Are Paper Towels Eco-Friendly? 11 Important Facts (You Should Know)

Savanna Stanfield

Paper towels are a staple in many people’s homes, and in many businesses as well.

Whether they are used as napkins, disposable cleaning rags, to clean up spills, or all of the above, we tend to go through a lot of them.

And after we use a paper towel, most of us just throw it away. Considering all of these factors, we need to question whether or not paper towels are eco-friendly.

Paper towels are created in a way that is not eco-friendly, and there are limited ways that they can be disposed of. Plus, the way that they are consumed makes them not as eco-friendly as they could be.

We can’t change how they are made, but there are ways that we can use and dispose of paper towels that are much better for the environment, which we’ll discuss in this article.

1. Are Paper Towels Eco-Friendly?

Most people know that paper comes from trees, and paper towels are a paper product which means that they are made from trees as well.  

Because of this, many people assume that paper towels are eco-friendly because they come from plant-based materials that are considered to be renewable resources.

This is true, in a way, because paper towels are more eco-friendly than products such as plastic that come from non-renewable resources. 

But just because a product is made from a plant-based, renewable resource, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is eco-friendly.

When it comes to paper towels, we must look at the bigger picture and the environmental impacts that go along with making and using paper towels.

For example, cutting down trees to make paper towels and other paper products contributes to deforestation.

It’s thought that making wood and paper products contribute to around 10% of deforestation around the world.

With that being said, trees used for paper are starting to be grown in managed forests in various places around the world to reduce the amount of deforestation that occurs from the paper industry.

The Sustainable Forestry Initiative and the Forest Stewardship Council are just two organizations that operate out of North America and aim to reduce the impact of the paper industry concerning deforestation.

However, despite efforts being made to reduce the impact of deforestation, there are other aspects of paper towels that make them not as eco-friendly as they could be.

One such aspect is the process of making the paper products themselves. The raw materials used to make paper towels come from softwood trees just like other paper products do.

For all paper products, the process begins by chipping the wood from trees into smaller pieces and turning it into pulp using a variety of chemical additives.

The pulp is also bleached using more chemicals and run through various machines that shape and form the paper towel sheets. 

In the case of two-ply paper towels, two sheets are often glued together using a harmless glue to bond them. This makes the paper towels thicker and more absorbent.

As you can see, the process of making paper towels requires a lot of chemical and energy use. And, paper and pulp mills have a significant impact on air pollution and water pollution due to the burning of fossil fuels and chemical runoff.

Finally, it’s estimated that around 13 billion pounds of paper towels are used just in the United States each year, not to mention the rest of the world, most of which are just thrown away afterward.

In the defense of those that use paper towels, there aren’t many other ways that paper towels can be disposed of. However, this is just one more aspect that makes paper towels not eco-friendly.

2. Are Paper Towels Recyclable?

Paper towels are not recyclable regardless of whether they are used or unused.

Used paper towels cannot be recycled because they are soiled with food, grease, or another product. Whatever product is on them would contaminate the recycling stream.

But even if they aren’t soiled, paper towels still can’t be recycled. Paper products can only be recycled a limited number of times.

The fibers in them get shorter and shorter each time until they are no longer recyclable because they can’t be turned into anything new.

In the case of paper towels, they are already made with short fibers to begin with. The fibers are so short that they aren’t able to be broken down further and used for something else.

3. Are Paper Towels Sustainable?

Even though they are made from renewable resources, paper towels are not sustainable which is another aspect that makes them not eco-friendly.

It’s worth noting that if the trees used to make paper towels were grown in managed forests, it would make them a bit more sustainable since managed forests limit the impacts of deforestation.

However, paper towels are still a single-use product, and considering the sheer number of them being used each day and each year, it lowers their sustainability since they are just thrown away afterward.

If paper towels could be recycled, they would be a bit more sustainable since they could be used to make new products. However, you just learned why they can’t be recycled.

Although paper towels, in general, are not sustainable, some versions of them are more sustainable than others.

For example, some paper towels are made out of recycled materials instead of raw materials, and others are made from raw materials other than softwood trees.

But even with those types of paper towels, there are still limited ways that they can be disposed of and if as many of them are consumed as regular paper towels are, they still aren’t as sustainable as they could be. 

4. Are Paper Towels Biodegradable?

One aspect of paper towels that is eco-friendly is the fact that they are biodegradable. A paper towel can biodegrade naturally in as little as two to four weeks.

But just because a paper towel is biodegradable doesn’t always mean that it will biodegrade as quickly as it is capable of.

For example, a paper towel that is just laying on the ground in your yard will biodegrade fairly quickly, especially if it gets wet.

But a paper towel in a landfill won’t biodegrade as quickly since it can be intermixed with other types of trash and materials that aren’t biodegradable, especially if it is inside a plastic trash bag.

It can still biodegrade, but it may do so anaerobically, which means that it relies mostly on anaerobic microbes to break it down. Anaerobic microbes are essentially microbes that can still break things down in the absence of oxygen. 

The process of anaerobic biodegradation releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere, so it isn’t as eco-friendly as aerobic biodegradation.

Even though paper towels themselves aren’t recyclable, it is so important to recycle materials such as plastic, glass, and paper products that are recyclable to keep them out of landfills.

Doing so can help materials that aren’t recyclable but are biodegradable break down faster and in a more eco-friendly way in a landfill.

