Frugality in practice: Turn your junk mail into garden mulch

In yesterday's discussion about how to stop junk mail, icup mentioned using junk mail for mulch. Intrigued, I asked for more information. Here's what he had to say.

I'm more interested in saving money than saving the environment, but when I see junk mail piling up every day, it makes me stop to think about the sheer amount of waste that junk mail creates. As a homeowner with multiple mulch beds, I also feel a little guilty about building up a nice big pile of mulch, because after all, that mulch used to be trees, and I know in my heart that cutting down trees is not necessarily a good thing.

One day when emptying my shredder, I got to thinking about wasted trees, and the thought occurred to me that shredded junk mail and mulch are basically the same thing: tiny bits of trees. Wouldn't it be possible to save those bags of shredded junk mail for use instead of mulch?

It seemed like a good idea, but I consulted the internet just in case. I was worried about the ink. Last time I checked, you can't buy mulch with tiny words and pictures printed on it with who knows what chemical.

Googling revealed concerns about heavy metals in some inks, but those occur mainly in the colorful, glossy ads I rarely receive (and wouldn't shred anyway). Most people seemed to agree that the majority of inks are soy based because of economic reasons. The chemical make-up of non-glossy colored ink seems to be vigorously debated, but I think the risk of contamination is minimal. But because there's some risk, I decided to only use shredded junk mail on beds that won't be growing anything edible.

I also had concerns about plastics. My shredder has a credit card and CD slot, so I have to be careful about picking that stuff out. Also, some envelopes have a cellophane window. This isn't really a contamination issue because of how tough plastic is to break down, but it is rather unsightly, like throwing trash on the ground.

With that in mind, I decided to use the following rules when using shredded junk mail as mulch:

  1. I only shred the non-glossy stuff, and try to avoid colored ink as much as possible. Since I'm shredding to avoid identity theft in the first place, and credit applications these days contain colored ink, I can't stay 100% black and white, but I can accept that.
  2. I shred plastic items like credit cards and CDs separately and discard.
  3. I store the shredded paper in a place that is safe from fire and children. Fire because I believe shredded paper in bulk is a fire hazard, and children because shredded paper in bulk is a mess hazard.
  4. I only use the shreds where food is not grown, just to be safe. You can also use it in the bottom of flower pots inside the house to save potting soil.

So far the bulk of the paper has been used along the foundation of my house. I estimate I would have had to use 33-50% more bags of mulch if not for the paper. With the amount of mulch I need to put down this spring, that is a substantial savings. Also, I'm able to pile the mulch nice and high, so it looks better. From what I understand, the paper should be completely broken down in far less than a year.

I love this. It's frugal and prevents identity theft at the same time! Mulch photo is not from icup, and is from the Flickr stream of mtneer_man.

More about...Frugality, Home & Garden

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Penelope
Penelope
12 years ago

Great idea. About 90% of my office trash is junk mail. This sounds like a great way to revive our poor garden and free up some much needed space in our trash can.

Lurker
Lurker
12 years ago

Unrelated hint, but I am a chain smoker, yeah I know bad habit. For years I have used the butts from the ash tray for incorporation with other things into the flower beds and decorative plants at our house. The small amount of tobacco usually left degrades quickly to add nourishment to the soil and the filters act to hold water. The filters will last for mostly 2 to 3 years before they finally degrade the tobacco is incorporated in a couple of weeks. Beds I use it on turn from mid Florida dirt color to near pitch black with… Read more »

InvestEveryMonth.com
InvestEveryMonth.com
12 years ago

My initial thought was about the ink contamination so I’m glad that issue was addressed. A lot of my junk mail is shredded and put into my compost and the rest is recycled through my city recycling program.

