If you’ve ever strolled through the paper shredder department of a large office supply store, you’ve probably marveled at the vast number of machines on display. How can so many manufacturers make so many models of something that performs what appears to be a rather generic task: destroying paper documents?

This guide is a brief overview of why so many types of shredders exist, what type of machine your business may need, and whether or not it makes sense for you to outsource paper shredding to a professional “information destruction” company.

Note: When shopping, you’ll see prices for commercial-grade shredders that range into the thousands of dollars, and more. This guide covers shredders aimed at small business customers or high-end consumers and are priced at $500 and below.

Before we start, here is what you need to consider first and foremost: When researching ways to shred business documents, remember that your goal is not to own a shredding machine or have a contract with a paper shredding service. Your goal is obtaining the peace of mind gained from plugging a security risk or complying with a regulatory obligation. What can seem penny-wise when comparing the price of shredding machines can end up being pound-foolish if the cheaper model leads to the loss of proprietary business information or a wide array of private data about your business, its employees and customers.

With peace-of-mind as your goal, this guide provides you an overview of the following.

  1. The types of documents you should shred
  2. How to choose a paper (and other media) shredder
  3. What to consider if hiring a professional shredding service (information destruction company).
  4. Purchasing tip: when to buy a shredder
  5. Should you buy a shredder machine or use a document shredding service?

1. The types of business documents and media you should destroy, and why.

Businesses are required to destroy or shred certain documents under various federal laws, including the Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act (FACTA), which protects consumers from identity theft, and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which requires businesses to securely store and dispose of employees’ health information. It is is not enough to throw this type of information away with your daily garbage. You should fully destroy anything that includes Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers, passport numbers, credit card numbers, bank account information, addresses and even telephone numbers.

Here is a partial list of documents you should destroy. (Note: This list refers to the types of information that should be fully destroyed, not merely thrown away. It is not related to when you should do so. See note at the bottom of this guide related to how long you should keep records.*):

  • Tax forms and tax-related documents
  • Employee health information, pay schedules, recruiting documents, time sheets and I-9 forms
  • Credit reports
  • Personnel files of former employees
  • Bills and invoices
  • Paid off and returned promissory notes and other financial documents and statements
  • Expired contracts
  • Printed emails
  • Strategic planning documents
  • Client lists
  • Pricing lists
  • Monthly bills which might contain your full account number
  • Receipts or other papers that show your signature, which ID thieves could use to forge other documents.
  • Anything that contains the Social Security number of anyone related to your business (owners, employees, customers)
  • Expired credit cards, and prescreened credit-card offers and applications
  • Any documents that list a password or PIN
  • Anything with personal information that you wouldn’t want a stranger to see.

2. How to Choose a Shredder (Shredding Machines)

Shredders have a wide variety of bells and whistles — and prices. But when it comes to specifications, the most important factor to consider when researching shredders for office use in a small business is determining precisely the level of security you want to reach with the shredder. The bells and whistles of various models can be confusing, but knowing what level of security you seek and the types of material you plan to shred will be critical in your ultimate choice.

Shredder paper-cutting patterns

paper shredder cut patterns
(Click image to enlarge. Via: Amazon.com)

The level of security you are seeking in destroying documents will typically correlate to three different types of paper-cutting patterns a shredder uses to destroy documents and the power and durability of the machine. In the list below, the levels of security are underlined.

  • Strip-cut: Cuts paper into long strips. Used for low-security documents.
  • Cross-cut or confetti-cut: Cuts paper into small rectangles, typically around 1/8 inches square. Provides mid-range security by cutting paper into smaller pieces that strip-cut. Most machines aimed at the small business or high-end consumer markets utilize this grade of cut.
  • Micro-cut or high-security shredding: Provides highest level of security because paper is cut into extremely small pieces.

Shredder power

  • Shredder power and workload capacity: The more documents you need to destroy will dictate how powerful your shredder should me. Here are two factors that reveal how much pep a shredder has.
    • Power (Horse Power Rating): While hidden on some shredders (avoid these), a shredder’s horsepower rating will range from under 1 HP up to 2 HP. Higher ratings typically indicate that more pages can be shredded at once.
    • Workload capacity: Various types of ratings may be listed in the shredder’s specifications. They aren’t standard across all brands or models, however. If listed, capacity ratings like “daily workload” can be points of comparison for different models.

Shredder features

Shopping for a shredder can quickly seem like a car-buying experience: features and functions soon seem overwhelming. To help prepare for the choices you’ll have to make, here are some of the typical features you’ll find on shredders.

  • Console or wastebasket mount: Generally, the less expensive types of shredders are devices that mount on the top of a garbage can (wastebasket) while the console models are stand alone units with a pull-out drawer that provides access to the post-shredding waste.
  • Auto start: Starts shredder motor when it senses paper or other media being inserted.
  • Reverse: Useful for clearing out paper jams.
  • Auto-feeder: Ability to stack up to 100 or more sheets in a tray to be shredded automatically.
  • CD/DVD/Floppy Disc shredding: Some “paper” shredders have the power to shred non-paper media. Some shredders even include a special slot specifically for shredding heavier, non-paper media.
  • Paper jam indicator: Typically an LED indicator that works just like a paper jam indicator on a printer.
  • Overheat indicator: Typically, an LED indicator. Let’s you know the motor is being overworked. (Turn the machine off and allow it to cool down.)
  • Touch sensor: A safety feature that prevents accidental cuts by detecting if something (like a finger) is touching the paper being fed into the shredder.

3. Shredding Services

If your business is in or near a metropolitan area, it is likely there are several companies that provide shredding services (known professionally as “information destruction”). Some will come to your business and pick up the documents to shred while others will actually shred the documents at your business. Still others, including large office supply retailers and certain FedEx and UPS Store locations, provide drop-off shredding services.

As drop off or pick up services require a high degree of trust in the provider, ask around among other small business for recommendations and references. A local or state consumer protection agency or the Better Business Bureau may be a good place to check to see if there have been complaints about a local shredding service you are considering.

Recommended: Check the directory map of shredding service providers that are accredited by the National Association of Information Destruction (NAID)

4. Shopping tips: When to buy a paper shredder

Retailers sell the most shredders from fall through April 15 so they often put them on sale during this time. Also ask about a trade-in. Office supply chains will often buy your old shredder if you purchase a new one.

5. Bottomline: Should you buy a shredder machine or use a document shredding service?

The factors going into whether you should use a shredding service or purchase a shredding machine are greatly dependent on your type of business and the volume of documents you must destroy. Most companies should have a quality shredder in the office for destroying random correspondence or documents related to sensitive material or financial information. Despite the additional expense, for better performance and peace of mind, purchasing a shredder with cross-cut (or, even better, microcut) security shredding capabilities is recommended. Shredders with lesser cutting capabilities may be okay for some consumer or home usages, but for business use, go for the most secure cutting capability you can afford.

However, despite owning a quality shredder, even the most “paper-free” business will discover periodic document shredding needs that are most efficiently handled by professionals. Before the need arises, do some research to discover who provides such services close by.

(Photo: dorena-wm via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0)


*Local, state and federal requirements can differ regarding the length of time certain types of documents should be kept. This list refers to the types of information that should be fully destroyed and not merely thrown away, not to when you should do so. Because of the various regulations in industries and jurisdictions, you should seek guidance for length of time requirements on documents from your trusted legal and financial advisors.

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