As gardeners, we often told that we shouldn’t use office photocopying paper or glossy magazines in our worm farms, compost or the garden in general. Many gardeners ask why not? There are very good reasons not to, which we’ll explore in this article!
By understanding a little about the different methods of paper production, we can better distinguish what should and shouldn’t go into our gardens.
Chlorine use in paper production
Most paper is made from wood, and in its natural state paper is actually BROWN in colour! You’ve all seen brown paper bags and cardboard boxes, well that’s the real colour of unbleached paper. To change paper from its natural brown colour to white, it needs to be bleached, and that’s where the problems begin…
There are many ways to bleach paper, some more environmentally friendly than others, but most bleached paper is treated with some form of chlorine-based bleach.
Why is chlorine used? Chlorine bleaches paper really white and also removes the woody compound called lignin from wood pulp, which causes the yellowing of paper when it’s exposed to sunlight, as happens with newspapers. (Incidentally, newspapers are chlorine-free and CAN go in your compost bins, worm farms and gardens).
When chlorine binds with carbon-based (organic) compounds such as lignins in wood pulp, it produces highly toxic dioxins and other toxic organochlorine byproducts, which wreak havoc in living systems.
What are dioxins and how toxic are they?
Dioxins are cause for great concern both to the environment and to all living organisms, no matter how we look at the subject. I’m quoting directly from sources here to remove any ambiguity of interpretation and to silence any naysayers who wish to play down the risks of dioxins in an attempt to cover up for the industry polluters. This section may be wordy, but for good reason.
According to the EXTOXNET Extension Toxicology Network (the Pesticide Information Project of Cooperative Extension Offices of Cornell University, Michigan State University, Oregon State University, and University of California at Davis):
“Dioxin is a generic name used to describe a family of compounds known as chlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins. The most notable, most studied, and most toxic chemical in this family is 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, or 2,3,7,8-TCDD, most commonly referred to as TCDD. TCDD is colorless and odorless . Dioxins bioaccumulate in the food chain and the major route of human exposure is by eating fish, meat, and dairy products that have been exposed. Fetuses and nursing infants are at particular risk of exposure because of TCDDs accumulation in breast milk. Studies with laboratory animals have shown TCDD to be extremely toxic and the most potent carcinogen ever tested under laboratory conditions for some species of animals. However, the effects in humans exposed to TCDD have been more difficult to ascertain. Because of this, animal studies have been used as the basis of most risk assessments for dioxins.”  (Emphasis here is mine)
The US EPA, despite their bad reputation for colluding with industry polluters and downplaying risks to human health to promote corporate interests and profits, is pretty clear about the danger when it states that “Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system, and can interfere with hormones.” 
Dioxins are classified as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which means that they take a very long time to break down once they are in the environment, and in the meantime accumulate in living organisms, increasing their concentration, and therefore their toxicity, as they move up through the food chain. The persistence of dioxins and their capacity to bioaccumulate makes them insidious environmental poisons that remain active for decades. To directly quote the World Health Organisation (WHO) facts sheet – Dioxins and their effects on human health:
“Dioxins are environmental pollutants. They belong to the so-called “dirty dozen” – a group of dangerous chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Dioxins are of concern because of their highly toxic potential. Experiments have shown they affect a number of organs and systems. Once dioxins enter the body, they last a long time because of their chemical stability and their ability to be absorbed by fat tissue, where they are then stored in the body. Their half-life in the body is estimated to be 7 to 11 years. In the environment, dioxins tend to accumulate in the food chain. The higher an animal is in the food chain, the higher the concentration of dioxins.” 
Despite these facts, it’s hard to imagine that some industry polluters still try to play down how toxic dioxins really are. Corporate ethics? We’re actually all quite familiar with the effects of dioxins on humans – remember the human suffering (cancers, birth defects, unusual ‘syndromes’ and diseases) caused by the use of the defoliant/herbicide Agent Orange uses in the Vietnam War? The infamous Agent Orange was a mixture of the herbicides 245-T and 24-D, which was contaminated with the manufacturing byproduct dioxin, specifically the most toxic of the dioxins, TCDD.
Research reported by Wolters Kluwer Health: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins in 2014 states that Vietnam War veterans exposure to Agent Orange and TCDD has been linked to a wide range of health problems, including many different cancers, but the association the two most common types of skin cancer (basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma) was previously unclear. Evidence now suggests veterans with prior exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange may be at higher risk for certain types of skin cancer even many years after exposure. 
Dioxins have far reaching harmful effects. Current research shows that the dioxins in Agent Orange sprayed during the Vietnam War (which occurred 50 years ago) are still causing health problems today. Previous research had established a link between exposure to dioxins through herbicides such as Agent Orange and prostate cancer in men, but new studies by researchers at Kanazawa University in Japan for the first time are showing the impact of dioxin exposure on women and babies. Exposure to dioxin in Agent Orange released during the Vietnam War has been linked to increased levels of the hormone DHEA in women and their breastfeeding children decades later.
The US military’s use of Agent Orange in Vietnam for jungle defoliation and chemical leaks from their storage facilities have created hotspots of dioxin contamination in that country, with levels two to five times higher than in non-contaminated regions, resulting in high dioxin levels of in the soil and air. which are absorbed into people’s bodies through the food they eat and the air they breathe. Research has shown a nearly three-fold increase in the hormone DHEA in babies from dioxin hotspots compared to non-contaminated regions, which was caused by dioxins being transferred to the baby from mother’s umbilical blood and breast milk.