Libby
Libby
12 years ago

There’s a lot of ideas for reusing trash for gardening. One of my favorites is to reuse plastic containers likes milk jugs, soda bottles, and take-out containers as mini-greenhouses to start your plants in. No need for grow lights, they can even be started outdoors in the winter and it makes the plants hardy and able to withstand more inclement weather. Lots of info at http://www.wintersown.org The best part of this is that it gets rid of the need for grow lights AND gives you a use for plastic containers instead of just throwing them out. No more spending money… Read more »

Jane
Jane
12 years ago

My mother does you one better. She has no shredder, but she does have two old plastic buckets. When she gets the non-glossy paper in the form of junk mail, real mail, newspapers or whatever, she “discards” them by putting them in a bucket. Then she pours enough water over them to immerse them. She repeats with the next day’s mail until the bucket is about 2/3 full (that’s about all she can comfortably lift). She uses a stick to poke at the paper, but admits that’s just because she likes to do it and the action is really unnecessary.… Read more »

Paula
Paula
7 years ago
Reply to  Jane

Love the idea using shredded junk mail to elimanate weeds in my flower garden. Saves on the need to buy so much mulch.

Frugal Dad
Frugal Dad
12 years ago

Finally, something useful to do with all the junkmail! Hopefully I want have as much after renewing my opt out, but if any sneaks through I know just what to do with it. Thanks for sharing icup’s idea!

Sharyn
Sharyn
12 years ago

I use the paper from the paper shredder in my worm bin. I do vermicomposting (composting food scraps using worms) in my garage and the paper shreds are the perfect bedding for them. By the time my paper shredder is full again, the paper in the worm bin has either been eaten or it has decomposed. But I like adding these news ideas to my repertoire of recycling/reuse ideas.

Drew
Drew
12 years ago

If the shredded paper is good enough for mulch, it’s also good enough for your compost pile.

Same rules about glossy paper and plastic apply.

Ryan S
Ryan S
12 years ago

I only had to look at the picture for a few seconds before I spotted your credit card info
🙂

Mr Credit Card
Mr Credit Card
12 years ago

For the sake of being more environment friendly, why not implement the steps (which you have written about) to prevent junk mail from being sent to you. That way, you actually help save the trees first!

Finally Frugal
Finally Frugal
12 years ago

I do this too! I started because I don’t like to recycle things that have my name and address on them. So I rip that part off, and shred it. I suddenly had a LOT of shredded paper in the recycle bin—which I now put into my composter. I never considered just using it as mulch directly, but will be trying it!

ladykemma2
ladykemma2
12 years ago

if you add “greens”, ahem, nitrogen rich urine, (read between the lines) and let it compost, it makes fabulous mulch. I use shredded paper for bunny litter pans and put it straight on the garden.

Shaun Kennedy
Shaun Kennedy
12 years ago

Doesn’t that scredded paper tend to blow away?

David
David
12 years ago

I have composted shredded paper before… it takes a while.

The Personal Financier
The Personal Financier
12 years ago

Great idea. I still like Seinfeld’s Kramer solution – Throwing it back at the spammer face but this will do.

Jay
Jay
12 years ago

Great post, JD!
Not a smoker, but nicotine does have some significant virtues in the garden, as do ashes. Never thought about the filters, though.
An old fashioned idea:
spread out any newspapers (B&W sections only) several layers thick if you want, around flowers/veggies, whatever. Great weed controller and will degrade after 1 or 2 years.

leigh
leigh
12 years ago

this talk of cigarettes in your garden soil makes me nauseated. yes, nicotine is a natural pesticide. but it doesn’t do a whole lot of good in the soil, it has to be applied to the above-ground plant. it’s not just the tobacco and the nicotine that you’re putting in there. no, you’re also contaminating your local soil or potted plants with plenty of other environmentally damaging chemicals. some examples are benzene, cadmium, cyanide, lead, formaldehyde, methoprene (insecticide) and napthalene (the stuff in mothballs). do you really want that leaching into your water tables and eventually your drinking water? ick.… Read more »

Luther
Luther
12 years ago

Yes, putting cigarette buts in soil is not “green” or frugal at all. I don’t know why smokers have to discard them all over the environment, thinking “it’s all natural anyway”. It’s disgusting and disrespectful to everyone else. Either quit or throw them in the trash where they belong.

Jay
Jay
12 years ago

Leigh and Luther, you’re right, I misspoke …. been awhile since I contemplated what was in a cigarette (haven’t even seen a person smoke in months)!

No Debt Plan
No Debt Plan
12 years ago

If this works, that is genius.

To the person who wondered if it blows away, I would imagine you could use this as a “base” and then put real mulch on top of it (just not as thick as normal).

