Vermicomposting White Paper

Well, it’s spring cleaning time here in Kansas. Letty has done her best to clean everything that holds still long enough. She had been saving ALL of the junk mail since last spring. Letty had two 18 gallon tubs of junk mail and office paper and dropped it at my feet saying “ I have been saving this (something in Spanish) for months, now get rid of this (something in Spanish only louder this time)!”

So, I started to shred everything, I didn’t have the courage to tell Letty that the white paper has been bleached and the ink may contain heavy metals that will kill the worms if used in a large quantity. I hate to throw away good garbage and besides, Letty does want to help, I couldn’t let her down by putting the paper in the trash.

The topic of this post is: How do I neutralize the potentially harmful properties of the office paper?

“Chlorine is used in pools and drinking water because it is a great disinfectant. It is able to kill bacteria and algae, among other things. Chlorine also makes a great stain remover, but not because of the chlorine itself. Natural stains (as well as dyes) produced by everything from mildew to grass come from chemical compounds called chromophores. Chromophores can absorb light at specific wavelengths and therefore cause colors. When chlorine reacts with water, it produces hydrochloric acid and atomic oxygen. The oxygen reacts easily with the chromophores to eliminate the portion of its structure that causes the color.”

~ Excerpt from:

Wow! I didn’t know that, so what does a simple guy like myself do?

I decided I would try sodium thiosulphate.

It seems that “The thiosulfate anion is tetrahedral in shape and is notionally derived by replacing one of the oxygen atoms by a sulfur atom in a sulfate anion. The S-S distance indicates a single bond, implying that the sulfur bears significant negative charge and the S-O interactions have more double bond character. The first protonation of thiosulfate occurs at sulfur“. (I did a cut and paste job on this quote, I thought it sounded real techy).
No problem. All I have to do is replace an oxygen atom.

This stuff is sold at Wally World, it is called fish tank DECHLORINATOR. Cost me $5.00 to treat a couple thousand gallons of water.

I put the shredded paper in an 18 gallon tub and fill it up with the water and 10ml of dechlorinator. I mixed that around a little bit, let it sit for a few hours, then drained and let it sit for 3 days. I then took a giant handful of the paper and mixed in with one of my project bins with about 1000 worms in it, if the worms die, they die in the name of science. The project bin also has horse manure in it.

This is the product I used.

The bin of treated paper.

The project bin.

Close up of project bin.

Close up some worms.

These plants have had the treated paper in them for a week.

Close up of the plant with the bedding and some leaf mulch.

I planted these about 6 weeks ago, the plant on the right I set up as a worm bin.

It has 500 worms in it, a layer of horse manure, and a layer of the treated paper. I put the paper on about a week ago.

Top view of worm bin/plant.

After a week, the worms are fat and juicy, no bugs, no migration, no smell. I think I can call this a success so, I went a little further as these photos show.

If this project stands the test of time, that is even more trash diverted from the landfill.

‘Mark from Kansas’ is an avid vermicomposter from…well…Kansas, and contributing author here at Red Worm Composting. When he is not tending to his OSCR worm bin, Mark also enjoys spending time with his wife Letty (who also doubles as his trusty vermicomposting assistant) and picking petunias (ok, Bentley just made that last bit up).

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    • Paulo Silva
    • April 20, 2011

    There’s no need to waste money, to treat tap water just let the water on a bucket for a few hours and the Chlorine will be gone, the paper does have dangerous chemicals but in very very small amounts, I used paper and cardboard on my wormbins without any problems, just mix the paper with straw or old leafs, that way the worms can avoid any leftover chemicals until it’s safe.

    • John Duffy
    • April 21, 2011

    Very informative Mark. Thank you. How is your OSCR bin doing these days? Haven’t heard much from ya lately…Sounds like Letty is doing a great job keeping usable stuff out of the landfill.

    • Bruce Westfall
    • April 21, 2011

    My very non-scientific test went like this: We do volunteer work at a place where large quantities of coffee were made for groups of around 50 people, so I asked to save the grounds. They also go thru alot of paper and have nice big office shredders, so I took bags of that too.

    Most of that was last fall and I dumped on the grounds and shredded white paper with reckless abandon. My bin is 4′ x 8′ – it’s an old waterbed frame, so it really is a Worm Bed! I’m so funny. Anyway, there are probably 4 trash bags ( larger than kitchen, but smaller than lawn bags ) of nothing but white paper in there.

