For many of us, paper towels are a staple item. We stash them around our home for wiping dirty surfaces, liquid spills, and much more. But where do these paper products end up after use? Can we recycle paper towels?
No, you cannot recycle paper towels. Read on as we answer this question in more detail and explore the impact of our single-use paper towels. You can also check out our guide to reusable paper towels, which provides options for more eco-friendly alternatives to single-use towels.
Paper towels and other paper-related products come from trees. Manufacturers usually make pulp from wood and fiber crops to turn trees into paper.
Fortunately, not all paper towels come directly from trees. Instead, some manufacturing companies use recycled paper pulp and other sustainable alternatives like bamboo, a more sustainable crop, which reduces the number of trees cut down.
Sadly, even though paper towels are paper products, we cannot recycle them. There are many reasons for this.
Firstly, we use paper towels to clean grease, oil, body fluids, food waste, and other materials, making recycling difficult.
If manufacturers recycle used paper towels, oil, and other residues can cause recycling contamination and ruin other recyclable paper products. The new recycled paper towels may also end up with holes and spots.
Secondly, manufacturers make most paper towels with recycled cardboard, wood, and other paper products, which they pound and mix to make paper fibers. Unfortunately, this production process weakens and breaks down their fibers, making it difficult to recycle even clean paper towels again and turn them into another useful product.
Producing paper towels also involves using chemicals like glues, resins, inks, and bleach which they add to the fibers to strengthen and improve absorption. Therefore, we should not dump paper towels in the recycling bin, even if they seem clean.
However, check your locality, as some municipalities may accept unused paper towels free of grease or chemicals through a local recycling program.
Related: Can You Recycle Tissue Paper?
When we consider the production process of paper towels, the answer is yes.
Firstly, we know that paper towels come from virgin paper, which comes directly from trees. According to the World Green Organisation, manufacturers use up to 20,000 gallons of water and 17 trees to make a single ton of paper towels. With the production of paper towels, more trees are cut down, ultimately affecting our ecosystem.
Paper waste in landfills has also become a problem. Since paper towels are not recyclable, they end up in the trash and landfill. While the paper is biodegradable, the process takes weeks, which is slower than the rate at which we use sheets of paper towels.
Also, manufacturers use dyes, bleaches, and heavy chemicals to make paper towels sturdy and absorbent, which can harm both human health and the environment when they leach into the soil and waterways.
Lastly, paper towels come in thin plastic packaging, which compounds the waste problem. These plastics end up in our landfills and can take years to decompose.
Related: considering paper towels for a commercial washroom? Find out more about which is better, hand dryers vs. paper towels; it's not quite as straightforward as it might seem.
Paper towels come from wood pulp which makes them biodegradable in most circumstances. In addition, the fibers are thin and can decompose quickly. The process is even faster if your paper towels are wet, as bacteria act on them quickly. This means you can easily toss them in the trash can and be sure that your paper towel will decompose in the landfill. To dispose of your paper towels properly, gather them in a bag and put them in your trash bin. Then, on collection day, you can take your trash bin outside.
However, if the paper towel comes in plastic bags, it may not be in the appropriate condition for decomposition.
Recycling paper towels may be difficult, but the good news is that you can compost them if they meet the right conditions. Unfortunately, if your used paper towels have grease, chemicals, or oil, they are not compostable, much like pizza boxes.
This is because oil and grease remove air from your compost bin, making room for anaerobic bacteria. Ultimately, this ruins your compost pile.
Also, if you use your paper towels to clean chemical products or animal feces, you should not put them in your compost bin, as this could kill the microorganisms responsible for composting.
However, suppose you have clean paper towels or paper towels used to clean surfaces or areas soiled with food. In that case, you may add that to your composting bin as brown waste alongside other compostable materials.
The great thing about paper towels is that they are made of paper. If you can’t compost your paper towels, you can rip them into little pieces and scatter them in your garden. When properly mixed with dirt, they will decompose very quickly.
As mentioned, paper towels are not recyclable and can form a large part of landfill waste. As a result, you want to reduce or avoid using paper towels. Here are a few eco-friendly alternatives to reduce paper towel waste:
Instead of your regular paper towel, you can choose a greener option. For example, manufacturers use recycled unbleached kraft paper to make brown paper towels which, although not recyclable, can easily be added to a composting bin.
Natural or cellulose sponges can be a great alternative to a paper towel. These sponges are genuine and sourced sustainably, making them suitable for the environment. This sponge can replace thousands of paper towels used daily.
You can consider washable cloths, rags, kitchen towels, and napkins instead of paper towels. What’s great about these materials is that you can reuse them for many years. But, you must wash them after use, rinse them, and dry them. Various cloths are available in different shapes, sizes, and materials like cotton, linen, hemp, and so on.
Use reusable wax wraps instead of paper towels if you need to pack up your eco-friendly lunch box or store your leftovers. Apart from the fact that wax wraps are durable, you can easily clean them with soap and warm water, and they also make a great alternative to plastic wrap. Typically, reusable wax wraps come in sustainable materials like organic cotton and sustainable beeswax.
If you have a stash of old newspapers at home, they can work just as great as paper towels. They can be ideal for cleaning glass surfaces and removing stains and spots.
Paper towels contain a cardboard tube that is 100% recyclable. In addition, paper towel rolls come in thick fibers, which manufacturers can recycle and use to create other products. So once your paper towel is empty, you can gather the rolls and toss them in the recycling bin to reduce landfill waste and help the environment.
While manufacturers make paper towels from paper, they are much thicker than the likes of eco-friendly toilet paper (or the standard variety) and are constructed to absorb water.
They may get stuck in your pipes and block your toilet if you flush them. Instead of flushing your used paper towel, you can compost or dispose of them in the trash.
Recycling paper towels can contaminate other recyclables in the recycling process. However, you may be able to compost or dispose of them properly. You can also ditch paper towels altogether and go for other eco-friendly alternatives.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.