To comprehend the significance of this, we need to understand that the hormone DHEA (Dehydroepiandrosterone) is responsible for male and female characteristics in humans, and that dioxins are endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) which interfere with how hormones send messages to each other around the body. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals have been implicated in causing birth defects, cancer and neurodevelopment disorders. Dioxins interfere with DHEA, the hormone responsible for determining male and female characteristics in humans, putting hormonal systems out of balance, leading to health problems and disfigurement. 
It’s no surprise that we have the United Nations ‘Stockholm Convention’, an international agreement to reduce emissions of certain persistent organic pollutants (POPs), including dioxins. So yes, dioxins are bad, very, very bad…
Luckily, there is some sanity and reason in the western world, or maybe the problem is far too big to ‘sweep under the rug’, and attempts have been made to reduce the paper manufacturing industry’s dioxin environmental pollution.
Up until the late 1990s, bleaching paper pulp with chlorine gas (elemental chlorine) was the preferred method, producing significant amounts of dioxin pollution. This method has been mostly phased out in preference for less polluting industrial processes that cause less environmental damage. But does that make paper chlorine-free, or more importantly, dioxin-free?
The key to determining how environmentally safe your paper is, is by understanding the labelling codes.
If paper is “chlorine-free”, it’s labelled according to the following categories:
- TCF "totally chlorine-free" is either unbleached or bleached without any type of chlorine, using safer alternatives such as oxygen, ozone, or hydrogen peroxide instead.
- PCF “processed chlorine-free” is recycled paper that may have once been bleached with chlorine, but as part of the recycling process, has only been bleached with alternatives such as oxygen, ozone, or hydrogen peroxide.
- ECF "elemental chlorine-free" is bleached with a chlorine derivative such as chlorine dioxide (ClO2), but without elemental chlorine (Cl).
It’s important to point out that:
- Elemental chlorine-free (ECF) paper which is bleached using chlorine derivatives such as chlorine dioxide may be less harmful to the environment than elemental chlorine, but this process still produce some dioxins and other toxic organochlorine byproducts, which is why we don’t use glossy paper and office paper in our gardens.
- Most paper product are made from bleached wood/tree based paper, and only a very small proportion of the market is chlorine free
- Only a small minority of paper product are made from non-tree based paper, and these are usually chlorine free.
And the rest…
Paper as a medium is fairly pointless without something written or drawn on it, be it pictures or writing. Most newspapers are printed with vegetable based inks, but that’s not the case with glossy magazines and office photocopies and laser prints.
Catalogues and glossy magazines are often printed with toxic inks and dyes, unless it’s explicitly stated that they’re printed with environmentally safe inks. They may also use toxic heavy-metal based inks to produce vivid colours, though safer substitutes have been developed for most of these, traces of heavy metals and other toxic metals may still be present.
Photocopies and laser prints use toner, which is a mixture of iron oxide and a polymer (plastic) such as a styrene acrylate copolymer, a polyester resin, a styrene butadiene copolymer or similar compound, which is fused to the paper by heat. Plastics which aren’t food-safe don’t belong in your garden!
Keeping it safe
If you’re growing your own food, you don’t want it contaminated with all manner of poisons and pollutants like that produced by chemical-based (non-organic agriculture) which is sold in supermarkets! Newspaper & unprinted cardboard can go in the garden, but no office photocopy paper and no glossy printed pages. Also, go easy on the corrugated cardboard, the glue contain boron, and even though boron is an important trace element in the soil, too much of it is toxic to plants.
For your reference, I have also written articles which list what you can put in your compost and what you can put in your worm farm.
Remember, if it goes into your garden, it ends up in your body, so when growing uour own food – keep it safe, keep it healthy, and happy gardening!
- Dioxin Contamination of Food, EXTOXNET Extension Toxicology Network http://extoxnet.orst.edu/faqs/foodcon/dioxin.htm
- Learn about Dioxin, United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) https://www.epa.gov/dioxin/learn-about-dioxin
- Dioxins and their effects on human health, Fact sheet – Updated October 2016, World Health Organisation (WHO) http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs225/en/
- Mark W. Clemens, Andrew L. Kochuba, Mary Ella Carter, Kevin Han, Jun Liu, Karen Evans. Association between Agent Orange Exposure and Nonmelanotic Invasive Skin Cancer. Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, 2014; 133 (2): 432 DOI: 10.1097/01.prs.0000436859.40151.cf
- Elsevier. "Agent Orange still linked to hormone imbalances in babies in Vietnam." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 September 2017. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/09/170926091427.htm
- Annette M. Hormann, Frederick S. vom Saal, Susan C. Nagel, Richard W. Stahlhut, Carol L. Moyer, Mark R. Ellersieck, Wade V. Welshons, Pierre-Louis Toutain, Julia A. Taylor. Holding Thermal Receipt Paper and Eating Food after Using Hand Sanitizer Results in High Serum Bioactive and Urine Total Levels of Bisphenol A (BPA). PLoS ONE, 2014; 9 (10): e110509 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0110509