I shred credit-card statements and other papers containing personal financial information. I usually have a disproportionate amount of green material for my compost, so I'd love to add this shredded paper to the pile. Is such paper safe for composting? What about shredded newsprint?
--Marianne in New York, New York
Except for colored and glossy paper, which might contain some toxic heavy metals, newsprint and other paper is safe to use as mulch or in compost. In fact, one study revealed that paper had less toxic material than straw or grass!
The only problem with paper is that if you put too much of it in your heap, you could get an unfavorable carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, since paper is high in carbon (one reason it burns). But unless your finances are of a Bernie Madoffian level of complexity, your financial documents will probably not disturb the ratio! The ideal ratio is 25 carbon to 1 nitrogen. Too much carbon slows down the process. If that happens, you can always add high-nitrogen material such as grass, alfalfa, or manure. As you no doubt have already discovered, well-chopped material and frequent turning is the key to healthy, happy compost.
To chop up stuff like stems and long grass, I place a cross-sectional slab of a log on an upturned milk crate and mince the material with a machete. Better exercise than cramming it into a chipper, and there's a primal thrill in wielding a machete. Now if you're an inaccurate machete-wielder, I recommend thick gloves to keep from severely injuring the hand that feeds the material onto the slab. If you're a hopelessly inaccurate machete-wielder, you can make a wooden rectangle and attach a side of it to the slab so that you have to feed the stems, etc. through it. This will keep the feeding hand far enough away from the machete to insure safety. (Having grown up in a rural area where more than a few farmers lost fingers, limbs, and life in accidents, I'm a stickler for agricultural safety. And by the way, the agricultural-injury rate is higher than in mining, and while we rightly decry the coal industry for cutting corners on worker safety, the number of fatalities among agricultural laborers is 12 times as high.)
Finally, since you are a composter, let me share a fine poem about composting, which you can read by clicking through the jump. I recommend affixing a copy of it to your compost box for inspiration.
My finest accomplishment--not that I'm burdened with choices
in this department--is the creation
of five-hundred cubic feet of topsoil,
with the aid of billions of unidentified micro-organisms,
and earthworms churning through the compost,
and several rabbits who worked with uncommon dedication
to contribute manure and maintain morale:
Myrtle, who passed away of old age--
Habermas, who was murdered by a pit bull
that ripped the bottom from his cage--
Sartre, who perished suddenly from unknown causes,
and Derrida, who is uncommonly fond of dandelions.
Five hundred cubic feet of topsoil from sheer waste,
to enrich a garden, transform to food and flower
orange peels, tea leaves, clippings, weeds,
a bonsai Mount Fuji of compost power.
The world needs all the compost it can get.
Topsoil made us what we are,
without it we simply don't exist,
which is an earnest modern way to say
God did indeed make Adam out of clay.
Imagine a world transformed by compost,
fertile, abundant, fecundant reckless green.
Imagine cargo ships loaded with topsoil
for every compost-craving corner of the world.
Imagine nuclear submarines distributing topsoil!
Military transport planes packed with topsoil!
Precision missiles delivering topsoil exactly where most needed.
Aircraft carriers piled high with topsoil!
Bombers dropping two-ton bombs of topsoil!
Preemptive strikes of topsoil,
weapons of mass destruction buried
under thousands of feet of steaming compost!
Imagine composters in every land, tending peaceful heaps,
singing in a vast harmony of regeneration.
Down slopes of compost comes the world's salvation.