Paper towels are a modern convenience that most people can’t live without. But paper towels can be bad for the environment. But don’t despair, there are some options to reduce the impact – composting your paper towels, buying from companies using recycled materials, and the old standby, just using less!
Read on to learn more about how it’s done and why it matters, plus tips on using sustainable products for your home cleaning needs.
If you are in the market for a compost bin, you can read our comparison of composting tumblers vs composting bins and a review of the best choices to consider.
Are Paper Towels Biodegradable?
The answer is an emphatic yes! Composting paper towels isn’t only possible, it is a good idea. You need carbon sources for your compost bin to balance all that “green” material thrown in. Paper towels are a great option.
Remember, the key ingredients of compost are “green” materials (nitrogen-rich), “brown” materials (carbon-rich), moisture, and air. It is all about balance and too much or too little of one ingredient will cause your compost to look something like the video below (ewww!). More about carbon sources below.
But there are some caveats. you need to avoid throwing large clumps of paper towel into your compost, such as multiple “squares” bunched up together.
It’s best to rip paper towels up into smaller pieces. Untorn paper towels, if they accumulate over time, can mat down your compost bin, like a wet blanket, and block out air from circulating. Big bunches of paper towels will also decompose slowly.
Do Paper Towels Decompose? It Depends
Paper towels definitely decompose. I’m not a scientist, but I believe all material will decompose, it is just a question of how long. If you bury paper towels in a landfill, hermetically sealing them with no air, it will take longer. Also, during the process more methane will be created, a greenhouse gas 34 times as powerful as carbon dioxide.
There are some times when you CANNOT compost paper towels. Follow the same rules you follow when deciding what to put into your compost bin.
- You cannot clean up dairy products and put the paper towels in your compost bin. All that spilled milk you are trying not to cry over, that is a no-no. Also you cannot clean up greasy spills like oils and fats and put it in your compost either.
- Also, avoid large amounts of paper towels in your compost bin. I tend to do it sparingly, a few square sheets of paper towels at a time, ripped up, versus after a huge clean-up that leaves a big, sopping wet ball of paper towels.
- Also, you generally want to avoid paper towels with lots of inks (why do your paper towels need to have pretty designs on them to pick up a mess?), antibacterial chemicals added, or harsh bleaches.
Below I have some suggestions for environmentally sustainable paper towels from two companies you can feel good about supporting.
Compost Carbon Sources: Paper Towels to the Rescue
Do you know that the optimal ratio of “brown” (carbon rich) to “green” (nitrogen rich) materials for your compost bin is 30 to 1? That is by WEIGHT!
That means you have to balance all those heavy pails of vegetable scraps with 30 times more shredded paper, cardboard, sawdust, or something similar.
Otherwise you get the dreaded stinky, slimy, disgusting compost.
If you happen to be a carpenter with ready access to an unlimited source of sawdust or you live on a farm with piles of straw sitting around, then you are all set. Otherwise, where the heck do you get 30 times more carbon sources for your compost?
Paper, including paper towels, are super rich in carbon, weighing in at a 200 to 1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen. If you work in used paper towels it isn’t only ok for your compost, it will help keep it balanced.
Other options for balancing your “greens” with more “browns” include taking advantage of all that junk mail and newspaper arriving in your house each day. Read here for our recommendations for harnessing that waste for balancing and speeding up your composting.
Choosing Environmentally Sustainable Paper Towels
When you choose an environmentally sustainable paper towel, you can trust that you aren’t introducing any nasty chemicals into your house, and if composting, into your garden.
Also, assuming you enjoy life on planet earth (basically everyone but the billionaires scheming on settling space), supporting eco-friendly business practices helps send the message that polluting companies are no longer competitive.
At Recycled and Renewed, we prefer two options for paper towels: recycled paper towels from Seventh Generation or the vegan (i.e., chemical free) bamboo/sugarcane options from the hilarious do-gooders from Who Gives a Crap.
Or, if you hate life and prefer to take down the whole planet with you in a fiery spectacular end, buy your paper towels from the Koch brothers, like Brawny, Angel Soft, Sparkle, etc., and support evil corporations.
Recycled Paper Towels are a Sustainable Option
Seventh Generation is like a forefather (or fore-mother) of companies following sustainable business practices. They sell 100% recycled, unbleached paper towels that work great. We like these because they are made from 80% post-consumer materials, the gold standard of recycled material.
