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I've seen discussions here and elsewhere, about composting news paper, cardboard, etc. But I'm wondering what considerations to consider when composting some specific non-food items. Some of the recommendations in The Rodale Book of Composting seem a bit questionable to me. For instance, it recommends composting newspaper, but this answer suggests the inks may be harmful.

Some items I'm specifically wondering about:

  • Facial tissue

    I can imagine that the lotion-treated ones may not be good. For untreated ones, are spent facial tissues safe to compost, or will they carry contagions (from blowing one's nose), or other manufacturing chemicals that would be harmful?

  • Human hair

    This is a recommendation from The Rodale Book of Composting. But is it a good idea, considering the various types of hair product many people use? If all I use is shampoo, will my hair be safe to compost? Will it depend on which shampoo I use?

  • Coffee filters, tea bags, paper towels, etc

    With the exception of some paper towels, none of these items typically are printed (and I usually buy plain white paper towels anyway). Are these items safe to compost?

  • Corks

    Although cork is obviously wood, it's soft enough I imagine it would decompose quickly. Are corks (from wine bottles) treated in any way that would make them unsafe to compost? Should I avoid the ones that have logos printed on them?

  • 100% cotton cloth

    Will socks or other clothing made from 100% cotton decompose reasonably well? Are there other reasons not to compost them? Perhaps fabric dyes?

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Related: Composting tea w/ tea bags and coffee filters, human hair (bstpierre's answer + comments) –  Lorem Ipsum Feb 22 '12 at 5:50
    
does hair break down much? I always read about ancient mummies and their still intact hair. Personally, I'd be a little freaked out digging in a garden and suddenly finding hair mixed in. ;) –  DA. Oct 24 '12 at 16:29
    
@DA: In the absence of moisture, anything will stick around for centuries. –  Flimzy Oct 24 '12 at 19:28
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3 Answers

As for paper, this has come up before a few times. There is also a lot of very old (decades old) advice hanging around - passed by word of mouth mainly. Basically inks are far better now than they were even 10 years ago. Also consider the quantities - even a few sheets of "bad" paper are not going to harm things - but half a ton of glossy mags with high metallic mineral inks might be another matter!

Inks use a solvent - water, mineral oil, and soya are the common ones. Professional printing rarely uses water for what are probably obvious reasons. Mineral oils are to be avoided, but many may eventually break down (as does crude oil after all). Soya is perfectly fine - and is the most common solvent in newspapers and magazines these days.

Next is the actual pigment. Traditionally these have used metallic pigments - nice bright colours and many of these in high concentrations can definitely be a problem. In this case, avoid glossy magazines. Many are probably okay these days (and some will even say), but many probably still aren't. Color newspapers are okay (these guys use the cheapest they find - nice colorfast metallic pigments are too pricey!)

Cereal box card is probably okay these days as I've noticed they usually say they use soya based dyes (10 years or so ago, this wasn't the case). I prefer to recycle these though rather than compost them - they seem like they would take a while to breakdown due to their construction and I can't be bothered to tear them up or shred them!

Finally, avoid plastic laminated cards as used in juice and milk cartons. Unless the carton says otherwise (eg. as in biodegradeable wrappers), the plastic laminates will not break down in human-useful timescales.

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From one perspective, you should definitely compost all of these things if the alternative is sending them to the landfill.

I don't know enough chemistry/biology to understand how the mineral oils in some inks might be taken up by different plants, so I can't make recommendations there. (E.g. Is it safe to use newspaper with mineral oil ink around fruit trees -- where the edible part is "far away" from the contaminant? Does the oil "poison" the soil for a long period of time?)

It's worth considering that if you acquire mass produced (e.g. municipal) compost, it's very likely to have everything you mentioned and more!

If you want to be safest:

  • Tissues: buy only white tissues (i.e. undyed). To avoid germs in the snot, only use compost that contains tissues on ornamental plants or food plants where the compost doesn't come near the food (e.g. fruit trees).
  • Hair: I'd be surprised if there was much residue in your hair if all you use is shampoo. Unless you're acquiring hair in bulk from a barbershop, it will be such a small overall component of your compost that there should be little risk.
  • Coffee filters, tea bags, paper towels, etc: Buy only unprinted versions. If possible, get the unbleached versions. (I.e. as close to "natural" as possible.) If you've got some kind of nasty cleaning product on the paper towel, it's probably better to keep it out of the compost. (And ditch the nasty cleaning products and switch to natural -- vinegar does a great job for a lot of household cleaning.) Again this will be a small component of your overall compost.
  • Cork: I don't know anything about how these might be treated, but see @Patrick B.'s answer about recycling.
  • Cotton: I haven't tried this yet, but I do have a couple of old shirts I'm going to toss into the pile this spring. I suspect they will break down rather slowly. I've heard that cotton is one of the most pesticide laden crops, but I would hope that by the time an old sock has lived a full life any possible remaining residue has long been washed away. An argument you can make against composting is that these kind of items may still have some use as rags -- I keep a box in the garage for old socks and t-shirts and use them instead of paper towels (usually when they've been used in this way they're unfit for composting afterward).
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For the cork-part of your question: if there is somewhere close to you a cork-collection-place or something like that I think you should better return your corks for recycling rather than letting them rot. From Europe (especially Germany) I know that there is almost a place which takes corks in every smaller town.

Corks are a valuable resource and can be easily recycled.

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I hadn't thought of that. Thanks for the suggestion. I'd actually be a little surprised if I can recycle those here, but I'll look into it. –  Flimzy Feb 22 '12 at 7:37
    
And I understand corks are also treated.As they've been compressed, they seem to survive outside quite well - ie. they'd probably need to be broken up as well. –  winwaed Feb 22 '12 at 13:41
    
If you have any places where artists congregate, you might be able to give them your corks -- they're useful for many crafts projects. –  Joe Feb 15 at 17:50
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