Is paper biodegradable?

In this short report we will be discussing the topic “is paper biodegradable?”. Some of the key aspects of paper’s chemical nature, its biodegradability, factors influencing biodegradability and its recyclability is also highlighted here. We will also be discussing the important aspects of paper making and its effect on our environment. 

Is paper biodegradable? 

Yes, the thin sheet of plain paper that we use in newspapers, posters, or in school notebooks are completely biodegradable and it takes only a few weeks for the biodegradation process to complete. However, it should also be understood that not all paper material is a plain thin sheet of paper. 

Cardboards for instance may take three months’ time to biodegrade whereas a milk carton will take sixty months to biodegrade. Though they are not as troublesome as plastic, they still pose some threats to our environment which need to be addressed at this time. 

Since the usage of paper is rising among the work environment and for regular purposes, its use is unavoidable, and industries are generating million tons of paper every year to meet the demand. 

What makes paper biodegradable? 

Biodegradation is a property whereby materials can be broken down to common elements such as carbon and water by the activity of enzymes produced by microorganisms. The naturally occurring microorganisms contain a specific set of enzymes that help in degradation of paper. 

However, when these enzymes are not present or are negligible, then we have a material that remains in our environment for a longer period and causes pollution. One such material is plastic which has been polluting our environment and causing harmful effects to the living beings. 

On the other hand, paper degrades easily provided the condition is right. Proper amounts of rainfall, humidity, heat, and oxygen can degrade paper within a few weeks. Paper is mostly made from the trees that are naturally occurring, environment-friendly material. Some of the raw material include wood pulp, recycled paper, rags, grasses, and vegetable sources. 

The cellulose present in the plant is the main component of the paper. Most of the plant eating herbivores have specialized enzymes called cellulase and laccasses that helps them digest their food. Since this enzyme is not present in us humans, we mostly consume cooked vegetables. 

Many microbes and fungi in our environment have cellulase that can degrade cellulose efficiently. Paper is also made from trees and hence the main component of paper is also cellulose which can be easily degraded by these microorganisms. Due to the presence of these microbes, the degradation of paper is fast, and it takes only a few weeks for it to completely biodegrade. 

You will be wondering, then why these microbes are not eating trees? This is due to the strong defensive mechanism of the trees against any microbes or diseases that provides it with a great survivability and longevity. 

The other factor that enhances its biodegradability of paper is its disintegration in water. Whether it is cold, hot water or steam, the paper dissolves quickly. Hence the environmental conditions are also a contributing factor for the biodegradation of paper. The biodegradation of paper is also enhanced in a compost where the worms also help to degrade it to make a compost. 

Composting is much better than dumping the paper in landfill as papers do not degrade much faster in landfill owing to the anaerobic conditions. Hence, if you are not up to recycling then use it for your compost that can favor the growth of your favorite plants and grasses. 

It should also be noted that plastic treated paper like the laminated glossy ones cannot be composted as they are not easily degraded due to the presence of plastic components. 

Is paper recycling eco-friendly? 

Paper recycling is an efficient way of reducing paper waste. Paper is an indispensable consumer product and its use among people and industries are unavoidable. China is the largest producer as well as consumers of paper. 

Equivalent to its production is the amount of waste generated. Paper waste is among the highest in the world with over 18 million tons of paper being dumped in landfill or recycled for its reuse. As paper is made from trees, the cutting down of trees poses a great threat to our environment. 

To match the production and demand of paper, companies have been recycling paper for the betterment of our environment. With the high demand for papers for the newspapers, articles and even in schools, they tend to produce a lot of waste. However, with every recycling the quality of paper gradually decreases as the fiber strength and whiteness decreases with each recycling. 

Moreover, paper tainted with paint, glue or food items cannot be recycled and must be disposed of by either incineration, landfilling or composting. Even though paper is an eco-friendly material, it consumes a lot of trees for its making which is not considered as an eco-friendly means.

Is paper making harmful to our environment? 

When it comes to the use of paper or plastic, they both pose a certain amount of threat to our environment but in different ways. By claiming that a product is biodegradable does not justify that it is eco-friendly. This is due to the number of chemicals used for the production or the source of the raw material, both of which are sabotaging the well-being of our environment. 

Paper, being biodegradable, is still a problem for our environment. The chemicals used for paper include chlorine, methanol, toluene, formaldehyde, and many more that are dumped into the natural resources. Not only are they hazardous in the event of an accident or deliberate risk, but they are also unsafe for many workers who are working in the pulp and paper industry. 

The paper making process also releases sulfur compounds and nitrogen oxides into the air that causes respiratory ailments. Thus, on a broader aspect, the paper making process creates air, water and land pollution similar to most of the plastic based products. Deforestation is another cause of concern where millions of trees are cut down by the paper industry to make paper. 

