Newbie w/ some ideas

jason_mackenna(Dallas TX)September 24, 2005

First of all, thanks to all the posts that I have read over the last few days. It has been extremely educational (esp. Kelly and our alien sighting, worm bin exploding compatriot).

I am a newbie, with a bin about 3 weeks old. I have had some success, and have read quite a bit about different approaches. I have a multi-part question that has not been answered satisfactorily by searching other web sites, FAQS, and this site. To what extent is the use of office paper with either ink jet or laser toner safe to use with vermicompost that will eventually be used with foodstuffs? Second, what processed papers (ie, colored inks, shiny inks, colored paper, construction paper, or highly processed cardboard, for example, food boxes, beer containers, etc) are usuable for a garden with products intended for family consumption?

As a side bar, I am experimenting with the use of toilet paper and paper towel rolls inserted vertically into the vermicompost bin to improve aeration within the bin. If I see any interest in this, I will keep the board updated.

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DickS(z9 SoCal)

I did some research on this, including talking to a friend of a friend who works for the EPA. Office paper is fine with either ink jet or laser toner or any other ink currently in use. The only paper you need to avoid is the NCR (no carbon) paper used in multi-part forms. It can be toxic in large amounts.

Same story with any packaging. You might want to avoid metallic or plastic appliqu (some beer cartons have them) though they won't actually hurt the worms. They just don't decompose. I've used office paper, junk mail and every sort of packaging and slick paper for years and had no bad effects to either the worms or the plants the castings were applied to. The tomatoes all taste just fine.


    Bookmark   September 25, 2005 at 3:27AM
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newbie314(Z9 CA)

I did the paper towel and toilet paper role vertical thing too.
I'm using the OSCR JR. and on my first stack bin. Want to make sure Air is getting to the bottom bin.

    Bookmark   September 25, 2005 at 12:50PM
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At one time, colored inks were a no-no in bins because of unsafe materials in those inks, as well as copious amounts of prejudice...expecially, as the Reverend Jackson loved to say, in the South. Later, newspaper inks of all dispositions were made equal, and safe for both human and vermi consumption...or so they said, although I believe only newspaper print was mandatory. Other print media, I would assume, were compelled to comply, but personally, I believe there remain isolated pockets of old school refusal to change with regard to the colored controversy, and I remain a segregationist in that regard. Separating colored from non-colored ain't all that hard, with regards to inks anyway, and my worms aren't complaining.

As for the TP rolls, I use them, filled with horse biscuits, to entrap my worm when separating them from compost (sorry Kelly). That works well, but the aeration possibilities are unknown to me. I have experimented with constructing bins with various aeration devices...mainly PVC pipe bored with holes...integrated into the bin horizontally. They produced little discernable improvement in the quality of the poop.

As I've said before, every time I separate a bin that has small amounts of recognizable, airy foodstuff still in the bin with a layer of dense, too-wet glop at the bottom, most of the worms are in that lower, less aerated crap. And they don't seem all that anxious to be extracted from that stuff. Kinda like the stragglers in New Orleans wading waste-deep in their own sewage refusing to leave "home".

Lastly, when doubts about your worming do's and dont's creep up on you, remember that if you throw your tea bags into the bin without removing that little staple, the worms will not eat it.



    Bookmark   September 25, 2005 at 4:20PM
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jason_mackenna(Dallas TX)

Thanks for the feedback, y'all.

Another thing I am trying right now is "misting" the top level of paper, thoroughly dampening it, and setting up a fan blowing over it. This "swamp cooler" seems to be working pretty well - when I had the cover on my rubber maid, the temp in the bin seemed to get pretty high, there was lots of condensation on the top of the bin, and the worms seemed to be trying to leave in droves. Now that they have a nice evaporative cooler setup, the worms haven't been trying to escape. Or they are drying out when they get in the path of the fan. One of the two. All I know is that right now it's hot as heck here in Dallas, and I wouldn't want to be stuck in a sealed rubbermaid outside either.

    Bookmark   September 25, 2005 at 5:50PM
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Frogonalog(8 North FL)


I'm still reluctant to put shredded office paper and such in my bin for the same fears about the toner powder. This is what I know, but please don't take this as an argument to convince you to act one way or the other. Some of it is fact while other statements are my UN-scientific deductions.

When a printer/copier prints the drum is magnetized to match the print image the toner particles are then picked up by the drum and then the toner powder is fused/melted onto the paper fibers by heat. The toner powder contains fine particles of plastic and a carbon pigment. Some toner particles contain iron oxide or a similar ferro magnetic additive to better strengthen a magnetic charge. It varies with manufacturer and sometimes each printer. For those printers that print checks the MICR Toner can have over half more iron oxide than a regular print to comply with banking standards.

