I just started getting the Colorado Springs Gazette. What can I say, helping the papergirl get free college classes sold me. I’m a sucker for affordable higher education. Once I realized that I did like the coupons, but there wasn’t a chance I would read a daily newspaper, I switched to just the Sunday paper. Unfortunately, I didn’t do it quickly enough, and I had a pile of newspapers to deal with.

Somewhere along the line I had heard that you shouldn’t compost colored ink. Dutifully, I went through each paper, pulling out the pages that had just black ink. I was left with a very small pile of paper that could be composted or used to make paper seed-pots. Fortunately, this was addressed in the class about making the most of your garden. It turns out that if your newspaper uses soy-based inks, you can compost the colored ink as well, as long as it is on regular newsprint. With a quick e-mail to the Gazette’s customer service folks, I confirmed that they use soy-based inks. Now all I have to do is re-sort to take out the glossy pages and I will have a much bigger pile that’s safe for garden use and doesn’t need to be recycled.

It turns out, colored ink was a problem, once upon a time, and may still be for the parts of the newspaper that might not be printed in America. The inks were petroleum-based, allowing all sorts of nasty things to build up in your soil with repeated use. However, the bulk of newspapers have since moved to soy-based inks as they are safer for the people that are on the printing floor. You will want to contact your newspaper to confirm, but the colored inks are probably not a problem. They are still made with some heavy metals, but as one post pointed out, the amount in the ink really isn’t going to be noticed by someone gardening in an urban setting. Not with all the other contaminants to worry about. The glossy inserts, however, still need to go into the recycling pile, as they undergo extra processing and may not be printed in the United States, so their ink composition can be harder to pin down.

Now that you’ve supported your paperperson’s educational goals and sorted the newsprint from the glossy parts, what do you do with it? One of my first interactions with gardens and newspapers was as a layer of mulch. There are a couple of ways to do this. If you have a garden that is set up to be a few plants with mulch between, a thick layer of well-overlapped newspapers will let you keep the potentially pricy mulch to a minimum while still suppressing the weeds. This technique could also be used to line garden paths or mulch around large plants such as potatoes. You will probably be using rocks to anchor the newspapers in the vegetable garden instead of purchasing mulch, unless you prefer the aesthetics. I have also seen newspaper used to kill grass in an area that will be turned into a garden. If you are just going to turn the grass into the soil right there, depriving it of sunlight for a while weakens it and makes it easier to cut through.

Another way to use the newspaper is in your compost pile. It counts as a “brown” in an outdoor compost pile, and vermicompostors use it as bedding for their worms. In either case, it does need to be shredded first, as flat sheets of newspaper compact and don’t let in the air necessary for breaking it down. The more finely it is shredded, the more easily it can decompose. One person even mentioned that they feed their worms their shredded mail. I don’t know how mail compares to newsprint for composting, but it would be the most secure way to dispose of information that I have ever heard of. As an apartment-dweller I am very curious about vermicomposting, since it can be done inside. Regular composting, of course, is a great way to make the most out of what you pull out of the garden, be it weeds or the leftovers from preparing your vegetables to eat. Both will be getting posts in the future to explore them further.

If you are starting seeds, you can also use newspaper to make biodegradable pots. These would be a less expensive alternative to peat pots for plants that don’t like to have their roots disturbed but need to be started inside like  cucumbers. If you aren’t good at origami, a tool like this can help.

Newspaper is one of those things that you don’t look at and think “garden.” Well, most people don’t, anyway. But it can actually be pretty helpful in degrading your kitchen scraps back into rich compost or keeping the weeds from where they shouldn’t be growing. We are being encouraged to recycle, which is a good thing. But reusing and repurposing can actually be even better, since it seldom requires another input of energy outside of a little creativity.

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