How long does it take for paper to decompose?

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On average, it takes paper approximately 2-6 weeks to decompose in a landfill. Paper is the most prominent waste element occupying most landfills today (paper makes up for around 25% of landfill waste and around 33% of municipal waste).

Different environmental conditions play a role with regard to the rate at which it takes paper to decompose. For example, paper in a compost heap exposed to oxygen (and turned regularly) will decompose far quicker than paper buried in an anaerobic landfill where little to no oxygen is present. This is why newspapers from many years ago can be found at the bottom of landfills.

By recycling paper, you can help to save landfill space and also reduce the energy and virgin material resources that would otherwise be necessary to manufacture non-recycled paper. Measuring the rate at which paper decomposes is a broad question, which depends on various factors and influences.

Some of these include:

  • Climate factors (heat / rain / sunlight exposure etc.)
  • The presence of paper eating insects / bugs / mites / worms
  • Exposure to / lack of oxygen
  • Types of paper (e.g. newspaper, paper bags, conventional art paper)

In case you’re wondering, paper is rich in starch and therefore an appealing food source for several types of bugs and worms. Some of these include termites, cockroaches, booklice and bookworms. The rate at which paper decomposes by bugs and worms depends on how infested the area is with such organisms.

In America, approximately 70 million tons of paper and cardboard is used each year. Around 65% of this paper waste is estimated to be recyclable (meaning that a large amount of un-recycled paper waste finds its way into landfills and oceans).

Paper can be recycled approximately six times – as each time paper is recycled, wood fibers are broken down, becoming smaller and smaller.

We also wrote an article on the rate at which trees are cut down in order to satisfy the demand for toilet paper – you can read this here.

paper waste

How long does it take for paper to decompose in soil / compost?

On average, it takes paper around 4 to 6 weeks to break down in soil. Of course, the factors discussed above, such as the presence of insects, turning regularity and oxygen exposure all play a role in the length of time it takes paper to decompose in soil.

Paper can be either recycled or composted (in soil). Identifying the best solution for your paper waste depends on various factors. For example, paper or cardboard that is no longer clean enough to be recycled (fast food / grease etc.), should be composted instead of being disposed of in general waste. 

Does paper dissolve in water?

While there are various biodegradable paper options on the market that can quickly dissolve in water, most conventional paper is not so sensitive to water and therefore takes longer to break down. This is due to an almost ‘neutral’ PH-level in conventional paper that requires acids (such as hydrochloric acid) to be present in order to dissolve.

In recent times, water soluble (or biodegradable paper) has become increasingly popular. This paper can quickly dissolve (within 30 seconds) in water or alternatively can slowly biodegrade in damper conditions. 

Water soluble paper is made using a paper-based material deriving from cellulose and other compostable ingredients.

We also wrote an article discussing the volume of trees cut down each day and year as a result of conventional toilet paper usage – you can read this here.

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