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Wednesday March 2, 2011
Post Title: Is newspaper toxic for my organic garden?  

Newspaper is a common resource used by small scale organic gardeners. It can provide carbon for compost, matting for weed reduction and containers for seed raising, but it carries great risks to the health of your food garden. There is no doubt that recycling newspaper is environmentally responsible, but should it be recycled into the dirt that produces your food? My blog this week takes an objective look at using newspapers in your food garden.


How is it used?


Each of the uses described below have the same assumption of safe biodegradability of the newspaper, which is mostly carbon:


Compost ingredient

This is perhaps the most common medium for using newspaper in the organic garden. The newspaper is often mashed up and put into the compost heap in clumps or layers. The bulk of substance in good compost is a combination of dry matter (carbon), green matter (plant material), manures and water. Newspaper is used as the dry matter.


Weed reduction

Newspaper is often used on paths between garden beds to reduce weeds and some gardeners will also place the newspaper over their garden beds and make holes in the paper for plants, all with the aim of reducing weeds.


Garden bed base

When garden beds are formed and in particular raised garden beds it is very commonly recommended that newspaper be used as the base of the raised bed to stop the weeds becoming invasive in the garden bed. The newspaper is also layered through the raised bed to add carbon.


Seedling containers

Newspaper is fashioned into small containers for growing seeds. When the seedlings have come up, the containers and seedlings are planted, as it is understood that the paper is biodegradable.


What is the newspaper process?


Newspaper is made from paper which comes from wood. When the paper is created, chlorine is used to prepare the pulped wood so it can be made into paper and then bleach (made predominantly from chlorine) is used to dye the paper to a whiter level.


Newspaper ink was initially all based on petro-chemical substances and over the last 30 years, printers have moved towards more vegetable based inks, with soy being the most common ingredient. Soy based inks are predominantly derived from genetically modified soy crops.


Petro-chemical inks are highly toxic to the environment, whilst vegetable based inks are not so toxic and more biodegradable. Newspapers normally use a combination of petro-chemical and vegetable inks. The proportion of use may depend on how environmentally friendly the paper owner chooses to be as vegetable based inks are more expensive than petro-chemical inks.


The newspaper inks have pigments in them to create the print colour. The most common pigments are based on petro-chemical substances. These pigments combine with the ink to produce the black and colour print


What are the risks?


Each of the risks below impact the primary task of the successful organic gardener and that is to promote and protect life in the soil. Such impacts will lead to lower seed fertility, weaker plants, greater infestations of pests and diseases and lower life force in the plants which results in lower nutritional value and poorer taste:


Chlorine toxic impact:

  1. Toxic breakdown – When chlorine dissipates after use, two of its by-products are dioxin and organo-chlorides and these substances do not break down easily, they bio-accumulate, which means that any chlorine left in the newspaper you use in your “organic” garden will leave these two toxic substances in very small quantities in the garden and the atmosphere around the garden. Dioxin is known as the most toxic chemical on earth.
  2. Stops micro-organisms – Chlorine and bleach are incredibly effective at killing micro-organisms, just think how you may use bleach at home. In a compost heap or in your garden beds, one of your main tasks is to encourage the proliferation of life via micro-organisms, so anything you put into the garden to slow this down makes it more difficult to have healthy soil.


Ink toxic impact:

  1. Heavy metals from petro-chemical ink – Its quite likely that the newspapers you use for your garden have a mixture of petro-chemical and soy based ink.  When released into the atmosphere, petro-chemicals can contaminate soil and groundwater. 
  2. Support of GM products in soy ink – Usage of GM products is very contentious with the proponents believing it’s the saviour of our ailing food system and it has no adverse affects on the environment. If you don't support GM products and prefer to be more cautious with the avoiding the potential impacts of GM products residues in your soil, then avoid newspaper produced with GM soy ink


Pigment toxic impact:

  1. Heavy metals in pigments – Common inorganic harmful substances used are Cadmium for yellow, Phthalocyanine for blue and with black ink; the carbon used for such inks is often produced with petro-chemical oils. 
  2. Combination of ink and pigment – As indicated above, the potential for toxic substances in newspaper is very high, given the process of production. These substances, when combined together and whilst breaking down in your soil, may result in other harmful substances.


The solution


Recycle your newspapers

Put your newspapers in your recycling bin, not your food garden, so they are used to make more newspapers.


Read news online

Then you won't need to buy newspapers. I haven't bought a newspaper for 10 years.


Use unprocessed organic substances

  1. Compost - Use dry grass, hay or dry leaves (not eucalypts) for your dry matter
  2. For weed reduction – Firstly realise that weeds are a powerful natural fertiliser for your soil, so use them rather than suffocating them. Make weed teas, use cover crops, reduce space between plants and practice continuous soil improvement. This will all help to reduce weeds
  3. Garden beds – Use hay, cane mulch or grassy hay, not newspaper.
  4. Seed container – Use proper seed raising containers and take your seedlings out of the container when you plant them out.


Its interesting how things in life become generally accepted as being OK, but when they are looked at more deeply, there are often gremlins lurking. Successful food gardening with organic methods is a blend of many factors, some out of your control, but others totally in your control. Just as you have control over what you put in your mouth, you have control over the substances you put in your garden soil and it’s the soil which has a very big impact on the success of your organic garden.


Author: Peter Kearney – www.cityfoodgrowers.com.au

Comments:   4
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Peter Kearney, Cityfood Growers

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