Are Paper Towels Bad for the Environment?
Why Ditching Paper Towels Could Be the Next Big Step You Take on Your Journey to Sustainability
They’re extremely handy and they’re everywhere. We’re talking about paper towels.
Whether it’s cleaning up a mess or drying your hands, our go-to item is the everyday paper towel. Most of us don’t think twice about using them and then tossing them away, but we really should ask ourselves, are paper towels bad for the environment? The answer is one you probably don’t want to hear: yes.
The ubiquitous paper towel is not as environmentally friendly as you may have believed.
This blog post digs deeper into the not-so-green facts about paper towels and highlights some of the easily available eco friendly alternatives that you can use to help combat the scourge that is paper towel waste.
Are Paper Towels Bad for the Environment? Let’s Look at the Facts About Paper Towels
Paper towels have been in use only for the last 100 years. First invented for use in the medical field, they were then introduced for domestic use as a replacement for cloth towels. At first it was a hard sell, with paper towels viewed as being inferior to traditional cloths. But these days, we can hardly imagine our lives without them.
Here are 6 facts about paper towels.
1. The carbon footprint of paper towels
When it comes to assessing the environmental impact of something, one of the first things that comes to mind is its carbon footprint. So what is the carbon footprint of paper towels?
On an individual scale, it’s not very big. A single sheet of paper towel contains just 0.06 lbs. of CO₂. That hardly seems like very much. Even if you used as many as 10 sheets per day, that only works out to 219 lbs. of CO₂, the equivalent of driving 173 mi (278 km) – not exactly earth-shattering.
We can’t just look at a single sheet, though. Instead, we need look at the carbon footprint of paper towels during their entire life cycle. From procuring the raw materials, to the manufacture and packaging of paper towels, to their distribution (exacerbated by the need to constantly restock supplies), and finally, their disposal, the production of paper towels uses a lot of energy, and ends up releasing millions of metric tonnes of CO₂ into the environment. In total, the pulp industry – of which only a fraction goes to paper towels – counts for 0.5% of the United States’ annual CO₂ emissions.
2. We use a TONNE of paper towels
Compounding paper towels’ carbon footprint is the fact that we use so many of them. Global annual sales of paper towels amounted to about $12 billion in 2017, nearly half of which – yes, half – was consumed by the US alone. Number 2 on the list of paper towel consumers was France, which spent just 10% of what the US did on paper towels.
You might be thinking – well, that’s just because the United States has more people than France. According to a 2007 report, North America consumed around 33% more tissue products (including paper towels, toilet paper and other products) per capita (24kg) than Western Europe (16kg), and 79% more than Latin America (5kg).
What does that mean in terms of quantity? On average, US households consume 13 BILLION lbs. (6.5 million tonnes) of paper towels. Every. Year.
That’s an average of 40 lbs. or 80 rolls per person.
And those stats are from pre-Covid-19 times. Since the pandemic, consumption of paper towels has increased by a whopping 200%!
I hate to break it to you, North America: we have a paper towel problem.
3. It takes a lot of trees to produce that much paper towel
270 million trees, to be precise.
Did you know? It takes 17 trees and 20,000 gallons (nearly 76,000 L) of water to make just one tonne of paper towels.
In order to offset the number of trees that go into making the amount of paper towels consumed every day, we would need to plant 51,000 trees per day. If we go with the average of 80 rolls per year, then in a person’s lifetime, they will have consumed thousands of rolls of paper towel – the equivalent of an entire woodland.
4. Paper towel waste is a huge problem
All those paper towels we use? They have to go somewhere, and it turns out the vast majority winds up in landfills.
On its own, disposing of paper products in the landfill might not seem that bad. Paper is biodegradable and, depending on its thickness, it only takes 2-6 weeks for it to break down. But the problem is volume.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2018, paper products accounted for the third largest proportion of all municipal solid waste (nearly 12%), just behind food waste and plastics – over 17 million tonnes. Globally, that number is 254 million tonnes of paper towel waste.
In addition to taking up a lot of space in landfills, the problem is that paper towels and other single-use tissue products release methane as they decompose, a greenhouse gas that is 28 times more harmful than carbon dioxide, and a leading cause of climate change.
Compounding this waste problem is the fact that paper towels are almost invariably wrapped in non-recyclable plastic packaging when they are sold, then put in plastic bags for disposal. This creates added waste plus downstream problems in the recycling process.
You know what else has a waste problem? Wind energy. Read about wind energy waste here.
5. Paper towels can’t be recycled
So why can’t we just recycle paper towels?
Unfortunately, used paper towels are typically considered contaminated waste which make them unfit for recycling.
Even recycled paper towels can’t be recycled (and by the way, a ‘recycled paper towel’ is a paper towel made from the recycled wood pulp of other paper products, not from other paper towels). By the time recycled wood pulp is used to make paper towels, it’s already been recycled as many as seven times.
With each cycle, the cellulose fibers present in the paper get shorter and by the time paper has been incarnated into paper towel, the fiber is just too short to be made into new products.
What about using recycled paper towels?
One study found that manufacturing recycled paper towels – while it saves trees – has roughly the same environmental impact as that of virgin paper towels.
Not to mention that at the end of the day, both end up in landfills where they release deadly methane.
Composting Paper Towels
Since they can’t be recycled, composting is a viable alternative. Unlike being tossed in landfills, composting paper towels does not generate methane, and it creates useful mulch. One slight hiccup: only unbleached and not-too-soiled paper towel can be composted.
