The 7 BEST Eco Friendly Paper Towel Alternatives
Our throwaway culture is slowly destroying our planet. Convenient though they are, single-use items contribute to deforestation, climate change and waste, choking our oceans and causing our landfills to overflow. While plastics – like water bottles and straws – are what usually come to mind when we think about waste, another household item is causing new alarm: paper towels.
Luckily there are a whole host of eco friendly paper towel alternatives on the market! In this blog we’ll introduce you to some of the best sustainable paper towels and other eco friendly alternatives that you won’t believe have been missing from your life.
THIS ARTICLE MAY CONTAIN COMPENSATED LINKS. PLEASE READ OUR DISCLAIMER FOR MORE INFO.
The Problem with Conventional Kitchen Paper Towel
The environmental impact of traditional paper towels is huge. How is paper towel made? Most of us don’t really stop to think about how to make paper towels, but the fact is, commercial paper towel is made from trees.
We would need to plant 51,000 trees per day to offset the amount of kitchen paper towel used every day.
But it’s not just the raw materials that are a problem. The entire production lifecycle of commercial paper towel rolls is unsustainable, from the large volumes of water and energy consumed, the millions of metric tonnes of carbon dioxide and methane released each year, not to mention toxic chemicals found in dyes and bleaches, like dioxins and furans, which are harmful to human health and the environment.
Are paper towels bad for the environment? Read more about paper towel waste here!
To top it all off, despite what people think, paper towels are not recyclable and many are not even compostable, thanks to those bleaches and dyes. Paper towel waste is a huge problem: globally, paper towels contribute to nearly $12 billion worth of non-recyclable waste each year.
So what can we do? Here is a look at some exciting earth friendly paper towel options and some innovative eco friendly alternatives to paper towels that contribute to sustainable living.
#1. Unbleached, Compostable and Recycled Paper Towels
First up on our list of eco friendly paper towels are recycled and compostable paper towels. Paper towels can’t be recycled, but it is possible to find paper towels made from recycled paper pulp. This is a major step up from the traditional paper towel made from virgin paper pulp as recycled paper towels don’t contribute to deforestation. Recycled paper towels also use comparatively less energy and water during their production.
Seventh Generation has two great options for sustainable paper towels. One of their best recycled paper towels is their unbleached, 100% recycled paper towels. These include at least 80% post-consumer recycled content and are biodegradable, thanks to the absence of bleaches.
They have another option which is also made from 100% recycled paper pulp, including at least 50% post-consumer recycled content. Even though these Seventh Generation paper towels are white, they aren’t made with chlorine bleach and don’t contain any other dyes, so they are still totally compostable post-use. These environmentally friendly paper towels are also super strong and absorbant.
Marcal is another brand with some of the best eco friendly paper towels on the market. Their Green Seal certified biodegradable paper towels actually exceed EPA Guidelines for post-consumer recycled content. Plus, they are strong and extra absorbent!
#2. Sustainable Alternatives to Paper Towels: Tree-Free
Tree-free paper towels tackle one of the most nefarious paper towel problems: deforestation. They are typically made from cellulose derived from more sustainable sources, like bamboo, sugarcane or cotton – hence the label “tree-free”.
Are bamboo paper towels eco friendly? You bet! This is a very green option as paper made from bamboo accounts for 65% lower carbon emissions compared to paper made from trees.
Some are also made from agricultural waste products like the left-over chaff from rice, wheat and rye that would otherwise be discarded or burned, giving them extra zero waste cred.
Here are some examples of reusable eco friendly paper towels that we love.
These tree-free paper towels are made from 100% bamboo. They are super absorbent and durable, a perfect heavy duty paper towel alternative.
One of the more economical options is Public Goods’ two-pack of tree free paper towel. They are made from bamboo and sugarcane, two fast-growing, sustainable and non-GMO grasses. Ultra absorbent and sturdy enough for any mess, they contain no inks, dyes, fragrances or chlorine, making them 100% biodegradable. In addition to paper towel, they have an abundance of other tree-free paper products, from toilet paper to facial tissue.
Reel offers a subscription service for their tree-free paper towels, conveniently shipping a box of 12 rolls to your door on a schedule of your choosing. In addition to being 100% bamboo, these extra absorbent two-ply paper towel rolls are totally plastic-free and contain no inks or dyes; the box they come in is also recyclable! To further reduce waste, the paper towels have a half-sheet perforation, and, they are totally biodegradable.
As their name implies, this company started out selling planet-friendly toilet paper but their success in the tree-free realm has led them to expand into paper towel, too. A B-Corp certified company, Who Gives a Crap provides carbon-neutral shipping and even donates 50% of their profits. Like the other tree-free products on our list, these paper towels are made from a combination of bamboo and sugarcane, are absorbant and durable.
(Want to know more? Check out this detailed review on Who Gives a Crap toilet paper.)
#3. Reusable Paper Towels: Eco Friendly Alternatives
While a step in the right direction, recycled, compostable and tree-free paper towels are still single-use products, so let’s look at a zero waste paper towels option: unpaper towels.
