There are many items that can be both composted and recycled (e.g., un-soiled paper, cotton clothing, cardboard). The question is – what should I do with these items: recycle or compost?
I didn’t know the answer for a while, so I figured there may be a bunch of other folks who are also confused, and I thought I’d share what I’ve learned.
Anything that’s ever been alive biodegrades. That includes: leaves, twigs, bark, food (of all types: vegetables, meat, dairy, grains, even egg shells & bones), cotton (including dryer lint or pure cotton clothing), paper (comes from trees), cardboard… the list goes on.
Common items that don’t biodegrade include: metals (like aluminum foil), plastic (made from petroleum), or glass.
Anything that biodegrades can be put into a compost (and many things that both biodegrade and don’t biodegrade can be recycled). So which is better? If an item can be both composted & recycled – on the whole, recycling it is better for the environment.
It takes less energy to recycle (and in essence re-purpose or re-use) a piece of paper or an old piece of clothing than it does to break this item down through biodegradation and then make a brand new piece of paper or cotton t-shirt. And clearly, using less energy is good for the environment.
Now you also have to apply some common sense here – if your recycling center is a 50 mile drive away and your compost is in your backyard, then the math is pretty clear in the other direction. But for the most part this rule will hold true.
A few other things to remember: - soiled paper cannot be recycled and should go into the compost - it’s fine to add a bit of paper to your composting bin to make sure to soak up the other wet contents and make sure items are biodegrading (although try to do this w/ soiled paper if possible) - some sources cite that the market for recycled goods has been hard hit by the economic downturn and that scrap goods which were set to be recycled are now being shifted to landfills due to a lack of buyers. If this perpetuates, it could end up being more efficient to switch to composting. For now, stick with recycling - if you do end up composting paper, be careful not to compost heavily inked papers (e.g., magazines) – this can contaminate your compost - paper/cardboard makes up nearly 40% of our landfill waste, so get that stuff into the recycling bin