Can paper waste be used to increase plant growth?

USDA ARS, Corps
Add to MyAgriExpo favorites

USDA ARS, Corps of Engineers partner to evaluate using finely ground paper to aid establishment of native grasses

The Agricultural Research Service teamed up with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to solve two environmental problems: the disposal of paper waste and revegetating damaged training grounds.

The problem

Under federal regulations, U.S. Army classified papers must be pulverized to a fine consistency, which leaves the material unsuitable for recycling. Continued disposal of this waste in landfills presents environmental concerns and is expensive. Secondly, army training areas become barren of vegetation from constant use by heavy equipment and foot soldiers. Soil erosion can occur, making it difficult to reestablish native grasses.

The research

The Agricultural Research Service evaluated the use of pulverized or finely ground paper as a soil amendment to improve soil health and the ability to establish desirable native grasses on degraded Army training land.

Pulverized paper, which is like a very fine confetti, is a cheap, high-quality organic material that is useful as a soil amendment, said Henry "Allen" Torbert, research leader at the ARS National Soils Dynamics Laboratory in Auburn, Alabama. ARS worked with the Army to determine the right rates of application and to make sure there were no environmental concerns from the application of paper.

Earlier trials conducted on research plots located in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and Fort Benning, Georgia, showed positive results for vegetation restoration where a processed waste paper product material was applied.

This recent study, published in Elsevier in 2019, on the finely ground paper was conducted at Fort Polk, Louisiana, by Torbert and Ryan Busby, an ecologist with the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center.

The results

It demonstrated that adding this type of paper waste to Army training grounds improves soil health, increases growth of native grasses and provides a solution for disposing classified paper waste.

Using the material as a soil amendment also is a big economic win, according to Torbert. Native plant establishment was improved, with plant cover 45% higher on sites with the recommended application rate compared to controls. Pulverized paper material applied at the recommended application rate on training grounds resulted in a cost savings of approximately $4,700 per acre—an estimated annual cost savings of $20,000 for each military facility—with 70 tons of paper diverted from landfills.

There is also an environmental benefit as restoring the plant cover protects the soil from erosion, promotes the accumulation of soil carbon and provides improved wildlife habitat, according to the scientists.

The study showed that pulverized paper can be safely applied to degraded training areas to improve establishment of desirable vegetation without any noticeable negative consequences.

Can paper waste be used to increase plant growth?