Also known as nonpaper or paperless towels, unpaper towels are eco friendly reusable paper towels that can be used just like normal paper towel but – surprise – they can be washed and reused.
There are many things about their manufacture that also make them suit an eco lifestyle. Reusable paper towels are typically made from cotton or another sustainable cellulose source.
Marley’s Monsters’ UNpaper® Towels are one of the most eco friendly paper towels you can find. Made from 100% cotton flannel, they naturally cling together making them easy to wrap around a standard paper towel roll for ease of use. The absorbency of their reusable paper towel alternative increases with each wash.
Click here for more details or to purchase unpaper towels.
#4. Swedish Dishcloths
If you’re hunting for eco paper towel alternatives, look no further than Swedish dishcloths. Invented by Swedish engineer Curt Lindquist in 1949, these cloths feel like nothing short of a paper towel miracle.
Swedish cleaning cloths, as they’re also known, are one of the most sustainable alternatives to paper towels out there. Traditional Swedish dishcloths are designed to replace 17 rolls of paper towel – helping you clean up while you reduce waste!
Made from a blend of plant-based cellulose and sustainable cotton, they also happen to be one of the most absorbent paper towel alternatives on the market, making them a real star in the kitchen. They last for months, can be washed and reused over and over and once they’ve reached the end of their life, they are biodegradable.
How to clean Swedish dishcloths? It’s simple: simply rinse and hang to dry!
Here are some of our favourite Swedish dishcloth brands:
Definitely our favourite brand of Swedish dishcloths, Three Bluebirds carefully crafts each one of their colourful cloth designs by hand. They are then produced in Germany using a blend of FSC-certified wood pulp and GOTS-certified organic cotton, and then printed in the US.
A purchase from Three Bluebirds is a vote for protecting the Earth and living a simplified, sustainable lifestyle. It also supports small business!
Not only are these household items the eco product you’ve been waiting for, they come in a huge range of the most amazing designs!
Papaya paper towel is another type of Swedish dishcloth. Similarly made from 70% cellulose and 30% cotton, they are 100% compostable at the end of their lifecycle.
With all the absorbency of paper towel and then some, Papaya paper towels pick up more mess. One of the best things about them is that they are antibacterial by nature: after rinsing and ringing them out, they dry super fast – much faster than a regular dishcloth – giving bacteria no chance to grow. This keeps them fresher longer, with none of that mildew smell that can plague regular fabric cloths.
Like Three Bluebirds, these also come in a range of trendy designs that will be sure to brighten up your kitchen!
What about regular old fabric dishcloths? They have a place in the paper towel alternative universe as well.
Cloth dishtowels have been commonly used as sustainable alternatives to paper towels in many households. They are the OG way of reducing waste, as fabric dishcloths can be washed and reused for years. They can even be made by cutting up old clothing, extending the life of those products even further. You can’t get more sustainable or zero-waste than that!
The Zero Waste Outlet has some very affordable organic cotton dishtowels that come in a variety of colours, all dyed with natural dyes. Ultra absorbent, 100% recyclable and biodegradable, these might just be the best kitchen towels you own.
Click here for more details or to purchase 100% organic cotton dishtowels.
For some other kitchen towel and dishcloth options, check out these options:
What’s better than drying hands with paper towel? Using a kitchen towel! While kitchen towels, often made from a soft, absorbent material like terrycloth, are great for drying hands, they can leave lint on surfaces.
By contrast, flour sack cloths are typically made from smooth cotton or linen, making them a lint free paper towel alternative and a better choice for drying dishes. Since they are made from all-natural materials, these dish cloths are biodegradable and compostable, too.
Extremely versatile, there are lots of advantages to using flour sack cloths around the home; check out this list of 50 ways to use flour sack towels for some ideas!
For you DIY types, you might want to consider some knitted dishcloths. Easy to make – and a great way to learn to knit! – you can whip up a bunch of knitted cloths to keep in your kitchen. Machine washable and reusable, you can use a different one every day, guilt-free. Their knitted texture also helps in cleaning dirty messes, making them a more effective alternative to paper towels.
#6. Eco-friendly Sponges
Sponges are another green alternative to paper towels. A single sponge can replace as many as 3000 individual paper towels (30 rolls), making them a great investment!
It’s important to do your research, though, as not all sponges are made of sustainable materials. Here are some eco-friendly options to check out.
The Cellulose Sponge
What is a cellulose sponge? A cellulose sponge is a sponge made from wood or bamboo fibres. They are much more eco-friendly than plastic-based sponges which are usually made from nylon or polyester, both products of the petroleum industry.
Cellulose sponges are easy to clean and maintain. After use, simply rinse them out and allow them to dry completely. For a deep-clean, you can even run them through the dishwasher (on the top rack) or microwave them for 30 seconds to disinfect (make sure the sponge is wet when your put it in the microwave; never put a dry sponge in the microwave as it could catch fire.)
