Can You Recycle Paper Towels? 

close up image of paper towel

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—the birthplace of the United States, the incubator for the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, the proud provider of cheesesteaks and brotherly love—is also responsible for the creation of paper towels. For over a hundred years they’ve been used to wipe up spills, clean our living spaces, and be playfully torn to shreds by babies and pets.

While the stories of their creation sound rolled in myth, after their introduction by the Scott Paper Company for use in bathrooms, they quickly gained popularity, and were soon put on rolls and advertised to be used in kitchens as well.

As reported by Joe Pinsker in The Atlantic, data from Euromonitor International shows that people in the U.S. spend nearly $6 Billion on paper towels—equaling almost half of all global spending on paper towels. According to the EPA, 17.2 million tons of paper and paperboard waste—including paper towels—were put into landfills in the United States in 2018. Each one of those tons of paper towels required a staggering 20,000 gallons of water and 17 trees to make.

To make paper towels, trees are broken down into pulp, which is then pressed and dried into huge rolls. During this process, traditional paper towels are treated with chemicals such as chlorine (which bleaches them to their familiar white color). These chemicals release compounds that have been found to not only be bad for the environment, but bad for your body as well.

Why Can’t You Recycle Paper Towels?

Can you recycle paper towels? No, you cannot. Even if unused, paper towels cannot be recycled. The fibers that make up each paper towel are too short to be broken down and remade into new paper products.

Used paper towels can’t be recycled for the same reason, but can also be detrimental to the recycling process as the grease, chemicals, or food particles they contain can contaminate other goods trying to be recycled. This is why unbleached—brown—paper towels also are not suitable for the recycling bin.

Can You Recycle Paper Towel Rolls?

Paper towel rolls, however, can be recycled. Just put them with your other cardboard waste. 

Paper Towel Alternatives

Some alternatives to traditional paper towels have the same issues when it comes to recycling. Paper towels made from recycled materials are more eco-friendly than those not made from recycled materials, but they still cannot be recycled again. Here are some paper towel alternatives that provide a path to no-waste cleanups.

Bamboo Paper Towels

Paper towels made from bamboo are one of the most readily available alternatives to traditional paper towels, and can be found in nearly any grocery store. While still not recyclable, they are biodegradable, meaning they can be composted. Switching to bamboo paper towels is a great, simple, option that can immediately reduce your environmental impact.

Papaya Paper Towels

These towels come with a hanging hook and holes, allowing you to rinse then hang-dry them instead of having to wash them after only a few uses. They can also be cleaned in your dishwasher—which saves water and energy compared to cleaning other reusable towels in your washing machine. Unlike traditional paper towels, they can be composted once they’ve begun to show signs of wear and tear.

Marley’s Monsters Rolled Unpaper Towels

These reusable cotton towels come rolled up, and can be placed right on your paper towel holder. They can be washed, dried, then rerolled. This option is pricey, but is a one-time for a long-time purchase. They also have the added benefit of providing that exciting rush of peeling off a fresh towel to clean a spill that we might be missing after moving to being more ecofriendly.

Industry Innovations and Initiatives

Traditional paper towels have a significant environmental impact, and while efforts are being made to improve their recyclability and reduce the chemicals needed to produce them, the paper towel alternatives currently on the market offer a more sustainable solution to the messes and spills we clean each day.

Using reusable towels to clean up messes and spills is a lifestyle change that can have a positive environmental impact, especially when your chosen alternative comes from a company that values sustainability. Unbleached, recycled, paper towels are more environmentally friendly than traditional paper towels, and reusable towel are even more environmentally friendly when used properly.

Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

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