As we delve into the subject, we hope to provide a comprehensive understanding of whether you can compost paper bags, how to do so, and the pros and cons involved in the process.

The Composition of Paper Bags

Paper bags, a familiar item seen in our day-to-day activities, have a fundamental composition that lends itself well to composting. The bulk of these bags are made from cellulose fibers. These fibers are derived from trees through a process that involves breaking down wood into pulp and then reforming it into sheets, which are then folded and glued into the shape of bags.

Cellulose is an organic compound that forms the structural basis of plants, which is why paper, derived from trees, essentially remains a plant product. This factor is critical because it means that paper bags, much like other plant products, can be broken down into simpler components by the plethora of microbes that inhabit a compost pile.

However, paper bags are not purely composed of cellulose fibers. They can also contain inks used for printing logos or other information, and adhesives used to hold the bag’s shape together. The nature of these additions can significantly influence the compostability of the bag.

Most modern paper bags use inks derived from soy, which is more environmentally friendly and compostable compared to petroleum-based inks. However, there may still be instances where more harmful inks are used. Similarly, the adhesives used can vary, and while many are harmless in a composting environment, some might be less conducive to composting.

Furthermore, some paper bags may also have a thin interior lining made from plastic or wax to make them more durable or suitable for carrying moist goods. This lining, while useful for the bag’s primary function, may not be compostable and could complicate the composting process.

So while paper bags, at their core, are composed of compostable cellulose fibers, the additional elements that give them their final form could present challenges when it comes to composting.

The Pros of Composting Paper Bags

The act of composting paper bags carries a multitude of benefits that extend beyond just the reduction of waste. These benefits, rooted in both environmental sustainability and compost dynamics, help underline why composting paper bags can be such a positive practice.

  1. Rich in Carbon: Paper bags, being derived from wood, are an excellent source of carbon, one of the essential elements needed for successful composting. Compost piles need a balance of carbon-rich “brown” materials (like paper, leaves, or straw) and nitrogen-rich “green” materials (like vegetable scraps or coffee grounds). This balance, often referred to as the “C:N ratio,” is crucial for the effective functioning of the microorganisms that drive the composting process. The addition of paper bags can help maintain this balance, particularly when you have an excess of green materials.
  2. Quick to Decompose: When shredded into smaller pieces, paper bags break down relatively quickly due to their thin and fibrous structure. The increased surface area provided by shredding allows composting organisms to break down the material more rapidly, thereby accelerating the overall composting process.
  3. Absorbs Excess Moisture: In a compost pile, maintaining the correct moisture levels is crucial. Too much moisture can lead to a soggy, anaerobic pile that decomposes slowly and produces foul odors. Paper bags can effectively absorb excess moisture, ensuring the pile stays at the optimal moisture level for the aerobic decomposition process to occur.
  4. Reduces Landfill Waste: From a broader environmental perspective, composting paper bags can help reduce the volume of waste that ends up in landfills. By diverting paper bags into compost piles, we can minimize our waste footprint and contribute to a more sustainable circular economy.

Given these compelling benefits, composting paper bags can be a highly advantageous practice for both individual composters and the wider environment.

Potential Issues with Composting Paper Bags

While composting paper bags brings several benefits, it’s also important to be aware of potential challenges or concerns that might arise. Here’s a deeper exploration of potential issues that can occur when composting paper bags:

  1. Non-compostable Elements: Some paper bags may contain components that aren’t compost-friendly, including certain inks, adhesives, or plastic linings. These materials might not decompose in the composting process and could possibly introduce harmful substances into your compost. Although most modern paper bags use soy-based inks and safe adhesives, it’s still important to be cautious, particularly with bags that have glossy prints or are unusually resistant to water—both signs that they might contain less compost-friendly materials.
  2. Glossy or Treated Paper Bags: Bags that have a glossy finish or have been treated with certain chemicals to increase their durability or water resistance may pose a problem. These additives may not break down in the compost and could potentially introduce undesirable substances into your compost pile.
  3. Compost Balance: While paper bags are an excellent source of carbon, composting a large volume of paper could upset the balance of your compost pile by overly increasing the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. If your pile has too much carbon material (like paper), it can slow down the composting process and lead to a pile that’s too dry. A balance of carbon and nitrogen materials is crucial for creating a thriving environment for the microbes that break down the compost.

Understanding these potential challenges is vital in ensuring that your paper bag composting efforts are both effective and environmentally responsible. It helps you anticipate and mitigate problems, leading to healthier, richer compost.