6. Paper towels have a toxicity problem (and it never gets talked about)
Largely unbeknownst to the average consumer, paper towels are not just wood pulp.
In order to make paper towels sturdy enough to effectively absorb water and to give them that nice bright white look, heavy chemicals – including dioxins – bleaches and dyes are added (though exactly which ones are rarely disclosed by manufacturers).
The harmful effects of these chemicals to the environment and human health are already well known. Dioxins are especially notorious, known to be bioaccumulating, endocrine disruptors and carcinogenic. They are linked to developmental and reproductive issues in humans and animals, and can even alter DNA over time. Scary!
Other Problems with Paper Towel Waste
As if you needed more reasons to stop using paper towels, here are two more: questionable hygiene and blocked drains.
Paper towel dispensers in public washrooms have been found to contain more bacteria on them than toilet seats. Their convenient location also means that people use them as toilet seat covers – and then flush them down the toilet.
Unlike bathroom tissue, paper towels are designed to soften and absorb more when wet; they do not disintegrate. As result, they can clog not only the toilets but also the sewer lines, which is a huge problem.
Kicking the Habit: Eco Friendly Alternatives from Sustainable Paper Towels to Swedish Dish Cloths
If every household in the US reduced their paper towel use by just one roll per year, it would save about 554,000 trees and a whole lot of waste from ending up in landfills.
It’s hard to break habits, especially with a product as convenient as paper towels. But with the umpteen eco friendly alternatives out there, it’s easier than you think.
Think of it this way: convenience and practicality vs a product that is more hygienic, non-toxic, easy to use, cheaper, and better for the environment. Sounds like a win to us.
Here’s a look at the myriad alternatives that can conveniently replace paper towels inside and outside the home.
Be sure to also check out our list of the 7 BEST Eco Friendly Paper Towel Alternatives!
Cloth Towels and Napkins
What’s so great about using cloth towels instead of paper towels?
They are readily available and convenient to use
They can be used, washed and reused and will last for years
Saves money as they do not require frequent restocking, and new cloth rags can be made from old clothes
When buying new, look for linen or organic cotton cloths as a matter of preference. We also like Durafresh cloths. Made from wood pulp, these cloths are biodegradable, soft, absorbent and easy to clean, and remain 99.9% germ-free.
Natural or Cellulose Sponges
Non-plastic kitchen sponges such as sustainably harvested natural sea sponges, cellulose or bamboo sponges are a great eco friendly alternative to paper towels. One sponge can replace as much as 30 paper towel rolls – at 100 sheets per roll, that’s one sponge for every 3000 paper towels.
Swedish dishcloths are the best! Made from at least 70% cellulose and 30% cotton, they are durable, can absorb 20x their weight in water, and yet they actually dry faster than sponges. Plus, they’re washable and come in an amazing array of adorable designs!
Reusable Paper Towels
They go by many names – like unpaper towels and paperless towels – but reusable paper towels made from cotton, cellulose, bamboo, and sugarcane are an amazing innovation that combine the convenience of paper towels with lower impact on the environment.
Do you ever use paper towels to wrap and store leftovers? Well, there are some eco friendly alternatives for this, too.
Reusable sandwich or snack bags and beeswax wraps are two great innovative options, as well as linen bread bags and linen or cotton bowl covers. Such reusable bags and wraps are easy to use, washable, reusable, long-lasting and can also save you money in the long run.
You can also allow your hands to dry naturally – the most eco-friendly, zero waste and zero cost option!
Using Paper Towels More Sustainably
If we’re honest about it, there are some messes that are just no match for anything other than a paper towel. But when you do buy paper towels, follow these green tips:
Unbleached Paper Towel – Not just unbleached but processed chlorine-free (PCF) or totally chlorine-free (TCF).
Recycled Paper Towels – Using recycled paper towels may not have a big impact on carbon emissions, but it does save trees. If every US household replace just one roll of virgin-fibre paper towel with a roll of 100% recycled paper towel, it would save about 1.4 million trees.
Use less – The best thing you can do if you have to use a paper towel is to use them as little as possible. Take one sheet instead of two. If it’s just water you’re mopping up, let it dry so you can use it again, and when it’s toast, try composting it instead of throwing it in the trash. And never flush them down the toilet!
Recap: Are Paper Towels Bad for the Environment?
It’s time to face facts when it comes to the sustainability of single-use paper towels:
Paper towels can’t be recycled;
Millions of tonnes of paper towels are dumped into landfills every year, where they release climate change-causing methane gas;
Most paper towels are made from virgin paper pulp, contributing to the depletion of our forests;
Harmful chemicals are used to give paper towels their desirable qualities.
With so many great eco friendly alternatives, it’s hard to make a case for keeping paper towels in their place of honour on the kitchen counter.
So, happy ditching single-use paper towels and taking this new step on your sustainability journey!
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About the Author
Vidya is an environmental lawyer from India, with special interests in biodiversity, climate change and sustainability issues. She is a fellow at the Guarini Center, NYU after graduating as a Vanderbilt scholar with a masters in environmental law at the NYU law school. Previously, she advised the UNDP, India, the Indian Ministry of Environment and worked with IDLO, Governments of Namibia and Vietnam on interesting environmental legal and policy issues. She enjoys travelling, bird watching and wildlife photography. In her free time, you can find her playing at the beach or convincing her friends to go vegan.