Since paper making mostly uses softwood, these are mostly obtained in large amounts from trees. Over 40% of the wood extracted from forest goes for paper making. As we all know that it takes ages for trees to grow and develop, the cutting of trees always out numbers its growth and hence the issue of deforestation. 

And what does deforestation have caused us – global warming, illegal harvesting, lacking forest conservation, pollution, even extinction of several species. Even if we consider recycling, papers can be recycled for only 6-7 times only, after which the fiber thickness decreases, and it becomes of poor quality. Then again, we have to depend on the only source of raw material, that is, trees. 

There are many ways by which its negative impact can be reduced to some extent. Use of bamboo, sugarcane, and paddy field waste for production of paper is a better alternative than the use of age-old trees. With proper use and reuse of paper by the commercial and industrial purchasers. 

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Conclusion 

In this report we have discussed the topic “is paper biodegradable?” and highlighted some of the key aspects that make paper biodegradable. Paper is an unavoidable commodity used on a large scale and its demand has increased evermore. This has resulted in large amounts of paper waste generated which are either dumped in landfill or recycled. 

Through this short discussion we have discussed different factors that make paper biodegradable. On a final note, we discussed the impact that paper mills have on our environment and how it can be taken care of. 

Frequently asked question (FAQs): Is paper biodegradable? 

How long does it take for paper to decompose? 

Paper takes very short time, in weeks, for it to completely decompose and degrade. Since paper is made from biodegradable material such as trees, it is easily degraded within a few weeks. Most of the microorganisms that we find in the natural habitat contain enzyme cellulase that help in degradation of paper. 

Paper has also been used as composting material because of its solubility in water and ease in degradation. However, papers that are laminated as seen in milk carton or glossy papers, contain plastic material and hence cannot be decomposed or composted. 

Is paper eco-friendly? 

Paper is one of the materials that can easily biodegrade. However, not all biodegradable material is eco-friendly. Though paper decomposes easily, they use a lot of chemicals for its making which causes severe forms of air and water pollution. 

Chlorine used for bleaching releases toxic chemicals in the air which causes respiratory ailment. Chemicals like toluene and formaldehyde are released into the water during their treatment process causing water pollution and death of many water animals. 

Moreover, recycling paper consumes more energy than making from scratch. With every recycling process, the quality of paper reduces, and hence more wood pulp is added which comes from the tree. 

Is printed paper biodegradable? 

Printed paper is easy to recycle. Be it a printed bill, travel documents or semester notes, these can be easily recycled into printer papers. There are also ways by which you can reduce the usage of print paper such as by printing on both sides or reuse the printed papers for packaging. 

Is all tissue paper compostable? 

Yes, tissue papers are completely biodegradable as these are made from natural tree fibers. These are also compostable if proper conditions such as humidity, air and water is provided. The only cause of concern with the tissue paper biodegradability is its packing material. 

The packing material being plastic will non-biodegrade and stay in landfill for many years causing plastic pollution. Some tissue papers that contain synthetic coating or glitter do not biodegrade as these glitters are made from plastic. 

What kind of paper can not be recycled? 

It is common knowledge that papers are biodegradable. Surprisingly, many kinds of paper are not only non-biodegradable but are also not eco-friendly.  Papers used for sanitary and toilet papers cannot be recycled because of the concerns of its contamination. Wax papers that are coated with wax also cannot be recycled as it is a type of mixed paper. 

Does paper break down in water? 

Yes, paper breaks down completely in all forms of water. Be it a cold water, hot water or steam, paper disintegrates as it is made of cellulose fiber. These fibers absorb water efficiently causing them to break down. 

Does paper naturally break down? 

Yes, paper breaks down by the naturally occurring microorganisms. This process is enhanced by sunlight, oxygen and by its solubility and within two to six weeks, paper is completely biodegraded. However, these conditions are not present in landfill where anaerobic activity occurs. Aerobic bacteria that require oxygen for its action are not present in landfill, and it will take much longer for the natural biodegradation process to occur. 

References 

Song Chao, Li Wanwu, Cai Fanfan, Liu Guangqing, Chen Chang. Anaerobic and Microaerobic Pretreatment for Improving Methane Production From Paper Waste in Anaerobic Digestion. Frontiers in Microbiology. 2021, 12(1520). Doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2021.688290 

Pulp Fiction: Chemical Hazard Reduction At Pulp And Paper Mills. Environment America. 2007. https://environmentamerica.org/reports/ame/pulp-fiction-chemical-hazard-reduction-pulp-and-paper-mills 

Vrachovska, Merilin. 11 Types of Paper That Cannot Be Recycled. Almost Zero Waste. https://www.almostzerowaste.com/non-recyclable-paper/

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