Can I Compost Matches?

While we use them less and less each day, matches have long been a staple item in many households worldwide. Some countries still rely heavily on matches to light stoves and fire to eat and stay warm. Other places have switched almost entirely to electric ignitors and disposable lighters.

I still enjoy lighting a pipe of tobacco with a wooden match, and my outdoor fireplaces and charcoal grills will always have a box or two nearby in case my lighters fail. When a match has been lit and needs to be tossed, or when a box gets old or wet and the matches won’t work, can you throw them into a compost pile?

Can Matches Be Composted?

How you dispose of matches depends on a number of factors, but in most cases, they can be composted. Matches can be composted alongside paper towels, grass clippings, coffee grounds, paper napkins, food scraps, and manure.

Typically the only material left on a burnt match is wood or cardboard and maybe some wood ash, so it will mostly add to the brown compostable materials in a compost pile. If adding matches and other brown materials, pet hair, plain paper, or paper egg cartons,  make sure to balance them with food scraps, vegetable scrap, and animal waste/food waste that is high in nitrogen content. Adding the right portion of brown waste products and food waste or plant trimmings will ensure your finished compost is full of organic material for your plants.

Even unused matches can be added to the compost pile, and it won’t affect the composting process. The chemicals that produce and sustain the flame on matches are used in inorganic fertilizer and organic fertilizer to add phosphorus to the soil. Adding matches to the compost gives the soil time to break down the phosphorus sulfide and other coatings like paraffin into a safe organic material excellent for plant growth. 

What Materials are in Matches? 

Matches are made up of some carbon-based materials as well as different chemicals that are designed to ignite, retard flames, sustain flames, and then break down into harmless waste.  Matches are generally a combination of natural materials like wood and cardboard and flammable chemicals. The part of the match and its intended use determines exactly what organic materials it will be made from. 

Match Stick

The sticks can be made from carbon materials like cardboard, thick paper, or wood. Like wood chips and paper plates, and other organic materials, match sticks are part of the recycling stream and can reuse what would otherwise be waste products. Although the larger and stronger wooden match sticks are produced from virgin lumber, not from recycling. 

Match Head

The chemical components that make up the flammable portion of the match vary depending on whether it is a strike-anywhere match or a safety match. The chemical compounds on a safety match are applied in one layer, and the reactive paper strip is attached to the matchbox or book.

Strike-anywhere matches have the chemical components applied in two lawyers, with only the tip dipped in the ignition chemical. The rest of the match head is the chemical component to sustain the flame. The phosphorus sulfide easily ignites, and the potassium chlorate converts to oxygen to feed the flame.

Types of Matches

One of the cool things about matches is that they come in a lot of different sizes and packages, making them convenient if you do need them. Whether you want cheap matches or if you need reliable matches that will be there in an emergency, you have plenty of options to choose from. Understanding the different types of matches, what they are made from, and what they are being used for can help you narrow down which match you will need and show how matches are made!  

Strike-Anywhere Matches

These matches consist of white pine or aspen wooden match sticks, and two chemical solutions overlapped to form a tip and a base. The tip of the match head is a mixture of phosphorus sesquisulfide and potassium chlorate. Phosphorus in this form is non-toxic and quickly ignites. The early strike-anywhere matches were made of white phosphorus, which was highly toxic and led to a condition known as “phossy jaw.” 

The rest of the match head is potassium chlorate which supplies the oxygen needed for combustion. Before the flammable components are put on the match stick, the wood is soaked in ammonium phosphate, which is a flame-retardant. This ensures the part of the match stick you are holding doesn’t catch fire. 

Between the matchstick and the ignition chemical, there is usually a large dollop of paraffin wax to help the flame transition from phosphorus to wood. Once the paraffin has burned down, the wood shouldn’t burn right away. Care should always be taken when transporting or storing strike-anywhere matches, as they have been known to start unintended fires. 

Safety Matches

This is a class of matches that only has half of the combustion ingredients on the match head. The other flammable material is fixed to either the side of the matchbox or on the back of a book of matches. The chemical composition of the unused match stick of a safety match is different from the chemicals on the strike-anywhere unused match sticks. 

The head of safety matches is made from wood or cardboard. Since there is no risk of self-combustion, they can be packed tighter and carried safely with little fear of friction damage. This makes cardboard matchboxes an option for safety matches but not strike-anywhere matches. 

Safety matches contain antimony trisulfide, potassium chlorate, sulfur, powdered glass, inert fillers, and animal glue. The combination of these chemicals allows these matches to strike other matches without combusting. The adhesives hold the fillers and glass in place, which aids in creating the friction needed to generate ignition. 