Both the carbon pigment and the plastic usually originate from petroleum. The carbon (pigment) is usually the byproduct that is collected in filters from heating petroleum and other oil based liquids to gaseous state. The plastic (polymer) is usually produced during oil refinery unless it is recycled plastic, but it is still plastic.

It is my understanding that most synthetic compounds like plastic aren't easily broken down in the bin. Some people will put plastic and other synthetic material in a bin and find it later during harvest. The materials in the toner powder are smaller and can't be separated from the compost as easily as larger plastics. Since these are plastic particles there will be more surface area exposed to the worms and organisms in the bin so it does increase the chance of consumption. So in effect you are lightly peppering your compost with plastic particles depending on how concentrated the toner is on the paper.

So the question(s) you should ask yourself are this:
Is the concentration of toner powder on the office paper high enough to be concerned about? (usually a printed page covers between 5 to 10% of the page?

Will the worms and other beneficial organisms break down the plastic particles and oil ingredients?

According to the FDA, Synthetic Iron Oxide used for coloring drugs ingested by us may not have more than
following specifications, all on an ``as is'' basis:
Arsenic (as As), not more than 3 parts per million.
Lead (as Pb), not more than 10 parts per million.
Mercury (as Hg), not more than 3 parts per million.

Since toner powder was NOT created for consumption I'm making the assumption that its concentration of the above elements could be higher if synthetic iron oxide is being used in the toner powder.

Are you increasing the concentration of these materials in your soil by using office paper?

Big question:
Will the vegetables in your garden be able to pick up those metals and other things in the fruits and vegetables to your detriment or will it just be an inert particle in your soil? (I haven't a clue.)

Does your community have a recycling program in place to handle office paper and the de-inking of this toner powder? Are we taking away paper resources away from the program by using it for our worms instead of printing paper (somewhat doubtful since the percentage of paper that is recycled is low)?

I still haven't found enough information regarding the metals and petroleum products in toner to warrant the introduction of my laser printer paper in my bin. I'll stick with recycling the laser printer paper. There are plenty of other bedding materials out there.

(Here I am drinking with a PLASTIC straw in a PLASTIC cup typing on a PLASTIC keyboard, using a laser printer at home and at work. I'm such a hypocrite)

I agree with the heat thing although we aren't as hot as Texas, it gets nice and steamy here. It's finally getting cooler. Were in the high 80's lower 90's. On those scorchers when I know there won't be an afternoon shower, I still freeze a cup size block of ice and put the ice in the plastic bin on top in the morning. It melts and the worms get a cooling effect for most of the morning and part of the afternoon.


    Bookmark   September 26, 2005 at 12:12PM
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Kelly_Slocum(sw WA state)

Charles, those are some astute observations based on a greater knowledge of inks and ink processes than most of us possess! I do have one clarification, however; most inks, certainly on newsprint, are now vegetable or soy-based rather than petro-chemical based (though some veggie-based inks can still contain small traces of petro-chemicals as well). This is certainly not to say that they have been rendered wholly non-toxic, but is simply meant as a point of clarification.

Know that the finished product from both composting and vermicomposting systems using office paper, printer paper, fax paper, news paper (both black and white and color), and junk mail has been tested for residual toxins associated with both the making of paper and with the inks themselves, and found to have residual toxins at either "no detect" levels, or at levels well below the naturally occuring background levels of local soils, suggesting that there is no danger of toxins being amplified by the use of most papers in compost. Papers that should be avoided, as Charles suggests, are those with metalic inks, neon paper (usually associated with paper board folks use to make garage sale signs) and wrapping paper due to the use of inks that do contain toxins over which there might be concern.

I'm trying to decide how best to say this and finding it somewhat difficult, so please, bear with me to the end before passing judgement; while there is the POSSIBILITY of trace levels of heavy metals associated with the ink in paper that might be used in a worm bin or compost pile, our gardens are daily contaminated with these and more dangerous toxins from street runoff and industrial atmospheric fall-out. While I do NOT mean, by any stretch of the imagination, to sound as though I am minimizing Charles' well-researched concerns, I also think we ned to maintain perspective. Is the benefit of the OM and associated beneficial chemistry and biology associated with compost made from paper products outweighed by the potential for low levels of, admittedly persistent toxins associated with this material? In a world laden with chemicals that we cannot avoid, but rich with processes that amplify benfits, even if those processes are not wholly without some small risk, where do we draw the line?