5. Are Paper Towels Compostable?

It’s generally not a good idea to compost paper towels unless you know that they are 100% chemical-free.

If paper towels were used to clean up any type of chemical or greasy spill, they can’t be composted because the chemical or greasy substance can contaminate your compost.

Remember that there are chemicals used to make paper towels as well, which can leach into your compost when they break down.

With that being said, a single unused paper towel is not going to leach enough chemicals into your compost to harm it. 

But, composting paper towels every time, especially if they are soiled with products other than non-greasy foods, could harm the compost.

6. Are Paper Towels Treated With Chemicals?

Paper towels are generally not treated with chemicals after they are made, but chemicals such as chlorine and formaldehyde are used to make them.

Chlorine is used as a bleaching agent to make the paper towels white, while formaldehyde is used as a strengthening agent.

The adhesive used to glue paper towels together is usually harmless, but some paper towels also contain dyes if they have designs on them.

The dyes found in paper towels are usually synthetic, chemical dyes as well. However, they are usually food-grade dyes.

7. Are Paper Towels Toxic?

Paper towels aren’t toxic in the sense that they will cause immediate harm to your body. However, the chemicals used in the manufacturing of paper towels do contain toxins.

For example, chlorine that is used as a bleaching agent contains dioxins and furans, both of which are known carcinogens. Formaldehyde is a carcinogen as well.

It’s worth noting that when used as intended, paper towels pose very little or no health risk to the consumer and the chemicals found in them are not enough to cause harm just as a result of using paper towels. 

The main concern with toxicity and paper products involves those who work in the paper mills that are exposed to the chemicals regularly and in higher amounts. 

8. Are Paper Towels Food Safe?

Since paper towels are designed to be used in the kitchen, they are generally food safe.

Again, they do not contain enough chemicals that would leach into your food just by coming into contact with a paper towel.

However, to avoid cross-contamination, avoid using one paper towel for multiple types of food.

9. Are Paper Towels Reusable?

Paper towels are designed to be a single-use item. They often aren’t durable enough to withstand multiple uses.

Even if they were, using them multiple times, especially for different things, would result in cross-contamination of food, cleaning products, or whatever you are using them for. 

This could transfer bacteria or chemicals to different surfaces or food items.

10. Are Paper Towels Flushable?

Paper towels are not flushable. This is because although paper towels aren’t super durable, they are designed to hold up better than toilet paper.

Paper towels don’t break down as quickly in water as toilet paper does, and repeatedly flushing paper towels can clog your septic system and leave you with expensive repair costs.

11. How Do You Dispose of Paper Towels Properly?

Since paper towels can’t be recycled or flushed, the only way to dispose of them is to throw them away with other trash.

Obviously, this is not ideal if you’re trying to be more eco-friendly, but you don’t have other options which is why paper towels can’t be considered a completely eco-friendly product.

3 Eco-Friendly Paper Towel Brands

Paper towels will never be a completely eco-friendly product until there are better ways to make them and dispose of them.

However, some paper towel brands are more eco-friendly than others.

1. Who Gives a Crap

Who Gives a Crap is better known for their eco-friendly toilet paper, but they also make eco-friendly paper towels as well. 

Their paper towels are made from a blend of bamboo and sugarcane, both of which can be grown quicker and in more abundance than softwood trees.

Plus, the blend of bamboo and sugarcane makes these paper towels stronger and more durable than traditional paper towels, which means that you can use less of them to clean up spills.

2. Reel

Reel paper towels are completely tree-free and are made with 100% recycled fibers instead. 

They also don’t contain any inks, dyes, or chlorine so they can be composted as well provided that they aren’t soiled with chemicals.

3. Repurpose

Repurpose paper towels are made with 100% Forest Stewardship Council bamboo instead of softwood trees. 

They are also free of fragrances and chlorine and are also safe to compost.

3 Eco-Friendly Alternatives to Paper Towels

Even though traditional paper towels are not the most eco-friendly, there are some better options out there.

1. Reusable Napkins/Paper Towels

The most eco-friendly alternative to paper towels would be to purchase reusable napkins, cloths, or even reusable paper towels.

These options are usually made with fabric instead of paper. They are designed to be washed and used over and over again.

This cuts down on waste and can also save you money over time since you don’t have to buy single-use paper towels.

2. Recycled Paper Towels

Paper towels will never be recyclable. But, they can be made from recycled materials for a more eco-friendly option.

Making paper towels from recycled materials cuts down on the need to use more trees to make them, and they don’t have to undergo as much processing as paper towels that are made from raw materials.

3. Bamboo Paper Towels

Bamboo paper towels are another eco-friendly paper towel option. They still have to be made in a similar way as regular paper towels, but bamboo is a much faster-growing plant than softwood trees.

Growing bamboo still contributes to some deforestation, and bamboo paper towels still aren’t recyclable. 

But as long as the bamboo used for paper towels is grown sustainably, then this type of paper towel can be a more eco-friendly option.

Conclusion

Although paper towels are made from a plant-based, renewable resource, they are not really eco-friendly because of how they’re made and because of the ways that they can’t be disposed of.

Plus, they are not reusable and many people use several of them at once which contributes to a lot of waste.

Even though traditional paper towels are not eco-friendly, there are better alternatives out there such as paper towels made from sustainably-grown bamboo or recycled materials.

But the most eco-friendly option is to cut down on your use of paper towels altogether and switch to reusable, cloth versions.

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