    If any worms died, we missed the memorial service, because the bin is just LOADED with older and younger worms, right up in the white paper.

    Most of the paper was either inkjet, laser or copier paper. There was no shiny paper like some junk mail, which I’m certain is more toxic.

    Some bacteria can process toxins. Maybe those are involved.

  1. Mark said he was simple? I still don’t get white paper came from wood? LOL!
    I am by no means telling anyone to try this.And have no way of knowing about heavy metals.But since i heard about glossy paper,colored inks,perfumes,etc.I decided to put every piece of junk mail,but the windows of envelopes in a tub experiment.It has all been composted and i still have worms.I’m fixing to do it again.Is the vc safe for growing food? I’m not going to try it.Hope my wifes plants like it! Hope she doesn’t know Spanish? All i know is danger! LOL!
    But it was a small batch.This time i have a huge garbage bag full.Mostly bills.So you know that is garbage!May get a different outcome.
    By the way Mark.The grass is looking good!

  2. Hi Larry,
    The heck with the grass, I think grass is over rated. Notice the picture of the mum in the round stone bed. In this planter, I borrowed your idea with Isopods. Last year, this mum grew to 3 feet. The leaves were a deep green and the color of the flowers was amazing.
    For those that are unaware, in this bed I planted a $4.00 mum. I then discovered some isopods had moves in. Rather than get rid of them I, like Larry, fed them. This year the Isopods are back so, i put some paper, manure, and about 250 worms in the bed as the plant started to emerge. I water it every day, just enough to wet the surface.
    Thank you Larry, this planter is one of my favorites and I am most proud of. We have a lot of foot traffic going past our house and get many compliments. What is funny is that some people ask me what do I feed the plants and I tell them that I feed the soil not the plant and the soil food is our trash.

    • Jeff
    • April 23, 2011


    Did you save any of the junk mail to try using it directly without the use of the sodium thiosulfate? I believe this is the same chemical that was used in print photography (fixer?).

    I guess I wonder if the extra treatment is needed? I’d also LOVE an update on the OSCR system.


    HS Chemistry Teacher

  3. Yeah,also i am going to try isopods on paper.I ran whole potatoes through my garbage disposal set up.I know isopods love potatoes.But they told all their friends.Never saw a herd of them like that before.Looked like a trail of ants!You may be able to utilize potato juice on paper.And supposedly isopods have the ability to remove heavy metals.I’m no expert.So do the research on these little guys! They help out the worms by breaking down the hard stuff! My wife has a huge zen garden .But i respect her privacy.But she loves more than roses.Grass is a real pain if you can’t get to it with a lawn mower too! That weedwhacker line is used for more than making flowthrus! LOL!

  4. Hi Jeff,
    My past experience with the white paper and junk mail didn’t do so well.
    As with flow thru bins go, there is a learning curve and forgot some basic rules of thermodynamics. I also had many pounds of Kansas clay mixed with my horse manure that I was hoping to break down. That project failed, I had a bin full of wormcrete, lesson learned.

    • Jennie
    • April 26, 2011

    Just to say what a heart-warming bunch of folks you all are! So nice to hear of such keen composters busy on the other side of the world. I’m doing my best here on a small scale in the UK (see photo of my worms socialising) but I don’t use paper – that is collected as part of our local authority’s recycling scheme. Best wishes to you all.

    • Jennie
    • April 26, 2011

    Whoops – forgot photo of worms in UK – here it is

    • Jeff
    • May 1, 2011


    Thanks for the feedback. Quick question for you. Our school is getting ready to partner with a local university’s horse farm and we have a restaurant that is willing to give us its extra produce/compostable food scraps. What do you think the maximum weekly capacity is for your OSCR worm bin?



    Ohio Chem Teacher

    • Richard, MS in Horticulture
    • May 1, 2011

    I also don’t believe there’s a need to add yet more chemicals to the paper.

    The bleach has done it’s job turning the wood pulp white – it is mostly “used up” in the process. Bleached wood pulp then goes through a number of rinse cycles to remove any free chlorine before it is made into paper. If there were any free bleach left in the paper, it would cause rapid deterioration of the paper, corrode file cabinets, even bleach the ink used in printing!

    Fish-tank sodium thiosulphate doesn’t actually REMOVE any chlorine, it just turns it into a non-reactive compound (in fact, it results in the creation of salt and sodium dithionate). And under certain conditions it can produce very toxic and acidic sulfur dioxide (SO2).

