Composting Waste Paper and Cardboard

Hi to all eco-friendly people.

Most probably we are all keen to do our bit in the restoration of soil health. The sustainable growing of food depends on it. Within our eco village we have some resources which can work towards that objective. Projects such as described below can help to build our sense of achievement and hope for the future.

We have very large amounts of waste paper and card-board which would ultimately end up in land fill if it is not recycled into new cardboard.

Old chicken manure and tree mulch are delivered to us, for a relatively low cost.

We have a couple of dams which, at certain times of the year, can provide us with Azolla and duckweed (Lemna minor) for harvesting.

Paper, card-board, chicken manure, tree mulch and Azolla can be combined, then composted, to provide an organic “sump” in the ground for retaining water and enriching the soil.

Initial experimentation has gone on here for a couple of years, and seems to be working well. I have now started another small above-ground system for continuing trials. Below is an explanation of the process with several pictures to help you understand it. Please ask any questions you have and I will try to answer them as best I can. There is still lots to learn and maybe there are others who wish to get involved in the research – an Eco-Community effort.

Let's get started!

One of the main advantages of composting this type of material is that, if there is contamination with food, drink or grease, this does not interfere with but improves organic breakdown in the compost process.

Mixed waste paper and cardboard from egg cartons, cereal packets, toilet roll tubes, etc., plus paper bags, newspaper, paper towels, serviettes, wrappers (as long as they really are paper, not plastic).

Plastic bags shoved into cartons, plus as much plastic tape as possible, must be removed before composting.

All the paper and card-board must be torn up into approximately hand-sized pieces. Larger pieces will prevent air and water from freely distributing throughout the pile.

Inks, including the colours, are no problem. A good bio-diverse compost will cope easily with those, breaking them down chemically and combining them into the biomass. Worms love it!

A good soaking with water is added to the paper at this stage.

Azolla was harvested from the main dam on the left as you drive up from the Main Gate.

Azolla filiculoides, as you see here is an aquatic fern, with the amazing ability to “fix” nitrogen from the air. Nutrients washed down into the dam are removed by the Azolla, to be used as fertiliser, chook feed supplement, and as an aid in composting.

Earlier in the year, a considerable quantity of bull rush was removed from the dam and mulched.

As the season progressed, Azolla has spread and produced a very thick matt, allowing easy harvesting at this time of year.

When Azolla is allowed to grow like this, it is able to release spores that will provide the subsequent crop next season.

The pile is built up “lasagne-style.” First, on the bottom, a layer of the torn paper/cardboard. Then wetted. (It's important that the paper and cardboard have sufficient moisture added at this stage.) Without water there can be very slow biological activity, thus slow to compost.

Next, a thick layer of Azolla, to cover right over the heap. Then a light sprinkling of old chicken manure, followed by tree mulch.

Azolla has a relatively high content of nitrogen, plus other nutrients, essential for good composting.

Chicken manure contains extra phosphates, plus lots of micro-organisms.

Now I wish to add to the heap the sort of micro-organisms (bacteria, fungi, etc.) that normally decompose the products of trees. Since paper and cardboard are derived mostly from trees, my reasoning is that they will also go to work for us on paper and cardboard.

So, I get a few barrow-loads of tree mulch and use that as the next “lasagne” layer.

The heavy rains we have had during the past few weeks (as of 27th August) will wet the heap and help to speed up the composting process.

Ready for next lasagne-style layer.

Who knows how long this will take to properly compost. We will have a look after 3, 6, 9 months.

Hi Alan, I believe this is what Azolla was invented for! It’s wonderful to see you are harvesting it and activating the breakdown of waste materials with it. This is the perfect nutrient recycling loop; excess nutrient is cleaned from the water supply, packaging is broken down into humus (your theory that the addition of micro-organisms via tree mulch will work on the paper and cardboard is spot on) and your soil will be enriched. If you add some permanent stable carbon in the form of Biochar (made from waste woody material or weeds) which will retain those nutrients and house the micro-organisms and fungi long term you have the BEST EVER soil conditioning and plant growing product. Here’s to seeing your garden thrive :)
Great work Alan. I try to be as resource friendly as possible, but often throw out the food contaminated cardboard and paper. I don't have much of a garden, but mulching it sounds like a fantastic idea for reducing my contribution to landfill.