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Tiny paper can shred recycling options

Waste Management does not accept shredded paper in residential recycling bins
Bart Maguire
Flickr photo
Waste Management does not accept shredded paper in residential recycling bins

A lot of people clear out old documents after the New Year, but you might want to think twice before shredding them.  Paper scraps are too small for some recycling companies to take from residential customers.

Recycling workers sort out all types and sizes of paper when it arrives at the center.  Newspapers go in one pile, envelopes in another.  But those scraps of shredded bills?    

If you put shredded paper in your home Waste Management recycling bin, you could do more harm to the environment than good. The company's recycling sorters can only separate paper the size of an envelope or larger, meaning tiny, shredded pieces slip through and end up with other recyclable products.

"It actually creates contamination for plastic, aluminum, tin and glass," says Rita Smith, Waste Management community education director. "People who are buying those products don't want shredded paper in them."

She says even if staff can vacuum paper scraps out of other recyclables, the fiber is no longer salvageable. It's mixed with so many other materials that it's considered garbage and heads to the landfill. That means it takes two trips in carbon-spewing trucks to get it to the right place.

"So don't shred unless you really need to for confidential purposes," Smith says.

If residential customers still want to tear up their documents, they can go in with yard waste. Smith says the paper will compost easily as long as it’s layered and not in big clumps. 

If you don’t have a yard waste bin, you could try to reuse it as:

  • packing material
  • animal bedding
  • cat litter
  • logs to start fires

Have any other ideas? If not, you could take it to work. Waste Management does accept shredded paper from businesses. 
Other recycling companies don't have such a problem with shredded paper. CleanScapes, for instance, will accept it as long as it’s stuffed in a clear, plastic bag so workers can easily see it.

Charla joined us in January, 2010 and is excited to be back in Seattle after several years in Washington, DC, where she was a director and producer for NPR. Charla has reported from three continents and several outlets including Marketplace, San Francisco Chronicle and NPR. She has a master of journalism from University of California, Berkeley and a bachelor's degree in architecture from University of Washington.