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Picking the Right Paper Shredder

Tuesday October 25, 2016

How do you find the best shredder? We have ventured down the internet rabbit hole of identity theft information, shredded every kind of document imaginable, and tried to piece together some incredibly difficult paper confetti puzzles, all so we could answer just that question. So read on to learn how to choose your splendid shredding sidekick, or check out our paper shredder review, where we use a series of exacting tests to identify all the strengths and weaknesses of eight of the most popular models on the market.

In this article, we first lay out a simple, step by step guide detailing how to choose the shredder that is right for you. Then, for those that really want to dive into the nitty gritty, we go into a more detailed description of shredding technology and security.

Choosing the Right Shredder

Step 1: Do you Need a Shredder, or a Shredding Service?

For the vast majority of people looking to dispose of sensitive documents, having a shred at home option makes sense. However, there are a few unique situations where using a professional shredding service may be more convenient and/or economical:
  • You're moving and suddenly have a large volume of documents you need to shred all at once.
  • You run an office that produces a lot of documents that need to be shredded regularly.
  • You need to provide clients with an official certificate of destruction to prove you've destroyed their personal information.

Step 2A: How Much Security do you Need, is Cross-Cut Enough?

Security is the one and only reason for buying a shredder, so it makes sense that this would be the primo factor to consider. Most shredders on the market are either cross-cut or micro-cut, with older strip cut models becoming all but obsolete.

Cross-cut models produce shreds that are about 1.5 inches long and 1/8 of an inch wide. Although this is technically big enough to retain some usable information if you're very unlucky, and an overly zealous thief with a lot of time on their hands could theoretically reconstruct a cross-cut shredded document, in a real world functional sense cross-cut provides plenty of security for the vast majority of people. Its only real weakness is credit cards, which we found produced distinctive enough shards to be picked out from the rest of the refuse, and could be stitched back together. However, for most people shredding credit cards is such an uncommon task that it wouldn't be arduous to do it by hand, or to split the credit card shreds into a couple different garbage bags.

While cross-cut models (right) offer great security  they cannot match that of micro-cut models (left).
While cross-cut models (right) offer great security, they cannot match that of micro-cut models (left).

Step 2B: How Much Security do you Need, Should you Opt for Micro-Cut?

Micro-Cut models out do their cross-cut brethren by producing confetti sized shreds that are about 1/8 inch by 1/4 inch. This is all but unreadable, and would be nearly impossible to piece back together. You should opt for micro-cut if you shred a lot documents that would be worth the painstaking effort of piecing them back together. People that work in high profile law firms, or produce financial statements that could be very valuable in the wrong hands, come to mind. You would also want to opt for micro-cut if you frequently shred credit cards. However, if you're wealthy enough to be shredding credit cards on a regular basis, you probably just have your butler do it.

Step 3: How Much do you Need to Shred?

Your average shredding volume dictates how much you need to spend on a shredder. If you only shred a few sheets at a time a few times a day, you can easily get away with a more inexpensive, low capacity model. The AmazonBasics 6-Sheet Cross-Cut is a great cross-cut option, and the Bonsaii DocShred C156-C Micro-Cut is great if you need the added security of micro-cut.

If you select a shredder that can't match your needs  this will become a common scene.
If you select a shredder that can't match your needs, this will become a common scene.

If you tend to shred a lot, or like to let your shredding jobs pile up and then do a big stack of paper all in one go, you'll want to go with a higher end model with increased speed and capacity. The Fellowes Powershred 79Ci is a great cross-cut choice if you've got a need for speed and some extra cash to spend, and the AmazonBasics 12-Sheet Micro-Cut is a burly, reasonably fast micro-cut option.

Step 4: Consider Where you're Going to Put your Shredder

If you want to keep your shredder hidden away under a desk, it is nice to have a pull-out drawer style bin so you can empty it without having to bend over and move things around. It is also a plus to have a larger bin so you don't have to empty it as frequently. If your shredder is going to be easily accessible, then a sit on top model that requires lifting and removing the shredding unit to get to the bin won't be too much of a hassle.

Step 5: Consider Noise Levels

For most home users the average shredding session will be short enough to deal with the annoying noises emitted by most shredders. However, if you are particularly sensitive to noise, or have easily irritable office mates, you may want to opt for one of the models that we found to be less irritating. Unfortunately, this generally means spending a little extra money. Our testers felt the Fellowes Powershred 79Ci and the AmazonBasics 12-Sheet Micro-Cut were relatively easy on the ears. See our main shredder review for a video of all our shredders humming away.

What Needs to be Shredded?

