When you go to the grocery store, you may get brown paper bags. These can be readily recycled, however, they could also be composted.

I would think that recycling requires energy, whereas composting requires no energy other than that needed to stir the pile periodically. Are you giving up energy by composting that you would reclaim by recycling and if so, does the difference make up for the energy required to perform the composting?

So which is more energy efficient to recycle or compost brown paper bags?

  • I would assume it takes even more energy to grow a tree from the compost and convert that into paper again. Maybe that means recycling is better. I don't have any numbers, though.
    – Earthliŋ
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 22:28
  • 13
    If the bags are the heavier variety, you can probably get a couple of uses out of them -- better than either composting or recycling.
    – bstpierre
    Commented Feb 1, 2013 at 22:41
  • The question to ask here, imo, is what do you get out of composting paper?
    – elssar
    Commented Feb 2, 2013 at 13:01
  • Interesting. It seems there is more beneficial to compost paper than I thought.
    – elssar
    Commented Feb 2, 2013 at 13:06
  • 8
    Probably the better option is to remember to bring your own bag to the market and eliminate the need for the paper bag altogether.
    – Walter
    Commented Feb 2, 2013 at 14:04

7 Answers 7


Strictly in terms of energy efficiency, you're not gaining or saving energy by composting, but you're offsetting the energy needed to cut and process new trees by recycling the bags into new bags. So, from an energy perspective, recycling probably wins.

For which one is 'better' (in the question title), we'd need to define better. It might also be good to look at nutrient flow from sustainably managed tree farms to your backyard as a result of composting, and whether that's a sustainable flow since the tree farms will need to obtain new nutrients from somewhere. Chris' point that reduce and reuse come before recycle/compost is definitely valid, though.


reduce, re-use, recycle, in that order. Get the uses you can out of the bags first. When that's done we get to the recycling bit. This includes basically three things you can do:

  1. Official recycling. This is probably the best thing to do with bags you have no other specific uses for. However in addition you can:

  2. papermaking (there are good how-tos on this on the internet). You can make your own paper or cardboard for craft uses. Fun and 100% post-consumer recycled ;-)

  3. Mulching. I am not a fan of just throwing paper in the compost heap unless you are trying to shift the C-N balance towards C (treat paper as "brown") but it can make a very good lower level for sheet mulching. See "Gaia's Garden" for more information on this technique of soil building. Here the purpose of the paper would be as much to act as a temporary mulching barrier as it would be to feed into the compost.

  • 1
    +1 I also put my paper (mostly corrugated cardboard though) on my veggie beds to suppress weeds and help keep moisture in. They do tend to compost in situ given enough time :-)
    – frIT
    Commented May 17, 2016 at 17:11

Paper products should always be recycled first before composting (assuming they are clean and dry). This gives them another 'go' round the system. Once composted it takes a lot more time and resources to turn them back into paper.


Something to think about; while recycling (I'd say) is the better option (as long as the paper doesn't have grease etc), a large percentage ends up in landfill.

So is it better to recycle everything you can and have some sit in landfill but others save overall resources by being recycled? Or is it better to compost, so you know 100% of the paper is staying out of landfill?

Personally I think it's worth looking up how much recycling in your area, actually gets recycled.


It's much, much better to compost than to recycle, if you can. While recycling does use less energy than making these items from non-recycled materials, it's still not perfect - lots of energy goes into treating and processing the recycled paper. Recycled paper has a carbon footprint of only around 30% less than standard paper. That's not to say you shouldn't recycle; 30% less is still pretty good, but if you have the option to compost, absolutely do. Brown paper bags haven't been treated with bleach or dye either, so they're perfect for the garden!

  • 5
    Welcome to Sustainable Living! I'm not sure I understand your answer. You say composting is much better than recycling, but your main argument seems to be that recycling uses less energy. Could you elaborate what exactly makes composting better?
    – THelper
    Commented May 13, 2016 at 7:09

Sometimes combustion is better than composting. Ash is a rich source of concentrated phosphate, is water soluble instantly. Yes you can shred and compost brown paper bags, be they lunch bag or large grocery bag. Never the less you can also shred them and add them to soil as is, food for the worms


i suggest reuse many times then recycle nth times or compost if not possible. btw, paper pulp are forever recycable.

  • Paper can only be recycled about 6-7 times because then the paper fibers get too short.
    – THelper
    Commented Nov 1, 2017 at 20:46

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