These matches need an additional source of ignition, which comes in the form of a rough strip on the match holder. This strip has red phosphorus, powdered glass, and an adhesive such as gum arabic. When the two meet, the red phosphorus, and trisulfide combust while the other chemicals feed and sustain the flame. The glass and inert materials create extra friction to ensure a strong flame. 

Matchbook Matches

Matchbooks are great for advertising your business and are so cheap to produce that they can be given away for free. They are made of cardboard and hold about 20 matches. The cardboard is cut into combs and then dipped into the safety match chemical solution. 

Due to the cheap quality of these matches, they are many more duds than with other types of matches. The matchbooks can be flimsy, and the ignition strip can wear through. Overall newer matchbooks that are stored well will light successfully, whereas old, improperly stored ones will be faulty. 

Matchbox Matches

There are usually wooden sticks and not cardboard inside of matchboxes. These are great to have if you are going camping, use a bbq or fire pit regularly, or need to light candles in case of a power outage. Having a box of these on hand if a lighter fails is a great idea since they are extremely reliable. 

Most of the matchboxes will have safety matches in them. While strike-anywhere matches may still be available, they are not as easy to find or as readily available as safety matches. The strong match stick and well-affixed striking strip on the outside of the box ensure solid contact and easy combustion. If the outside of the box is exposed to moisture, however, the strip may not work anymore, so proper storage is important.

Kitchen Matches

These matches are around 6 inches long and are primarily used for lighting stove burners or pilot lights. Water heaters and ovens may need a manual flame added to a small gas flow to start the combustion that allows natural gas heating to work. Older propane grills may also need kitchen matches to ignite.

The added length of the match stick and the stronger, thick wood splinters used make them help to reach deep into kindling and start fires easily. These are great for survival situations and keeping on hand around the house. Depending on the use, these can be either strike-anywhere or safety matches with a long strike strip on the oversized matchbox. 

Best Matches for Composting

Some types of matches and match containers are better to add to the compost than others. While none of the matches will harm the plants or your compost, some parts might do better in recycling than in compost. You can also choose to add matches and their packages directly to the garden or turn it into finished compost and garden soil.

Match TypeEase of CompostHarmful to Compost
Strike-Anywhere MatchesVery EasyNo Harm
Safety MatchesEaseNo Harm
Matchbook MatchesVery EasyNo Harm
Matchbox MatchesEasyNo Harm
Kitchen MatchesMediumLarge strike strips might not breakdown

Strike-Anywhere Matches – These matches are probably the easiest to compost and the best for your garden soil. The phosphorus on the match tip is similar to chemical fertilizer ingredients and fish meal. Without a need for a strike strip, these matches have a lower carbon footprint than safety matches. The other chemicals are easily absorbed by plants, as is the wood ash created when they burn.

No nitrogen is added to the compost or gardens when composting these matches. All of the components are carbon and will help build soil in our gardens. Avoid adding used matches, wood ash, and soap scraps together in the compost as it may produce lye which is caustic. Add green materials and vegetable scraps to balance the compost.

Safety Matches – The matches on their own, especially if they are cardboard, decompose very quickly. If the match has already been lit, then it is like composting office paper, cotton, or any other carbon material. There will also be no glue or chemicals that could harm garden plants. 

If the matches have not been lit and are being discarded with the strike strip, then it is a bit harder to get quality compost. The materials that safety matches and their strips are made out of can take a while to turn into a good compost mix. Adding a lot of other composting materials like office papers, other paper items, biodegradable waste as well as plenty of nitrogen sources can help break down the strips.

Hot composting safety match packages can rapidly dissolve the adhesives and break down chemicals on the match heads. To get the compost hot enough, add nitrogen layers of garden trimmings, food scraps, and other nitrogen materials. This will break down the carbon and make balanced quality compost. 

Matchbook Matches – Matchbooks and their matches are cardboard and break down really quickly. When starting larger fires with these types of matches, it is common to set the whole pack on fire to get the kindling hot. This leaves nice ash for use in the compost and garden. 

The entire matchbook can also just be tossed into the compost with nitrogen layers and other carbon layers. Unused match sticks in the comb count as carbon, so add a lot of nitrogen materials to even it out. There is no harm in occasionally adding match books to your compost mix. 

Matchbox Matches – Less common than matchbooks and usually containing hundreds of unused matchsticks, they are limited in their day-to-day uses. The packaging may take a while to break down, so it is best to dump the matches into the compost and recycle the box. 

Kitchen Matches – The large strike strip and the thick box material make it a slow decomposer in a compost pile. If you do want to compost kitchen matches and their boxes, make sure to cut them or tear them up into smaller pieces. The matches, either used or unused, make a great addition of carbon material and trace micronutrients similar to fish meal and are excellent compost materials.