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.