Is Newspaper Safe for Your Garden?

There is an ongoing debate in the agricultural world concerning the safety, or lack thereof, of newspaper use in a garden. Newspaper has been used widely in vegetable gardens as a mulch, as a natural weed killer, and even as potting cups.

Newspaper is a biodegradable substance. The Nuffield Foundation, which focuses on science and social science, conducted an experiment with its students which demonstrated how microbes in the soil break down materials. In short, soil microbes contain enzymes that break down cellulose. Since paper is made from wood, and therefore is composed greatly of cellulose, soil microbes easily break down and digest paper. During this process, carbon is released into the soil. Carbon is an essential element to healthy soil. You can read more about the experiment, and how microbes digest these materials here:

Despite wide use of the material, many questions have been raised about the possible environmental threats it can pose. Are the inks toxic? The glues? What about color inks versus black inks?

What about those lovely glossy pages? The fact is that there is a lot of information out there, some true and some untrue, and in the end it will all depend on personal preference.

Nevertheless, here are the common questions and facts related to the debate.

First and foremost, is the ink toxic? In the past, newspaper ink was largely composed of heavy metals such as lead, and other toxic materials like cadmium. However, because of the toxicity of these materials the Newspaper Association of America began searching for safer bases for newspaper inks. After lengthy studies and trials, soybean oil was found as the solution. Not only is soy ink more environmentally friendly, but it also makes for more accurate colors. Soy ink is also lower in Volatile Organic Compounds, which decreases toxic emissions during the printing process. Today, the majority of newspaper print is composed of soy ink.

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Though soybean oil is a much safer alternative to toxic heavy metals, organic farmers have now faced the question of GM use in the soybeans used for this oil. Since GMO use is widespread and undesirable to organic farmers due to its carcinogenic effects, this adds a questionable bullet point to the debate, one that is unfortunately shrouded in uncertainty.

Another issue to consider is the manner in which the pulp is bleached. A common method for the whitening of pulp is, obviously, using chlorine bleach. As chlorine breaks down in the environment, it leaves behind dioxins that accumulate over time. The breakdown of these byproducts is slow, and though its impacts in soil are trace, it is still a concern. The good news is that most newspaper pulp is bleached with hydrogen peroxide which has more benign effects on the environment.

With all of these questions and issues in mind, the National Center for Appropriate Technology mandated the ATTRA, or Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas which specifically targets sustainable agriculture issues. The ATTRA has set guidelines for organic farmers regarding what materials can be used in the soil as a compost additive. The Organic Materials Compliance guideline outlines the basic steps to compliance with organic standards.

In short, it states “Regarding the use of newspaper and cardboard, both can be useful materials used in organic crop production for suppressing weeds, retaining moisture and adding organic matter to your soil. NOP regulations allow the use of newspaper or other recycled paper as an ‘allowed synthetic’ with the provision that it be ‘without glossy or colored inks’”

The guideline also touches lightly on the use of cardboard and the affects that the glues may have. Here, it states “A few years ago, ATTRA did research on the different substances that go into making cardboard, as well as the glues, inks, and coatings that may be used. Based on the information available then, the basic components of corrugated cardboard seemed to be relatively benign.”

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So, the issue of whether or not to use newspaper in your garden all comes down to a personal choice. You can contact your local newspaper and ask if they use soy ink, and how their pulp is bleached. Keep in mind the positive research and studies that have been conducted with this issue. All in all, newspaper has proven to be a safe, handy tool in the garden.

Check out these links and articles for more info.


  1. Hi there,
    I was looking into using newspaper for making nesting rolls for solitary native bees (activity with kids, and newspaper), your article was useful and I think I’ll hold off for now. :)
    I mainly was contacting you as I’m curious about the claim that GMO’s are carcinogenic? That’s the first I’ve heard of it, I’m curious and was wondering if you had any links??

    1. I had the same comment as Emily – I’ve never seen a study that draws a correlation between GMO’s and cancer.

  2. The glyphosate used on GMOs is a carcinogen, soybeans are engineered to survive the broadband herbicide (trade name RoundUp).

