Newspaper and other recycled paper without glossy or colored inks are currently allowed in certified organic crop production as mulch for weed control and as a compost feedstock. These types of papers, considered to be “synthetic” substances, were granted an exception to be allowed in organic production when the National Organic Program (NOP) regulations were first implemented. The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) has affirmed the allowance for these types of paper during subsequent periodic “Sunset” Reviews. Although there are many natural alternatives available for mulching and composting, papers are effective and widely available, and it is generally regarded as environmentally beneficial to divert these wastes from landfills.
The NOSB is conducting a supplemental review to further evaluate the ingredients in paper and their fate in the environment. To support the review, the NOP contracted development of a technical report that focuses on the use of colored paper and inks, and specifically their composition and biodegradability. The full report is now available here.
Paper is made from cellulose, primarily from the pulping of wood fibers. In the United States, about 63% of paper and paperboard is recovered, and the remaining portion goes into landfills. Only a portion of recovered paper is suitable for recycling.
A range of ingredients may be used for printing on newspaper, packaging materials, and other printed paper. Black inks are most common, and are composed of oils (from petroleum or vegetable sources) and carbon black (from petroleum). Colored inks contain elemental compounds in various formulations to achieve a certain color combination. Heavy metal compounds used in some print applications, such as lead chromate and cadmium sulfide (each providing yellow color) may be of toxicological concern. Other ingredients and additives that may be contained in newspapers and recycled papers include toners, gloss, adhesives, glues, waxes, resins and plastic polymers.
Although paper itself is readily and fully biodegradable, the environmental fate of the inks and other additives is less certain. Some glues may biodegrade, and black inks are generally non-toxic. Elemental compounds, such as those used in colored inks, are persistent and may accumulate in soil through repeated use of color-printed paper as mulch or in compost. Over time, these could pose a toxicological threat to soil organisms.
The NOSB is expected to discuss the findings of the report at their next meeting, which will occur October 31 – November 2 in Jacksonville, Florida. Oral comments concerning all agenda topics can be provided via webinar on October 24 or October 26, or in person during the meeting. Written comments can be submitted in advance of the meeting. Meeting details and instructions for providing comments are available through the NOSB meeting webpage here.
Johanna Mirenda holds a bachelor's degree in Horticultural Science with a minor in Biology from Pennsylvania State University, and is currently enrolled in a master's program in Sustainable Food Systems at Green Mountain College. She studied agriculture and ecology in Peru and New Zealand, and has several years of academic research experience in plant nutrition. Prior to joining OMRI, she served as the Policy Director for Pennsylvania Certified Organic (PCO), a USDA-accredited certification agency. Johanna lives in Vermont with her husband Jason and their dog Moose.