Food for thought, my friends, and an excellent reminder that not all of our questions have definitive answers and we must, often, simply rely on our own instincts. What's so great about worm bins and compost piles in our back yards is that, for every material we choose to avoid in these systems, there is an excellent and readily available alternative!

Charles, thank you again for your excellent insights!

Kelly S

    Bookmark   September 26, 2005 at 3:23PM
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Frogonalog(8 North FL)


Thanks for the clarification and your knowledge in this. I'm glad that our worms and their organism buddies can
break down those questionable elements in the office paper for us to safe levels. I was trying not to sound like chicken little, but I just wanted everyone to know the ingredients of the toner powder and my concerns.

I may start to use some printer paper and junk mail and recycle the remainder. My bedding right now consists of cut up cardboard (1 to 2 inch squares), coir, paper towels, coffee filters, and a little peat.

Since I deal with computer technology I had a general idea of the inner workings of the laser printer and the toner medium. The good news about toner is that people are working on developing toner powder that is soy-based. Once this process is refined and mastered most toner manufacturers will make the change unless it is cost prohibitive.

Soy-based toner will help the recycling technology in that it will be easier to de-ink the paper that is recycled with less chemicals and such. De-inking of office paper is a costly part of recycling. It requires heat, uv, and nasty chemicals to dislodge the toner that is fused on the paper. The soy ink being plant based can be removed with enzymes and less resources which in turn lowers recycling costs. Also, it may increase recycling efforts in smaller towns (like mine).


Here is a link that might be useful: Soy-Based Toner R & D

    Bookmark   September 27, 2005 at 8:58AM
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ShenValleyJoe(6b Staunton, VA)

John, copiers and printers don't operate by magnetizing the drum and toner. They use an electrostatic process, like rubbing a balloon on your sweater to move the toner from the developer to the drum to the paper. This is not nit picking, but to let you know that iron is a minor part of the process, and that iron oxide doesn't end up on your paper with most printers. In those that do, its a very small quantity, and as you say. only on a small percentage of the paper. I get more iron from cooking my eggs in a cast iron skillet than I can from the toner/compost/vegetable process.

What ends up on the paper after the Xerographic process is carbon black and thermoplastic (not unlike hot glue). If one is concerned about harmful effects of plastic, then its going to be a tough life in the modern world.

MSDS sheets for major brand toners say nothing about heavy metals. I asked over at Soil, Compost and Mulch about the "common knowledge" that charcoal briquettes contain heavy metals. After egging them on for quite a while, I never got a verifiable source for this info. Even so, considering the background levels of mercury and arsenic around us, the levels that you describe for iron oxide are not a concern to me in my bin. Tuna fish and drinking water probably have more than the amounts that would reach me via my worms eating office paper.

Soy toner is a cool concept that I don't understand. Soy is not a pigment, but a carrier that won't respond to a high voltage charge like plastic. But I think that we've already put the wormers to sleep. E-mail me if you want to continue the discussion of the dangers of the copy process. :)


    Bookmark   September 27, 2005 at 6:26PM
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Assuming that everyone agrees that newsprint is safe for worm consumption, even if you don't want to use non-black ink, if you read an urban newspaper, you will have to have a very large worm operation to run out of newsprint.

I prefer to use materials of a like consistency in compost piles and worm bins because they decompose similarly. Things that decompose slower than others are a pain in the asset.


    Bookmark   September 27, 2005 at 7:35PM
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ShenValleyJoe(6b Staunton, VA)

Yeah Chuckie, but you've got space aliens in your worm bin, so nuff said.... :)

    Bookmark   September 27, 2005 at 9:39PM
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theinfamousj(z7 NC)

We are concerned because there are ppm (parts per million) concentrations of undesirables in our worm bins? As a chemistry teacher, I would just like to interject that in the event (and this I don't know so I'm just going to go with it) that there is one ppm of your favorite heavy metal in toner, that means you'd have to have 1 killogram of toner before you'd get to 1 millogram (that's 1/1000 of a gram) of heavy metal.

Our bodies are quite resilliant things, and I'm guessing that while this is above the detection limit of scientific equipment, it is well below any level to worry about. And besides, wouldn't the worms die first to let us know there is a problem if there is one?

Anyway, I apologize for the rant, but sometimes I see a "teachable moment" and feel that the world should be educated. Feel free to file this on a back burner and help a child with their homework, if you so chose. Or ignore it.

Here is a link that might be useful: What do ppm, ppb, and ppt mean in real life terms?

