Can paper bags be composted?

Curious to know if paper bags can be composted? This guide to composting paper bags will tell you when it’s okay to toss them in the compost bin (and when it’s not!), and provides some eco-friendly ways to reduce paper bag use.

crumpled paper bag in a white ceramic compost bin on a countertop

Do you strive to be eco-friendly in the kitchen? Us too! There are many factors to consider in sustainable living, all the way down to the paper bags you use and whether or not you compost them. Before your paper bags go in the compost, it’s important to know if they’re contaminated with ingredients that can’t be broken down.

👉 Paper bags can be composted as long as the paper is made with a biodegradable, plant-based material. Any non-compostable waste, such as meat or dairy, should be removed from paper bags before tossing them in the compost pile. If they are covered in film, wax, or dye, they should not be added to compost.

To know if you can compost your paper bags, you should become familiar with how paper bags are made, how they decompose, and when to avoid adding them to the compost.

Ready to learn about whether you can throw paper bags in the compost bin? Let’s do it!

🤎 What are paper bags?

Paper bags are a type of packaging made from paper. They are commonly used as shopping bags and for storing consumer goods.

The most common type of paper bag you will see are brown paper bags, which are typically available at grocery stores. Most paper bags are made from kraft paper or recycled paper.

Because paper bags are made from paper, they can be recycled and composted most of the time. Paper bags made with porous, non-coated paper are excellent for composting, as they add carbon to the pile and break down quickly.

While all paper bags are inherently compostable, the type of paper they’re made with, the ink they contain, and the type of adhesive used is ultimately what determines whether or not they can go in the compost bin. Generally, the paper bags you get at the grocery store will be free of non-compostable inks and adhesives.

♻️ Compost-friendly paper bags

In order for paper bags to be compostable, they must be made entirely of plant-based material, from the ink used for the design on the outside to the adhesive on the handles.

Before tossing a paper bag in compost, make sure it has the following properties:

  • Made of brown and porous paper
  • If ink is used, it should be water or soy-based
  • Any adhesive used to make the bag should be starch-based

Inks and adhesives are typically made from plant-based materials, but it is a good idea to do your research if you’re not sure about the paper bags at a particular store.

stack of paper grocery bags on a countertop

❌ Which types of paper bags should not be composted?

Although basic brown paper bags are safe to compost, there are a few exceptions. What makes some paper bags non-compostable are the ingredients or treatments added to them.

Here are the types of paper bags that are not compostable:

  1. Bags coated with metal, plastic, or any other ingredients that are not plain paper
  2. Bags covered with film, wax, or dye
  3. Bags that are contaminated with non-compostable waste, like animal products

Sustainability tip! Keep in mind that paper bags can still be recycled even if they don’t meet the criteria to be composted.

♻️ How to compost paper bags

Composting paper bags is pretty easy to do. There are a few things for you to keep in mind before adding them to your compost pile.

Here are the steps to take to compost paper bags:

  1. Shred the paper. Before tossing a paper bag in a compost pile, you should shred the paper first. This will help it break down more quickly which is a win for the composting process. Shredded paper can also be mixed with the rest of the compost more easily.
  2. Clean off non-compostable waste. If your paper bag was used to store meat or dairy products, you should wipe it down before composting. This will prevent complications with the compost, such as unwanted pests or odors.
  3. Maintain the carbon to nitrogen balance. Paper bags add carbon to your compost, so it’s important to mix it with plenty of nitrogen-rich materials. These include items like vegetable trimmings, green leaves, coffee grounds, houseplants, and weeds.
  4. Mix the paper into the compost. Combine the paper with the other ingredients to ensure a well-balanced compost pile.

Note that you can use paper bags to collect compostable items. If you do this, remember that it may take a little longer for it to break down since you won’t be able to shred the bag.

white compost bin containing an old paper bag

❓ How long do paper bags take to decompose?

The length of time it takes for paper bags to decompose depends on the method that you use to compost them.

For example, if you shred the bag before composting, it will take less time to break down. It typically takes no longer than 6 to 8 weeks for them to decompose.

It takes longer for paper bags to decompose if they’re not shredded and if they’re in less than optimal compost conditions. If the compost pile is large and lacks oxygen, it could take up to a year for paper bags to break down.

🌱 Eco-friendly paper bag ideas

Composting your paper bags is a great step to take to better the environment. It’s easy and adds balance to your compost pile.

Here are some other eco-friendly paper bag tips to consider:

  • Reuse your paper bags as much as you can. When you bring brown paper bags home from the store, try to get more than one use out of them. You can use them for storage, to collect recycling and compost, as wrapping paper, and even to help ripen fruit.
  • If you aren’t able to compost, recycle paper bags. Since they’re made out of paper, paper bags can be recycled. This is a great option if you haven’t started composting yet.
  • Opt for reusable bags. Paper bags are compostable, but when you think about how many that we use, that’s a lot for the environment to keep up with. Stock up on some reusable bags so you don’t need to collect paper bags every time you go to the store.
an old paper bag inside of a compost bin on a kitchen countertop

🌎 More zero waste kitchen + composting tips

Looking for more ways to go green in the kitchen? We’ve got you covered with these sustainable kitchen guides:

Want more inspiration for going green in the kitchen? Join the Green Living Community for plant-based recipes, sustainable kitchen hacks, and get our FREE guide to meal planning to reduce food waste!

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  1. I’ve got a ton of paper grocery bags and I’m trying to decide whether to throw them in the green bin (compost), or the blue bin (recycle). Searched way too long and haven’t found a solid answer! 

    1. I hope this article helped! They can definitely be thrown in the green (compost) bin as long as they aren’t soiled with oils. Otherwise they’re a great addition to your compost pile!

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