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Why You Should Stop Recycling Paper Towels (+Alternatives)

Man wiping a mirror with a paper towel

Recycling paper towels might seem like common sense, but they are not the same as recycling paper. This guide will explain to you exactly why you shouldn’t put paper towels in your recycling, some great alternatives to paper towels, and what to do with the paper towels you do need to use.

Are Paper Towels Bad for the Environment?

Paper mill Machine

In short, yes, the manufacturing of paper towels is a big problem for the environment. The production of paper products, including paper towels, is the third largest source of industrial pollution in North America, and the industry is the fifth largest energy consumer worldwide.

The Word Green Organization in Hong Kong estimates that 17 trees must be cut down and 20,000 gallons of water are polluted in the production of just one ton of paper towels. To put that in perspective, the EPA estimates that approximately 3,790 thousand tons of soft paper product waste, such as tissue paper and paper towels, was generated in the US alone in 2018. That figure has been steadily increasing year after year. Unfortunately, the majority of that ends up in landfill.

But aren’t paper towels biodegradable?

Yes, of course. They break down since they are made from natural wood pulp, but that process is not ideal when paper towel waste is sealed in plastic bags that don’t biodegrade in a landfill. The right conditions to break down paper towels and biodegrade them back into the soil would not be accessible inside a garbage bag.

Do Not Put Paper Towels in Your Recycling Bin

The biggest reason paper towels are not accepted in recycling is that if they’ve served their purpose of cleaning something up, that means they are soiled. Whatever they’ve been used to clean has made them dirty and a potential contaminant to any other clean recyclable materials. Always avoid recycling used paper towels in your general recycling bin.

Additionally, paper towels are not recycled because they are made from fibers that are too small to be useful during the recycling process. There are also resins and adhesives used in the production of paper towels that are not ideal for recycling. For these reasons, even clean paper towels should not go in your normal recycling.

Use Washable Towels as an Alternative

Cleaning of closed vinyl plastic window. Protective yellow gloves on hands and cleaning cloth with sprinkle

Using regular dish towels and rags is an easy alternative to disposable paper towels. The fact that fabric towels can be washed again and again makes them the most suitable alternative.

There are also many eco-friendly alternatives on the market such as Swedish dishcloths. One of these cloths replaces approximately 17 paper towel rolls. They are also biodegradable and of course one costs much less than 17 rolls of paper towels!

Just like the Swedish dishcloths, there are a ton of paper towel alternatives on the market that tout their effectiveness and earth-friendly attributes. If you can reuse it many times instead of disposing after one use, they are a good alternative to single-use paper towels.

If Needed, Buy Recycled Paper Towels

Napkins made from recycled paper

Some occasions may call for paper towels. Since you can’t recycle paper towels, try buying paper towels that are made from recycled materials. There are several companies with recycled paper towels on the market now. It will say on the packaging if they use recycled material.

Although these are still getting used as single-use items, at least the production of these paper towels uses less energy and less water because they are not extracting virgin materials, but rather recycling materials. Buying anything that uses recycled materials gives an overall lower carbon emission rate than if the materials need to be harvested.

The Only Right Way for Recycling Paper Towels

If your municipality has an organics program, it most likely accepts used paper towels that do not have grease, oil, or cleaning solutions on them. Although you should not put used paper towels in your regular recycling bin, recycling paper towels in your organics bin is a great alternative. Since the fibers are broken down so small and originate as all natural wood fibers, they can be safely disposed of in organics.

Can Paper Towels be Composted?

Trash bin for composting with leftover from kitchen on blue background. Top view. Recycling scraps.
Trash bin for composting with leftover from kitchen on blue background. Top view. Recycling scarps concept. Sustainable and zero waste lifestyle.

Yes! If you don’t have an organics program in your area, your own compost will also work. Again, the same rule applies that you should not add any used paper towels that have grease, oils, fats, or chemicals on them to your compost. These materials will not break down properly with your all-natural compost. Otherwise, paper towels are fine to add. Of course, it’s even better if you’re buying paper towels made from recycled materials, as mentioned above.

If You Don’t Compost, You Can Still Compost

Composting is a wonderful method for recycling paper towels with your organic waste and keeping it out of landfills, but realistically, not everyone will start their own compost. In that case, if you have paper towels that you’d like to keep out of the garbage, but don’t have a compost, try ripping them up into little bits and scattering them in with your gardening. If you mix them into the dirt, they will decompose naturally.

Don’t Forget to Recycle the Roll

flat lay with paper towel tube on blue background.

The cardboard tube inside of your paper towels is a completely different material and 100% recyclable. Make sure you add that to your normal recycling bin.

Recycling paper towels can lead to recycling contamination. So, if you have any questions about how your local program handles paper towels, please check on the Recycle Coach mobile app by searching the ‘What Goes Where’ search tool. Can you think of any other ways to use soiled paper towels and avoid waste? Let us know below.

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