Bob
Bob
12 years ago

This is a perfect “Brown/Carbon” to add to the compost to offset the high “Nitrogen/Green” content that spring/summer produce after the leaves have run out. Paper is very high on carbon and can offset a lot of grass clippings and kitchen waste.

KENNIE
KENNIE
12 years ago

Hi,
Great idea to recyle. I’m tempted to dump the B&W ink shreaded paper back to the garden. One concern is my garden has a lot of fruit and vegetable plants. Would the ink gets into the plants and then goes into the body who eats them? Any harm to human for consuming the inks indirectly ?
Hope to get some feedback so that we don’t do stupid things that kill our future generations.

rebmoti
rebmoti
12 years ago

We shred our junk mail and use it to line th guinea pigs’ cage. Saves a lot on bedding!

ladykemma2
ladykemma2
12 years ago

black belt composter here. you can also use the shredded paper for the equivalent of a sawdust toilet and pet litter boxes.

with the addition of household kitchen scraps, yes, including meats, and pet waste, composts rather quickly. no smell, no diseases, no rats, no complaints from neighbors.

linda
linda
12 years ago

As a faithful shredder ever since someone stole $1,500 from my bank account, I had never considered this idea. I found this from the NY Times garden column, which makes me reluctant to use this as compost:
NYTimes Garden Column

I think I’ll stick to using shredded paper as packing material.

emsuef
emsuef
12 years ago

I’m so glad to read this! I just finished building a garden bed for my own square-foot garden, and used shredded paper (as a teacher, I have a LOT!) as a filler, so that I wouldn’t have to use so much soil in filling the garden box.

Thank you for posting this!

Mike
Mike
12 years ago

That is a really a pretty cool – and environmentally friendly – idea. I’ve reflected before on the fact that that junk mail really wastes a lot of paper. Way to clean up someone else’s mess!

Aaron Pinkston
Aaron Pinkston
12 years ago

One of my favorite tips is to get an old 5 gal bucket or an empty kitty litter pail, drill a small hole at the bottom on one side, and use it to irrigate my delicate trees during the NC drought. The water slowly soaks into the ground, encouraging deeper growth and reduces evaporation. I personally use free kitty litter pails (they come with the litter) for such watering projects. My dogwood and baby poplar thank me.

Jeannie
Jeannie
12 years ago

My kids (and I) use our shredded paper for craft projects, particularly making their own greeting cards, paper for scrapbooking, etc. We have a cross-cut shredder. We have an old, used blender, NOT one used for food items. Place the shreds in the blender — about half full, add enough water so there is approx 2inches ABOVE the shreds, add 1T craft/school glue, food coloring, glitter, etc., please visit one of the many DIY sites for paper making. Add small dried flowers, etc, anything to “enhance” or give texture to the paper pulp. Food coloring can also be added AFTER… Read more »

David
David
12 years ago

This is a terrible idea. You are more than likely violating your state department of environmental quality regulations if not also the EPA. This same mentality is what the chemical companies used when they had the same lack of knowledge and disguarded toxic materials in to the ground/water at (insert super-fund site here)!

Steven
Steven
11 years ago

What we need to do is stop most of the junk mail that hit are mail boxes in the first place and save are trees. The site http://www.myjunktree.com is a great place to start. They will stop about 90% of your junk mail and plant trees with each new membership. It is a very easy site to use and should only take about few minutes to get the job done.

GreenLiving
GreenLiving
11 years ago

It is too bad trees are cut to make the junk mail, but ending up in compost is better than winding up and the landfill.

Madeleine
Madeleine
11 years ago

By the way for a Overweight indivividual like me Gardening offers the perfect Sweat breaker 2 hours of good time weed digging and I am in business

Jennifer
Jennifer
10 years ago

That’s certainly a “green” way to deal with junk mail. I sometimes just stuff them back in the prepaid envelopes. I like your idea.

Jay
Jay
5 years ago

I use a crosscut shredder. This makes very small bits of paper with some bits of plastic mixed in (plastic is hard to avoid in junk mail, though if I notice any I try not to use it). I was using the crosscut shredded junk mail as a bottom cover for my pet birds (4 cockatiels, one lovebird, and one Amazon Green Parrot who talks a bit). I never noticed any of these pet birds eating the paper so I thought it was probably safe to use this way. I routinely clean the cages and vacuum out the fallen seeds… Read more »

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