    Bookmark   September 27, 2005 at 10:03PM
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Frogonalog(8 North FL)

Thanks one and all. You are slowly convincing me to start using more office paper in my bin. I'm probably getting more iron oxide from the tomato cages (again typing while drinking out of a styrofoam cup with a plastic straw, eating breakfast with a plastic fork after commuting on a congested road with cars emitting Carbon Monoxide worrying about the small traces of plastic and iron oxide in my compost bedding - It does make me feel silly :)

I looked at the material safety data sheets for 3 of our 6 printers in the office area and here is the iron oxide content of the toner for those specific models. Again, considering that usually 5% of the toner gets on the paper the amount doesn't seem as bad. Like Kelly and others stated we get more toxins from runoff and the environment and more iron oxide from our rusty water pipes and the benefits do outweigh the minimal risks. Vermicompost is better for the environment than the overapplication of synthetic fertilizer.

Composition of Iron Oxide in toner used in our office.
Xerox Document Center: 15 - 20% Iron Oxide by weight

HP 9050: 40 - 50% Iron Oxide by weight

HP5SI: 45 - 55% Iron Oxide by weight


    Bookmark   September 28, 2005 at 10:57AM
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Oh, I know Joe, believe me I know. Everyone who has a close encounter experience must carefully consider the consequences of going public with it. The reaction usually is of a derogatory nature toward the victim, and I fear a vast majority of sightings go unreported for that reason. Being a worm-related sighting made my decision to share the details with my forum friends a foregone conclusion.

Because I have reason to believe the creatures have accessed my computer files, and hence, the postings on this forum, I hope you will report your experience when you're visited.


    Bookmark   September 28, 2005 at 11:58AM
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Frogonalog(8 North FL)


You got me wondering if I should do my next bin with multiple materials or one maybe two with a like consistency. I started my first bin in mid June and I'm about to harvest. I thought that a mixed bedding would provide a little more air to make the worms and their guests happier, but applying the KISS principle sounds appealing.

I fluff the bin every once and a while and when I snoop only a small portion in the bottom is wet the rest smells and looks beautiful.

The coir and peat I purchased so it kind of goes against the "use what you have" philosophy, but I thought it would be a nice housewarming gift for the worm neighbors.


    Bookmark   September 28, 2005 at 12:36PM
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mikej(z9 CA)

This post might get me roasted but here goes. If you could see my face now you would know I am writing this with a sincere desire to learn. And, I will admit right up front that I don't personally know anything that will help answer the original question.

This is an important question and unfortunately it looks like nobody really "knows" whether it is safe to use paper with toner on it. With the information given here we each have to make our own decision.

What bothers me the most here is the number of posts with partial information. Some examples:

1. Kelly's reference to tests on vermicompost made with office paper, junk mail, etc., checking for residual toxins from both paper and inks. She doesn't specifically state whether the test included papers with toner rather than inks. Since the test included office paper then there was probably toner involved but we don't know that from the information given.

2. Frogonalog provided the concentrations of iron oxide in the toner for various printer manufacturers. Is iron oxide considered a toxic heavy metal? If so, what levels are considered toxic?

3. TheInfamousJ includes the statements "this I don't know" and "I'm guessing that", then finishes with "sometimes I see a "teachable moment" and feel that the world should be educated". This is expressing an opinion, not teaching. This is how myths get started then Kelly gets to spend her time trying to quell the myths.

I love this forum and the great discussions that come out of it.

    Bookmark   September 28, 2005 at 3:46PM
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ShenValleyJoe(6b Staunton, VA)

Mike, nobody gets roasted around here. Its a very friendly bunch. Here are some comments on your concerns:

Virtually all office paper has toner on it. I used to service hundreds of typewriters 20 years ago. Now its just a handful. Just about everything is printed using laser printers and copiers. Office paper almost by definition is laser printed paper. If there was a study of office paper, it had toner on it.

The percentage of iron in a printer cartridge is misleading. The reasons are a little complicated, but toner is attracted by the electrical charges of the copy process, the iron carrier is not. The iron has merely been used as a "brush" to paint the surface of the drum. The percentage of iron on the printed page will usually be much less than that in the cartridge. A few brands use a carrierless toner with the iron bonded to the toner particle, but the majority behave as I have described.

    Bookmark   September 28, 2005 at 4:44PM
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Kelly_Slocum(sw WA state)

MikeJ, how dare you! Why, really, I ought to..., to..., well, I ought to..., er, um, well..., agree with you! ::michevious grin::

Few facts or reliable citations containing definitive answers were given simply because there are none. By cobbing together relevant data we can formulate a pretty good theory on the relative safety of using paper to which toner has been applied, but specific research demonstrating the impact to soil, soil organisms, plants and, through them people, of composts or vermicomposts generated from feedstocks using varying concentrations of varying types of paper containing varying levels of residual toner simply does not exist (to my knowledge). That this was a sharing of opinion rather than facts backed by data was a point clearly obvious to you, and hopefully, obvious to most who read the thread. In this case, theinfamousj's teachable moment was realized! Yeah for our side!