We love the dual-sided eco sponge from the Zero Waste Outlet. This dual action sponge looks pretty amazing, with spongy cellulose on one side to soak up spills, wash dishes and wipe counters, and coarse, natural loofah on the other side for those hard to clean surfaces. And did we mention it's biodegradable? We think we're in love.
Click here for more details or to purchase a 2-pack of this eco sponge.
Another cellulose sponge to try is the Kolo Nature Unsponge: The “unsponge” is made from 100% natural, biodegradable materials. Unlike plastic sponges which can get thrown out every week or two, these can be machine-washed and reused up to 3-4 months, cutting down on waste.
Handmade in Ukraine, Kolo Nature’s unsponge also repurposes waste material to make their sponges: cotton fabric scraps from sewing workshops on one side, and discarded jute coffee bags on the other.
Natural Sea Sponges
Sea sponges are a natural alternative to plastic sponges and are a good substitute for paper towels. These ancient, multicellular creatures are in fact sea animals, and they’ve been around for millions of years.
Inherently hypoallergenic and antibacterial, they are ideal for a variety of personal hygiene and household cleaning tasks. They can last for up to six years, making them a very low-waste option and of course, they are entirely biodegradable
Not suitable for vegans as they are animals, you can otherwise use sea sponges with a clean conscience as they are not an endangered species, and are either sustainably wild-harvested or farmed.
Click here to read more about the benefits of sea sponges.
For vegans looking for a natural cleaning sponge, they need look no further than the loofah which – surprise! – is a vegetable.
Loofah vegetables are surprisingly long-lasting and since they are entirely organic, they can be tossed in the compost at the end of their life. The Zero Waste Outlet offers a 3-pack of loofah sponges, each of which will last several and then are 100% compostable.
Click here for more details or to purchase some loofah sponges.
“Coir” is the fibre found on the outside of coconuts, and it’s a great natural material for household cleaning chores. 100% compostable and biodegradable and very durable, coconut kitchen scrubbers get the job done without shedding microplastics or creating a lot of waste.
These hard-working scrubbers removes tough food residue like any other scrub pad does, but these will not pollute the environment. Amazing!
Click here for more details or to purchase a set of 5 coconut scrubbers.
#7. Beeswax Wraps
Paper towels are often used for wrapping half-finished foods or covering plates or bowls. Instead of reaching for the one-time use paper towels to do the job, you can opt for beeswax wraps.
Although foil, wax paper and parchment paper can be good alternatives to paper towel when it comes to wrapping and storing food, they don’t have the same longevity as beeswax wraps.
Beeswax wraps are also easy to care for: just wipe them off using cold water, and lay flat to dry. They can be stored folded or rolled and will last up to a whole year.
Here are three companies we love.
A B-Corp and Green America-certified company, Bee’s Wrap aims to not only sell a useful, eco-friendly product, but also use their company as a vehicle for change. They work with partners like 1% for the Planet and donate to ocean conservation and water stewardship organizations.
A women-and-youth-run Canadian company, Nature Bee is on a mission to create a better food wrap for people and the planet. Their practical and colourfully-designed beeswax wraps do double-duty: keeping food fresher longer, and keeping single-use plastic wrap and paper towels out of the kitchen!
After a lot of trial and error, Nature Bee has perfected their beeswax wraps which are made from 100% cotton fabric, locally-sourced beeswax, certified food-safe pine tree resin and sustainably harvested organic jojoba oil.
A package of beeswax wraps from the Zero Waste Outlet includes three wraps of different sizes, so you can be sure you always have the right one for the job. They're easy to clean, come in assorted colourful designs, and will last up to 150 uses if well cared-for.
Click here for more details or to purchase a set of 3 beeswax wraps from the Zero Waste Outlet.
Going Eco: Best Paper Towel Alternatives for an Eco-Friendly Lifestyle
With so many problems, it is high time paper towels are replaced in every household with some more sustainable alternatives. Let’s recap our review of eco friendly paper towel alternatives:
Step 1: Cut back. How can you reduce your paper towel usage? It can be as simple as using one sheet – or even half a sheet – instead of two, and looking for suitable alternatives to everyday kitchen jobs for which we normally turn to paper towels.
Step 2: Make the switch. We’ve outlined some of the best paper towel alternatives on the market today, here’s another look:
Got a really nasty, greasy, oily mess on your hands? You probably still want to something disposable, so opt for unbleached, recycled paper towels or tree-free paper towels to help stem some of the problems associated with standard paper towels.
Looking for something for drying hands or dishes? A standard fabric dishcloth or flour sack towel might be a better choice.
Looking for something to wipe up watery spills or dry surfaces? Then look no further than UNpaper Towels or a Swedish dish cloth. You’ll be amazed at their absorbency and their quick-dry nature.
And last but not least, don’t cover your bowl or wrap up that half-eaten apple with paper towel, try a beeswax wrap instead!
So, there you have it: so many eco friendly replacements for paper towels, no matter what the job!
With such amazing options available, it’s time to stop mindlessly reaching for the paper towel roll. I’m going to do my part; will you?
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.