How to Compost Paper Bags Properly

Composting paper bags can be a relatively straightforward process, provided you follow a few key steps. Here’s a more detailed, step-by-step guide to composting paper bags effectively:

Step 1: Selection of Appropriate Bags

Before you start composting, it’s crucial to identify which bags are suitable for composting. Generally, plain, untreated paper bags are most suitable. Be cautious of bags with glossy prints or those that appear to have a plastic or wax lining, as these might not be compost-friendly.

Step 2: Removal of Non-compostable Elements

Take a moment to remove any non-compostable components from the bag. This might include handles, labels, or any attached non-paper elements. If there is printing on the bag, check if the ink is compost-safe. Most modern paper bags use soy-based inks, but if you’re unsure, it might be best to cut away heavily printed sections.

Step 3: Shredding the Paper Bags

Once you’ve ensured the bag is compost-friendly, the next step is to tear or shred it into smaller pieces. Smaller pieces provide a larger surface area for the composting organisms to work on, speeding up the decomposition process. Shredding also helps the paper to mix more evenly with other compost materials, promoting a well-balanced compost pile.

Step 4: Adding the Shredded Bags to Your Compost Pile

Add the shredded paper bags to your compost pile or bin. Ensure they are well mixed with other compost materials to maintain a healthy balance of carbon (“browns”) and nitrogen (“greens”).

Step 5: Maintaining the Compost Pile

Maintaining your compost pile is an ongoing process. Regularly turn your compost pile to introduce oxygen, which is crucial for the aerobic decomposition process. Also, keep an eye on the moisture level of your compost pile. It should be like a wrung-out sponge; damp, but not dripping wet. If it gets too wet, you can add more shredded paper bags or other brown materials to soak up excess moisture.

By following these steps, you can ensure that your paper bags contribute positively to your compost, enriching the final product while diverting waste away from the landfill.

Commercial Composting vs. Home Composting

Understanding the differences between commercial composting and home composting can shed light on where paper bags fit into the composting landscape.

Commercial Composting

Commercial composting facilities are specifically designed to handle large volumes of organic waste, and they often have the capacity to compost a broader range of materials compared to a home setup. This is because commercial composting occurs on a large scale, utilizing machinery to turn the compost regularly, and achieving higher temperatures due to the sheer volume of composting materials. These elevated temperatures can break down more challenging materials and kill pathogens and weed seeds, which may not be fully destroyed in a home composting system.

In the context of paper bags, commercial composting facilities are usually equipped to compost them, even if they have minor components that might not break down easily at home, like certain inks or adhesives. However, it’s always essential to check with the specific facility, as guidelines can vary.

Home Composting

Home composting, on the other hand, is generally a smaller-scale, less controlled process. It relies on the balance of materials added, the local climate, and regular manual turning to maintain aeration. While home composting systems can handle a variety of organic waste, they may struggle with materials that take a long time to decompose or that require high temperatures to break down.

When composting paper bags at home, it’s important to ensure that the bags are appropriate for home composting. As discussed earlier, bags should be free of non-compostable elements and ideally shredded to facilitate decomposition.

In conclusion, while both commercial and home composting can handle paper bags, the extent and efficiency may vary. It’s important to be aware of these nuances to make the best composting decisions. Remember, each composting method plays a crucial role in waste management and soil fertility enhancement.


The process of composting serves as a dynamic intersection of waste management and environmental sustainability, offering a unique solution that benefits both our planet and our gardens. Within this context, the prospect of composting everyday items, like paper bags, adds another dimension to this eco-friendly practice.

Through this exploration, it’s clear that paper bags, due to their largely cellulose-based composition, can indeed be composted. When composted properly, they offer numerous benefits including the provision of much-needed carbon content, absorption of excess moisture, and the hastening of the overall composting process. Moreover, composting paper bags significantly contributes to reducing landfill waste, strengthening our efforts toward environmental conservation.

However, it’s equally important to acknowledge the potential issues that might arise, such as the presence of non-compostable elements or upsetting the balance of your compost pile. Awareness of these challenges paves the way for informed composting practices, ensuring that our methods remain both effective and environmentally responsible.

Finally, understanding the difference between commercial and home composting can guide us in our composting decisions, particularly in relation to paper bags. While both methods have their strengths, it’s crucial to align our practices with the requirements and limitations of each method to ensure optimal results.

In summary, composting paper bags is not only feasible but can also be highly beneficial, provided it’s done thoughtfully and responsibly. So, the next time you’re left with a paper bag, consider feeding it to your compost pile instead of throwing it in the trash. By doing so, you’ll be taking a small but significant step toward a more sustainable future.

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