If you prefer white-ish paper towels, they also have a non-bleach whitened version. Note, Seventh Generation uses a lower percent of post-consumer materials in the whitened version (50% vs. 80%).
As an added benefit, they package most of their products in 100% or nearly 100% recycled material.
Who Gives A Crap about Paper Towels?
We prefer Who Gives a Crap paper products, including paper towels. Who Gives a Crap, or WGAC for short, is a hilarious B Corp. that donates half of its profits to improving sanitary systems around the world. (To learn more about B Corps and some of the problems with the movement, you can read more here)
WGAC is dedicated to potty humor, charity, sustainability, and eye-catching design, probably in that order.
They use a blend of bamboo and sugarcane (bagasse) to make a 2 ply paper towel. Bagasse is a byproduct of sugarcane processing and is considered to be “waste”. Rather than burning or burying the bagasse (which is often the case), it’s upcycled into paper towels.
You can feel free to toss their vegan paper towels into the compost since they use no bleach or harsh inks.
Although some people think saving the earth and taking care of the needy are important goals, we all know that potty humor is what really matters. WGAC slips in little jokes on their products, like an emergency toilet paper roll, little funny or positive sayings on the top of their tissue boxes, and another small hidden surprise at the end of every roll of toilet paper (you will have to buy some to find out, oh, and also go to the bathroom a bunch of times too).
One of their founders even sat on a toilet for 50 hours until they raised enough funds to launch. ‘Nuff said, right?
Are Paper Towels Bad for the Environment?
First, a guiding principle around here: let us not get wrapped around the proverbial axel. If you use paper towels, you can still get through the gates of environmentalist heaven.
In terms of environmental impact, evidently some scientists at MIT were really bored and they studied the exact emissions associated with two squares of paper towels. They found two squares have a carbon footprint of just over 15 grams of CO2.
Now multiply that over the billions and billions of squares used each year, and you certainly have some real environmental impact, no question about it. Paper and paperboard (like cardboard) were the largest single category of waste in the U.S. in 2018, according to the EPA. Paper towels are a part of this waste, so no question they have an impact on the environment.
How to Use Less Paper Towels?
Environmentalists have stolen the three R’s saying from school days of yore to create a nifty way to think about reducing your environmental footprint – Reuse, Reduce, and Recycle (quick aside: three R’s for school equals reading, writing and arithmetic? Huh?)
The most obvious way to use less paper towels is to use cloth, or reusable towels. Now, you can get fancy and buy towels for this purpose or use cloth towels that have outlived their other purpose.
First, if you prefer buying new towels, there are plenty of options out there.
We like Full Circle, they have numerous options for reusable alternatives to paper towels.
Full Circle has a 100% wood pulp towel that will last for years. When it wears out, you can cut it into pieces and toss it in the compost. Or, they have multiple towels made of recycled material that save the equivalent of 3.5 plastic bottles from landfill. Lastly they also sell 100% organic cotton options.
If you are curious about what is better for the environment – recycling or composting, I discuss the various pros and cons of the two options here. Or, to read more about some of the failures of the recycling movement, see here.
Going from Single to Multiple Use
Paper towels are by definition single use (though if you buy paper towels made of recycled material, you could argue it isn’t really a single use product). You can use sponges and towels over and over to clean kitchen counters, spills, and clean your dishes.
There are plenty of plant-based options that can be cut up and tossed in your compost bin after their useful life. We have had good luck with Twist Scrub Sponges.
Twist’s sponges are made from all natural, 100% biodegradable cellulose and a scrubbing material made from 100-percent cactus (don’t worry, you don’t get stuck by spiny needles or anything). The sponges are dishwasher safe and we find that as long as you keep them squeezed and dry after use, they last for months.
A cheaper and more sustainable option to buying something new (again, the reuse from the three Rs), is to use old towels from around the house. We use old spit-up towels from when we had babies, hand towels from the bathroom that no longer match our ever-evolving decor choices, as well as towels that my wife knit as she practiced her way up to scarves.
We use them on the counters a few times then wash them. If there is an extra nasty spill, we tend to use paper towels though. But 50% of the time, we use cloth towels, stretching out our supply and reducing our carbon footprint.
Ready to Throw In the Towel?
Well, I’m ready to throw in the towel. Who knew paper towels could be so complicated? But really, don’t overthink it.
The bottom line is – you can compost your paper towels, probably reducing your environmental footprint. Try to experiment with some old rags or natural sponges too. You earn some good environmental karma points if you buy your paper towels from companies trying to do business the right way too.
Good luck out there!
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