Sustainability made simple

No, Your Paper Towels Aren’t Recyclable or Compostable

are paper towels recyclable
Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash - Munro Studio

In our fast-paced lives, it’s easy to rely on the convenience of paper towels when we need to clean up a spill. But have you ever stopped to consider the environmental impact of this everyday item? Are paper towels recyclable or biodegradable? How do you dispose of them responsibly?

The truth is, most of us don’t know where our paper towels come from, what they’re made of, or whether they’re biodegradable, compostable or recyclable. And that’s a problem, considering the US is the biggest consumer of paper towels worldwide. In this article, we’ll dive into the paper towel dilemma and how to curb your consumption of this environmentally harmful paper product — fast.

For more information about what paper products you can and can’t put on the curb, read 5 Things You Shouldn’t Dispose Of In Paper Trash.

Are Paper Towels Recyclable?

The short answer is no. Paper towels are not recyclable and cannot be disposed of alongside your other paper and cardboard recyclables.

Although paper towels are typically made using wood or cardboard, the process that gets them kitchen-ready makes them non-recyclable. During manufacturing, the wood and cardboard components get pummeled and battered to break down their natural fibers. The process makes recycling this paper product almost impossible.

Next, the material used to make paper towels gets a major dose of chemicals. Softeners, resins and glues — all of which are highly toxic — are added to the paper fibers to boost absorption, strength and smoothness. Bleaching typically follows at this stage of manufacturing. At this point, not even clean and untouched paper towels can be recycled.

Unfortunately, used paper towels aren’t recyclable, either. The substances paper towels are created to clean up, including oils, foods or even bodily fluids, cannot be processed by paper recycling facilities.

So, paper towels must be thrown into the regular trash. That means that hundreds of millions of tons of single-use paper towels end up in landfill every year. The strain on the environment is substantial and needs to be reduced asap. 

Read more: Where Does Your Trash Go? The Ugly Truth

Are Paper Towels Biodegradable?

Bleached white paper towels are definitely not biodegradable. However, unbleached paper towels made from recycled paper can be! Although they still aren’t recyclable, you can throw unbleached paper towels in the compost bin.

But there is an important condition: don’t put paper towels in the compost bin if you used them to clean up toxic or non-organic products. If you used them with chemical cleaners or to soak up something that isn’t food, paper towels are no longer biodegradable and shouldn’t be mixed with organic products in the compost pile.

What About the Cardboard Tubes?

cardboard tubes
Cardboard tubes can be recycled. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Unsplash - Munro Studio)

The cardboard tubes in the middle of paper towels and toilet paper rolls can be recycled. Place them alongside other paper and cardboard in your recycling bin.

3 Tips for Eco-friendly Paper Towel Alternatives

Reducing your paper towel waste is a sure way to reduce your environmental impact — and you can do that without drastically changing your cleaning habits. These paper towel alternatives are effective and keep the health of the environment in mind.

For even more options, read our guide 8 Sustainable Paper Towel Alternatives for Every Use.

1. Reuse Your Paper Towels — and Use Less

The most eco-friendly option for reducing your environmental impact is to stop consuming single-use products altogether. If you can’t quite resist them, try to use just one square at a time. Fold it a few times to make it thicker if you need to. You can also reuse paper towels, especially if they were just used for mopping up water or spilled soap.

Some companies are turning to more eco-conscious manufacturing practices. For example, experimenting with greener resins or removing the bleaching stage and leaving their paper towels a natural brown. So far, however, there are no commercially available eco-friendly and recyclable alternatives to paper towels.

If you find you must buy paper towels, opt for unbleached paper towels made from 100 percent recycled paper. You can dispose of them in your compost and they didn’t cut down any trees to get to your supermarket shelves.

2. Switch to Cloth Towels

Other sustainable alternatives include cloth towels and fabric napkins. Cloth cleans spills and messes effectively and can be reused indefinitely. Fabric napkins work likewise. With more options for colors and fun patterns, cloth napkins also look a lot better than boring, standard white paper napkins.

3. Give Newspaper a Second Life

Newspapers are also a great alternative to non-recyclable paper towels. In fact, newspapers are excellent for removing stains and streaks from glass surfaces like windows and mirrors. Just make sure you use an environmentally friendly, non-toxic cleaning product so you can recycle it. Check out 15 Ways to Clean Your Home Using Apple Cider Vinegar for some eco-friendly cleaning ideas.

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