    So unless you’re smelling chlorine when you wet the paper, you’re just throwing money away, and adding salt to your worm beds. If you add too much

    • Count of Anjou
    • May 2, 2011

    Having just started my first and only worm bin, I’ve decided to see how well a handfull of Eisenia foetida can process (or survive) in 28 gallons of material including: mixed office paper (not dechlorinated), junk mail, paperboard (like cereal boxes), old receipts, cardboard, egg crates, newspaper, composted horse manure, coffee filters/grounds, and even a few pounds of unmedicated chick starter that has been used as kitty litter and reeks of ammonia (that’s bad stuff). I think all will be well as the size of the bin (28 gallons) will allow the worms to seek out hospitable zones. I have faith that nature can overcome this daunting challenge.

    • Count of Anjou
    • May 3, 2011


    Thx for sharing the photo of your “socializing worms”. I’m a newbie to vermicomposting, but I’m thinking that when your worms are socializing in the daylight, even in a very shady corner, they are in fact fleeing an inhospitable situation. Your “bin” seems to have a lot of “green material” in it and I’m wondering if it’s getting too hot (worms like 55-75°F) from microbial degradation or perhaps the mix is turning sour (low pH) due to the large volume of seemingly fresh organic material? Also, the plastic barrel seems a bit tall. Worms, as you know, need lots of air to breathe and so the worm bin should only be 12-18 inches high. Maybe a few (3/8 inch) weep holes near the base would help aerate the soil and allow any excess moisture to drain?

    • Geneviève
    • May 15, 2011

    Hi, this is my first time posting 🙂 I just have one tub of worms that I’ve been keeping in the shady courtyard at work (no space at home, and nobody’s complained yet). Our secretary shreds a lot of paper anyway, and she gives me bags of it to use as bedding for my worms (actually I just dump a dry layer on top now and then and let the rain moisten it). I think it’s probably at least 95% black ink and white paper. My worms hang out down in the food n’ gunk layer, not up in the clean paper layer, but there’s lots of old paper mixed in down there. No problems yet. The paper layer seems to breathe fine (there are holes in the bin too and a liner of landscaping fabric) and it seems like it helps keep down the population of flies.

    With my small-scale operation, I can’t speak to whether there are any heavy metals which would cause problems for food grown from the dirt, but isn’t most office ink non-toxic now? What do you think?

    I’m guessing it would be good from a security point of view — nobody’s going to try to reassemble that shredded paper. 🙂

  5. Hi Genevieve,
    All the research I have looked into there doesn’t seem to be any conclusions on the toner ink. What I chose to do is treat the paper as if there are heavy metals as a precaution.

    • Geneviève
    • May 16, 2011

    Thanks Mark, I think I’ll do the same.

    • Jennie
    • September 12, 2011

    Many thanks, Count of Anjou, for the helpful comments you posted about my ‘socialising worms’ back in May 2011. I’ve only just seen them, as various things have been taking up my time and it’s only now that I’m catching up with anything relating to my computer.

    Since posting my first comment, I cleared out my green bin (keeping a pile of compost full of worms to start it off again) and since then there have been fewer worms around the top of the bin, despite some very warm weather earlier in the summer. (The compost was very good. I sieved it and what passed through the sieve was as good as you’d buy in the shops and was used for potting plants. The slightly courser remains were put on my garden). I agree that the mix could have contained too much in the way of grass cuttings and am now trying to ensure a better balance of kitchen waste, brown stuff (small dried leaves, cut up cardboard) and grass. As for the size of the bin, I’m not a true ‘vermicomposter’, just someone keen to get plenty of worms in my compost bin, but I’ll certainly put a few holes in it at the bottom and get some more air into it. Thanks again for your help.

    • Letitia
    • April 2, 2012

    Since this post a year ago, has anyone found out any more info on the heavy metals/ink/toner issue on paper? I want to use the compost for gardening, but this issue would give me pause about using printed paper.

    I used to have a bin where I composted newsprint and phone books, which I thought were a “green” thing to do. However, I don’t want to be contaminating soil that vegetables will be growing in! Any advice on this would be very helpful. 🙂

    • Geneviève
    • April 2, 2012

    Hi Letitia,
    I’m still curious about that too!
    I’ve also started experimenting using dryer lint in my bin. Does anyone else have advice to share about that?

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