    1. There is no actual proof any gmos cause cancer that is pure pseudoscience please don’t keep spreading misinformation

      1. There was also “no actual proof” for years that smoking cigarettes causes cancer…. not saying you’re wrong, just unlikely that a company like Monsanto couldn’t influence trials and hide evidence.

      2. Really PETER? Please check your facts and cite your sources before you yourself continue spreading misinformation.

        Even if GMO’s were safe, avoiding them would not be a problem, but by blindly suggesting they are safe you may be endangering peoples lives.

        Doug Blum is correct in what he says; glyphosate/RoundUp has now officially been classified as “Probably Carcinogenic”, a simple web search proves that beyond doubt. Just one source:

        Even GMO’s alone have been tested to cause serious health issues:

        I encourage everyone to do their own research.. its all there while the web is still uncensored. Don’t listen to a word we say, search and learn for yourselves.

        1. It’s true that there are many problems with glyphosate, and that I’d like to see it eliminated.

          That said, there’s no link between consuming crops that have been treated with glyphosate and cancer rates. None. I’d be worried about breathing the mist when it’s applied, or about it getting into groundwater, but not the soy.

          Furthermore, glyphosate is not inherently connected to GMO crops. It’s one company’s most famous use of genetic modification. GMO can be used for many purposes unrelated to glyphosate or other pesticide resistance.

          To say that GMO foods cause cancer is anti-scientific scare-mongering.

        2. Amen Jimbo. I am trying to start a worm farm for my garden and what products I can use. I am sticking to growing plants that can be mulched.


      3. And you have proof that they don’t cause changes in human cellular structure, i.e. cancer, and other maladies?? Considering the rate of environmental sourced illness to people, as well as other creatures and vegetation in this country, that HAS been found to be due to chemicals used in agriculture in the past and the present, it’s still far better to not use it!

  3. Where’s the data? Speculation and hand waving is not a sound basis for the practice of sure organic gardening. Of course the most basic parts of cardboard and newspaper are benign, the most basic part is the wood pulp! Take a few newspapers and a hole punch and run some tests- what compounds are in it? Or, go through the process with a willing newspaper manufacturer and get a list of every product used for every part of the process, and then get an ingredient list for those items! Then an article could be published that went through all those steps and ingredients and discussed their potential harm or harmlessness. I would love to read such an article.

  4. Hi! I love all the information you have provided about using newspaper in gardening. I save it for use in client’s beds as well as my own.How do I safely store it during the winter?
    Thanks in advance for any advice you can give me!

  5. Your statement: “Since GMO use is widespread and undesirable to organic farmers due to its carcinogenic effects,” is misleading and actually false. GMO soy beans are not the problem their modification allows them to resist herbacides like Roundup which is the problem. The carcinogenic effects do not arise from the genetic modification, per se, but from the herbicide applied because of the GM.

    1. Hi Pete,
      There was a some research publicized by either a French or Norwegian university that started with the effects of glyphosate/GMO soybean on still birth rates of rats or mice (unsure which one it was). The results showed alarming rates of increased rates of still birth if fed glyphosate treated GMO soybean. A further study was was then conducted with GMO Soybean that was not exposed to glyphosate. The stillbirth rate was still double over non GMO soybean…
      After reading this research paper we have also excluded potentially GMO foods like corn from our vegetable garden.

  6. I worked more than 30 years in the printing industry, and there are more chemicals involved in the process than just paper bleach and ink. I will NEVER use newspaper in my garden, even with soy inks.

  7. I believe that when so-called studies are mentioned, people need to actually give the name & website & pier-reviewed studies as well , in order to make their statements completely accurate & able to be checked. Otherwise comments are merely here say & inaccurate & would be called into question.
    So, when statements are made RE the viability/or not of chemicals, GMO, or whatever the subject in question is, make it totally transparent & factual for everyone reading these comments.
    Frankly, you can’t just say something’s good or bad without the proof. Don’t you think?
    When I was studying if I didn’t qualify my statements, my work would not be accepted. Simple!

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