Your point is taken, however, that some may read this thread and take the words of the experienced and articulate people participating in the discussion as hard facts when this is not the case, thus perpetuating as fact what remains only theory, albeit a reasoned theory (how's that for a run-on sentence?!). Your comments at this point in the thread serve to keep things in perspective, and to highlight for all readers the importance of differentiating fact from opinion. For my part, I feel that, far from leaving you deserving of a roasting, such input is highly relevant and an asset to the discussion!

In conjunction with differentiating fact from opinion, I also hope anyone reading this thread takes away the need for keeping concerns over potential toxins in perspective. While I do not mean to imply that because there is toxic run-off from roadways contaminating our gardens we should blithely ignore concerns over potential toxins in materials we use as worm bin or compost pile feedstock, neither should we become so phobic of anything not pristine that the pendulum swings too far in the other direction. And I feel quite certain, MikeJ, that you agree with that!

Thanks for adding to the discussion!

Kelly S

    Bookmark   September 28, 2005 at 5:05PM
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mikej(z9 CA)

>nobody gets roasted around here

Whew! ( wipes sweat from brow )

I've seen enough good discussions here to know that but it's still good to be reminded.

As I reread my post I realized it sounded like I was coming down on TheInfamousJ harder than I intended. Sorry. If I understand what you were saying then I agree 100%. Just because you hear the word "toxic" applied to something, you shouldn't run off in a panic until you understand the whole story as far as levels of concentration, etc.

In fact you can find an excellent object lesson at this spoof web site that warns about the toxic dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide. TheInfamousJ, as a chemistry teacher, is already chuckling. Because as we all know Dihydrogen Monoxide is ... H2O.


Here is a link that might be useful: Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division

    Bookmark   September 28, 2005 at 10:00PM
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theinfamousj(z7 NC)

Eeek ... I suppose I combined two points there. My "teachable moment" was merely the definition of parts per million and pointing out how much toner (not paper, just the toner itself) it would take to reach 1 ppm. What I didn't know was if 1 ppm was the concentration level. Still, the overall point is that it takes a lot of toner.

My question in all of that was whether or not someone could generate that much toner waste in a home vermicomposting bin.

    Bookmark   September 28, 2005 at 11:09PM
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Wow!! I love this forum.
Thank everyone contributed to this thread, answering the question that I had.
What a wonderful thing.

    Bookmark   August 3, 2008 at 10:03PM
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I suppose this post is only going to be interesting to the true compost science nerds, but I found a pretty good document written by the Australian government that indirectly discusses this issue, and includes citations. Some background first:

I looked up the MSDS for the toner I use (Brother TN580):

From the MSDS, I learned that the primary chemical component of the toner is styrene acrylate copolymer (84% by weight). After some googling, I found out that this plastic is the primary chemical of concern in toner. It is used as a binder resin (glue).

After some more googling, I found an excellent document, written by the Australian government, that specifically discusses the environment impact of the chemical:

It concludes that the chemical is relatively sage from a biological and environmental viewpoint. Section 9 - the toxicological evaluation - essentially says that low levels of exposure should be fine, based on tests done on rats exposed to the chemical. The document also concludes that the chemical does not dissolve easily in water, so it should not be readily absorbed by plants or by humans.

I should also add a contrasting viewpoint from:
This chemical is used a lot in dish detergent to give it color. The blogger mentions a correlation between this chemical and cancer, among other things. However, I don't see any support for her position elsewhere, and she doesn't provide any references other than "a recent study". The side effects she mentions (headaches, etc) are related to inhalation of the powder, not digestion of the chemical.

Based on this info, I've decided to start composting the shredded paper from my laser printer. I'm convinced that it's safe for the garden.

If you're wondering about the other three chemicals in the toner, I've found that most of them are safe too. PMMA is another acrylate, and has very similar properties to styrene acrylate copolymer. Silicon dioxide is relatively harmless when ingested.

Carbon black (5-7%) has health issues related to inhalation, but I found no studies related to the ingestion of carbon black. It's used in so many other products, particularly automobile tires, that the levels that end up in your compost are likely to be negligible compared to the amount already present in the air and soil.

    Bookmark   November 7, 2008 at 8:15PM
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