With all this talk of ripping paper into tiny bits, you're probably wondering what exactly should be shredded and what can just go straight into the trash.

The Essentials

At a bare minimum you should shred:
  • Anything with your social security number
  • Anything with your signature (this can lead to forgery attempts)
  • Credit cards
  • Anything with a full credit card number
  • Credit card offers/applications
  • Anything with any sort of account information (bills, bank statements, etc.)
  • Anything from your financial institution, even if it doesn't have account information
  • Bills
  • Anything related to taxes
  • Cancelled and voided checks
  • Old identification cards (driver's license, passport, student ID, etc.)

Optional, But Better Safe Than Sorry

To reduce the risk of identity theft as much as possible you'll want to shred anything that would give a thief more information about you than the average person would be able to find. This includes things like resumes, transcripts, anything that shows employment history, and so on. If your address and phone number are publically listed you don't really need to bother shredding documents with that information, but it couldn't hurt either. Documents that block out all but the last four digits of your credit card number technically don't provide enough information to be harmful, but again it wouldn't hurt to shred them anyway.

Even More Shredding Information

If you've made it this far then you weren't satisfied with our cliff notes on how to choose a shredder, and want to really dive into the minutiae. In this section we go more in depth about security, shredding capacity, when to use a shredding service, and a few other shredding related considerations.

Cross-Cut Security Tips

As we've mentioned before, cross-cut offers plenty of security for most people, but does have a couple of minor shortcomings. In our testing we found that these shortcomings could be circumvented with a just a little bit of forethought, so don't throw away your cross-cut companion just yet.

The first shortcoming of cross-cut technology is its inability to completely obliterate credit cards. Our testers were able to separate the distinctively shiny bits of credit card from a bin full of paper shreds, and the cross-cut credit card shreds were just large enough to make the piecing back together fairly easy. There are a couple of ways around this. First, if you only shred a credit card or two a year, you could cut it up with a pair of scissors, making sure the areas with numbers, names, and expiration dates are cut into particularly small pieces. Second, you could just cut your credit card in half and shred each half on different occasions. If you time it so that one half ends up being picked up by the trash collector one week, and the other half goes out the next week, there is almost no chance one person could end up with all of your credit card shards.

These shreds are from paper fed into the shredding slot with text running parallel to the shredding blades. This information most likely would not have been legible if the sheets were turned 90 degrees.
These shreds are from paper fed into the shredding slot with text running parallel to the shredding blades. This information most likely would not have been legible if the sheets were turned 90 degrees.

The second, and perhaps more important, shortcoming of cross-cut models is that the 1.5 inch long and 1/8 of an inch wide shreds produced are just large enough to retain legible, important information on them. You would have to have the luck of John McClane to have your credit card number show up legibly on a paper shred, and then have a thief find that one shred, but it is possible. We shredded a page of fake social security numbers and did find a few shreds with a full number wholly intact. The chances of this occurring, however, can be all but eliminated with correct orientation. Cross-cut models produce long, skinny shreds that run vertically. If text on the shredded pages runs perpendicularly to these shred it is almost impossible for useful information to end up on one shred, as it's just not wide enough to accommodate that much text. All of the models we tested accept paper in a portrait orientation. Therefore, any page oriented in portrait will have text that runs perpendicularly to the paper shreds, and thus will be very unlikely to produce any little fortune cookie shreds with important information contained on them. What you have to watch out for is pages oriented in landscape. Text on these pages, if fed into the shredder normally, will run parallel to the shreds, and can result in something like the photo below. The way around this is to fold landscape pages in half, and feed them through the shredder so that the text is running perpendicularly. We did this with our fake social security number page, and didn't find any usable shreds.

We did have to stack the odds in our favor to get a readable social security number out of a cross-cut model  but we did prove that it is possible.
We did have to stack the odds in our favor to get a readable social security number out of a cross-cut model, but we did prove that it is possible.

Micro-Cut Security Tips

Micro-Cut is superior to Cross-Cut in that we really can't offer any tips to increase its security. We would feel comfortable throwing credit cards, bank statements, and pay stubs through a micro-cut model with reckless abandon and calling it good. If you want to be able to just shred without a care, then micro-cut is for you.

Exceeding the Maximum Capacity can Compromise Security

In our testing we found that most models will pass stacks of paper much larger than their advertised maximum capacity through the shredding slot without jamming. However, these stacks often do not completely shred. Instead they turn into shredded paper waffles that require just a little flattening and peeling to reveal large amounts of completely legible information. These waffles can easily get mixed in with the other paper shreds and be unknowingly dumped into the trash. The moral of the story is to not exceed your shredder's advertised maximum capacity, even if it seems like it can handle it.

