Are Paper Towels Recyclable? What You Need to Know

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

It has become a natural instinct to reach for a paper towel when you spill something. We don’t even question where these paper towels come from, what they are made of, or even, whether these paper products are actually recyclable?

As the name suggests, paper towels are made from paper. Meaning, paper towels are another strong contributor to one of the planet’s most pressing environmental disasters: deforestation. On top of that, the US is the biggest consumer of paper towels in the world. So it seems pretty clear that something needs to be done to curb our consumption of these damaging paper products, and fast.

Are they Recyclable?

The short answer is no. Paper towels are not recyclable. Despite what their name may suggest, these sheets cannot be recycled among paper and cardboard.

The original component to paper towels is wood or cardboard, but the process that gets them kitchen-ready makes them non-recyclable. During manufacturing, the wood/cardboard gets pummeled and battered so much that all the natural fibers are broken down almost completely. Recycling this paper product at a later stage becomes impossible.

Not to mention the paper also gets a chemical treatment. Softeners, resins and glues are added to the paper fibers for better absorption, strength and smoothness, all of which are highly toxic. On top of that, bleaching often occurs at this stage of manufacturing. Meaning, not even clean and untouched paper towels can be recycled.

It’s also safe to say that used paper towels are not recyclable either. As their purpose is to wipe or clean up spills, drops and splashes, the towels become stained with products like oils, food or even bodily fluids. None of which belong in the paper recycling.

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

Are Paper Towels Biodegradable?

These pristine white sheets of paper towels are most definitely not biodegradable. However, their more eco-conscious cousin, the unbleached paper towel made from recycled paper, can be! Although these paper towels are still not recyclable, they can be thrown into the compost bin. Especially if they were used to clean up food waste.

But be careful. Do not throw these paper towels into the compost bin if they were used to mop up toxic or non-organic products. These are not biodegradable and therefore should not be mixed with organic products in the compost pile.

What about the Cardboard Tubes?

The cardboard tubes can be recycled. So should definitely be placed with paper and cardboard in the recycling bins.

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

Are there Eco-friendly Alternatives? – 3 Tips

Reducing your paper towel waste is a sure way to improve your impact on the environment. But don’t be alarmed, you do not need to make any drastic changes to your cleaning habits. These tips for paper towel alternatives are both equally as effective, while keeping the health of the environment in mind.

Read on: Zero Waste Lifestyle Guide: Simple Tips Towards Sustainable Living

1. Rethink Your Choice and Reuse Your Paper Towels

The most ecological option for reducing your environmental impact is to stop using these single-use paper towels altogether. But, if you can’t quite resist them, then try to use just one square at a time. If need be, fold the square a couple of times to make it thicker, for those bigger spills. 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 options for manufacturing. For example, experimenting with greener resins. Or removing the bleaching stage and leaving their paper towels with a brown-ish colour. But so far, there are no commercially available eco-friendly and recyclable alternatives to paper towels. If you find you must buy paper towels, then opt for the unbleached paper towels made from 100 percent recycled paper. At least these towels can be disposed of in the compost pile and they didn’t cut down any trees to get to your supermarket shelves.

2. Use Cloth Towels

Other environmentally friendly alternatives include using cloth towels and fabric napkins. Cloths are equally as effective at cleaning up spills and messes, and can be used time and time again. Fabric napkins work in exactly the same way. With more options regarding choice of colours and fun patterns, these multi-use napkins are sure to trump your boring, bog-standard white paper napkins.

3. Give Newspaper a Second Life

Newspapers are also a great alternative to non-recyclable paper towels. Did you know that newspapers work really well at removing stains and streaks from glass surfaces like windows and mirrors? Well they do, and are a much greener option than paper towels. Just make sure you use an environmentally friendly, non-toxic cleaning product, and you will be able to recycle the newspapers no problem.

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