Paper has a relatively short life-cycle (compared to natural gas or crude oil) and belongs to sustainable materials. Paper can be nicely recycled by:

  • reusing
    • making notes on the other side of one-side-print sheets
    • letting children draw their art on the other side
  • recycling to paper again
  • burning (I'm just preparing to produce & burn paper briquettes)
  • composting

Not all kinds of paper are suitable for all those ways. Reusing is possible only with relatively good quality and less printed paper. Composting is probably the very last choice.

So which kind of paper is suitable for recycling to paper again and which should be left to be burned? What kind of criteria should I use to decide?

The motivation of this question is (partly) because of my experience when cardboard is sometimes excluded from collection by a recycling company.

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    I'm not clear on why composting is the very last choice. Barring any possibility of reuse or recycling, burning seems like the exact opposite of sustainability. Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 0:20
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    @RobertCartaino: Depending on what's on the paper, composting might be a bad idea due to the possibility of heavy metals in the inks. In that case, though, I wouldn't want to burn it either.
    – bstpierre
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 3:03
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    Also, from a sustainability point of view, there's a big fundamental difference between burning something like wood-pulp paper (the carbon dumped into the air is the same carbon that the tree pulled out of the air in order to make that wood) and burning oil or coal (the carbon dumped into the air is carbon that was pulled out of underground, natural, and millennia-stable sequestration) Commented Nov 3, 2013 at 1:55
  • Especially if it can be burnt in a waste-to-energy plant... :-)
    – Flyto
    Commented Nov 9, 2013 at 15:55

2 Answers 2


You should avoid buring paper as this is the exact opposite of sustainability.

Why is that? Because burning paper simply converts the paper into greenhouse gases like CO2 and sometimes - depending on the ink or coating - toxic substances blown straight into the atmosphere.

In addition, burned paper can not be recycled. It's a waste of ressources. Recycling paper is very easy and to produce new paper from recycled paper costs less energy and water ressources. That's why it is environmentally friendly and sustainable.

But to answer your question, of course there is paper that can not be recycled. I've been working in a project to reduce waste from one-way coffee cups and we were researching how to dispose or recycle them correctly. The result was that even if they were made from recycled paper, they could not be recycled again because they were too dirty.

To conclude, paper should be reused or recycled if anyhow possible. This is the only sustainable way. But if it is contaminated with dirt, special inks or coatings or similar, it is not possible to recycle them correctly. But as mentioned in comments, burning the paper is no option. In the end, if recycling or composting are not available due to contamination, you should consider to dispose it with the regular garbage.

  • 3
    Paper is mostly made of wood pulp which is produced from CO2, water, oxygen, minerals and energy via photosynthesis. Burning disassembles those substances back into their basic forms and releases the energy. From this point of view, burning the paper is sustainable. The discrepancy is the time needed to grow the wood needed to produce paper and the time needed to reverse it back.
    – Peter Ivan
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 11:09
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    Organic material if burned does not increase the amount of greenhouse gases in the lithosphere and atmosphere,
    – Umberto
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 12:53
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    I'd tend to agree that burning paper solely for disposal is a waste of resources, but what about for things like a fireplace, i.e. in cases where one would otherwise be burning wood? How does paper stack up as an alternative there? (Is it inefficient because it doesn't burn long enough?)
    – Yumecosmos
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 18:24
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    @Yumecosmos: I'm preparing to produce & burn paper briquettes in my fireplace instead of wood. But I have no experience with it, that's why this question.
    – Peter Ivan
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 21:28
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    @PeterIvan, your point is valid in the most abstract sense, but not in the specific case of the world we live in today. Tree growth is not rate limited by CO2 right now - if that were the case, we'd be seeing a rapid rise in tree growth as CO2 levels have risen to ~400ppm. So, adding a bit more of it to the air will not help grow a new tree. But, it will add a little more to the infrared blanket that's "warming" the earth. What you'd rather do is recycle it, reducing the need to cut down a new tree, or sequester it in the ground. +1 to Don.
    – Nate
    Commented May 5, 2013 at 3:33

I would probably avoid burning paper in a fireplace for heating a home. There are a few very big problems with doing this from a safety perspective. The biggest issue is that sheet paper when burned tends to release very different kinds of embers than does wood, and I would be concerned that these may increase the risk of chimney fires and other things. I am also not convinced that this would be good from an air quality perspective either.

If I were to try to get around these problems I would start by mashing the paper and moulding it, but this would not work on waxed paper, would take time to dry thoroughly, etc. and it would probably only work really well with things like newsprint that are easily recycled.

This being said everything is a matter of tradeoffs. If you live in an area where you can readily get orchard wood, that's probably your most sustainable bet. Following that you could try to mash and mold bricks out of paper, letting them cure in a warm dry place until use. At least that's post-consumer. You could then use the other forms of paper that are waxed, etc. as starter.

  • Do you have any resources on different embers/ashes of paper? I attribute the trouble with residue chimney tar more to lower temperature of fire than to burning paper itself.
    – Peter Ivan
    Commented Feb 17, 2013 at 21:17
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    maybe it would be a good idea to gather the technical challenges of cleanly burning paper in a separate question.
    – mart
    Commented Apr 3, 2013 at 9:36
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    Paper, depending on how it is sourced, may be contaminated with plastic tape and plastic coatings too, which I understand when burned may produce air pollution containing dangerous compounds such as dioxin. Commented May 31, 2017 at 1:17

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