Overloading your shredder can produce easily reconstructed paper waffles.
Overloading your shredder can produce easily reconstructed paper waffles.

A Note on Shredding CDs

Many modern shredders can accept data CDs, which is quite useful for those that use this type of data storage. Most models run CDs through their standard shredding apparatus, meaning cross-cut models produce rectangular CD shreds and micro-cut models make shiny CD confetti. Some models have a dedicated slot and blades that cut the CD into three large pieces, such as the Bonsaii DocShred C156-C Micro-Cut. Cutting a CD any number of times makes it impossible to read in a drive, which is plenty good enough for 99.9% of people. However, the only data that is technically destroyed when you cut a CD is the data that was physically stored along the area that was cut. Data stored on the remainder of the CD can be reconstructed through the use of a microscope and some sweat equity. Here again, if you work with very sensitive information that is stored on CDs and is valuable enough to warrant hours spent staring down a microscope to retrieve, you will be better served with a cross or micro cut model, rather than one that only shreds CDs into a few pieces.

Bin Styles and Full Indicators

Every Shredder includes a bin to catch all the shredded material. These bins come in two styles: a drawer style that can be pulled out without moving the shredding unit, and a simple bucket style that the shredding unit rests on top of, meaning the shredding unit must be lifted off to access and empty the bin.

Drawer style bins tend to be much easier to empty, as you can usually pull out the bin with a single hand and don't have to move the heavy shredding unit. This is especially useful if your shredder is going to be tucked away under a desk or behind some nice office shrubbery. The big disadvantage to drawer style bins is that it can often be easy to overfill them. If this happens a stack of paper confetti snow builds up over the ips of the bin, resulting in an avalanche when you pull it out. Luckily we tested shredders concurrently with robot vacuum cleaners, so this wasn't a huge issue for our testers, but in most circumstances it can create a frustrating mess. This is where a good full indicator comes into play. Some models have a light near the shredding slot that turns on when the bin is full, making it easy to remember to empty it before it becomes overloaded. Others simply have a small window in the front. This is useful, but it is easy to forget to monitor these windows and overfill the bin anyway.

Drawer style bins are easier to empty  but are only available on larger models.
Drawer style bins are easier to empty, but are only available on larger models.

Bucket style bins that balance the shredding unit on top of them are simpler and often cheaper than drawer style bins, but are certainly less convenient as emptying them requires lifting and moving the relatively heavy shredding unit. This can be particularly inconvenient if the shredder is kept in a not easily accessible place, such as under a desk. They also tend to be much smaller than drawer style bins (generally somewhere in the neighborhood of 4-gallons vs. 8-gallons). These models can also make a mess if you overfill them. If there is a mound of shredded paper built up over the lip of the bin, it will spill everywhere when you pull the bin out.. This is all fine if you only shred enough to fill up the bin a couple times a month, but if you shred more regularly a larger capacity, drawer style bin will be much more convenient.

Bucket style bins are more of a pain to empty and generally come with smaller models.
Bucket style bins are more of a pain to empty and generally come with smaller models.

Shred Cycles and Cool Down Periods

All shredders have an advertised maximum continuous run time, and a corresponding cool time before it will be ready to run again. In our testing we ran all of the models continuously for 15 minutes, which would represent a massive shredding session for the average consumer, and none of them overheated. Thus we feel comfortable in saying that any of these models will be able to handle the workload of the normal individual, home office, or small office. If you do shred a lot and are worried about overheating applying some Fellowes Powershred Performance Shredder Oil periodically to your shredding blades will reduce friction and keep things running coolly and smoothly. If you work in a large office that consistently shreds a large volume of documents, you will need a more expensive, industrial shredder or subscribe to a shredding service (see below).

When to use a Shredding Service

Professional shredding services are overkill for most consumers, but can be advantageous in some situations. The most common one would be moving. When packing up all you own for a big move it is common to find reams of paper form tax seasons gone by that would be pointless to lug along, but would take hours of shredding to dispose of with a normal home office shredder. In this case it would be much more convenient to pay a shredding service to get the job done quickly. Some professions require using, and then destroying, sensitive information from clients. Those clients may want or require some sort of proof that their information has been destroyed. A shredding service can provide a proof of destruction document. This also provides you with legal assurance in case your clients' information is stolen after the fact. Finally, large offices that shred frequently may find economic benefits in subscribing to a monthly shredding service rather than having paid employees waste time shredding.

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