Unrolling the Truth: Are Paper Towels Recyclable?

Did you know that Americans use billions of pounds of paper towels yearly? 13 billion pounds, to be exact? Unfortunately, this number isn’t going down anytime soon, and we are still buying (and throwing out) more than our fair share of paper towels.

Can you picture 13 billion pounds of paper towel waste? Now imagine the impact this has on the environment! Today we are going to answer the most common questions regarding paper towels. What are paper towels made of, and why are they so bad for the environment?

Are Paper Towels Recyclable? And can you recycle the inside cardboard tubes? If you can’t recycle it, can you compost paper towels?

One thing I have learned on my journey to a zero waste kitchen is that there are almost always eco-alternatives out there for our favorite household products, so stay tuned until the end if you're looking for sustainable swaps. 

What are paper towels, and how do they differ from other paper products?

Paper towels are made of wood, cardboard, and other paper by-products. You might be surprised to learn they were invented by accident!

Back in 1907, the Scott Paper Company of Pennsylvania was the leading brand of toilet paper. Around this time, one toilet paper batch was rolled too thick, and the company was told the entire batch would have to be thrown away.

One of the company founders, Arthur Scott, chose to take a big risk and cut the thick paper into individual, rectangular sections and sell them as “a more effective, preventive measure from the onset of diseases.” The product was a huge hit dubbed the “Sani-Towel®.” By 1931, the Sani-Towel® was everywhere.

As mentioned above, paper towels differ from toilet paper because they are much thicker and stronger. This is because most paper towels are made from two or three layers of soft paper that are pressed together, making them super resistant, lightweight, and great for cleaning up spills and other messes around the home.

How are paper towels produced? 

One of the first steps in paper towel production involves cutting down old-growth forests (usually from pine, fir, hemlock, or spruce trees). In some cases, the pulp is made from recycled waste, which is slightly better since using virgin fiber to create disposable paper products is a big no-no in my books.

The wood is mixed with other paper by-products, which can be ground down to a pulp and its natural fibers. Next, the mixture goes through several chemical and peroxide-based bleach treatments.

Other chemicals like glue and softeners will also be added during this time. These two steps are important to remember when we talk later about whether you can recycle paper towels…

Next, the pulp is pressed into paper sheets and goes through a bonding process. These sheets are much softer and are pressed much lighter than writing paper or other “harder” paper products.

The last step involves using special machines to emboss the pattern on the sheets and apply a coat of glue that will stick the two-ply together. The sheets are then perforated and wound around a tube. Finally, the roll is packed in printed plastic, where it will be shipped to a distribution center and retailer to be sold on the store shelves.

Woman using paper towels in kitchen, closeup.Pin

Are paper towels recyclable? 

Unfortunately, paper towels are not recyclable. This can confuse consumers because other paper-based items like paper plates and cardboard can be recycled. Even the cardboard tube inside your paper towel roll can be recycled through most curbside collection programs.

So, why are paper towels not recyclable? When the paper towels are ground down to pulp, the fibers become extremely weak, and when you consider all of the extra chemicals added later on, we don’t have the technology yet to give them a second life.

To top it all off, paper towels are usually used to clean up food residue, and food definitely can’t be recycled!

Let's not throw paper towels into a recycling bin (soiled or not). This could be a huge source of contamination and can result in a very complicated and costly problem for a recycling facility.

Which paper towels can and can't be recycled?

Regular paper towels can’t be recycled, but what about brown paper towels? Are brown paper towels recyclable? Unfortunately, these kinds of paper towels can’t be recycled either. On the bright side, brown paper towels can be composted!

Just ensure that non-compostable food, chemical cleaner, or any other material that isn’t compostable didn’t come into contact with the paper towel beforehand.

Think about it this way. Most paper can be recycled about seven times before the fibers are too short to reuse. When a paper product becomes a paper towel, this is usually the last step of the recycled process.

Regardless if your paper towel is unbleached or bleached, soiled or unsoiled, or made from recycled materials, it cannot be recycled. 

However, I would still suggest buying ones made from 100% recycled post-consumer paper because while you might still not be able to recycle them after, this is a slightly eco-friendlier alternative to virgin paper. You can find ideas for the best-recycled paper towels in my other articles.

What are your options once you're done with your paper towels? 

You might ask, “well, Candice, what can I do with used paper towels?”. Unfortunately, bleached paper towels must be thrown in the garbage (be sure to use an eco-friendly trash bag when you do). 

As I mentioned, you can still compost brown paper towels in your at-home compost bin. Many paper products can be composted!

Knowing what is compostable and what is not is your key to success here. For example, if your paper towel is soiled with material that cannot be composted, like fat oils or meats, you should throw them in the trash. But if you use unbleached paper towels to clean up pasta sauce or jams, you are good to go!

Alternatives to single-use paper towels

I have tons of suggestions for paper towel alternatives

1. Use What You Have

A bunch of old rags and dish towels on a drying rack. Photo by The Eco Hub.Pin
Image: The Eco Hub

This is one sustainable product you don't even have to buy. You can use old t-shirts, pillows, and towels to clean up spills and messes. In the photo above, you will see some of the reusable cloths I use at home.

There are several other types of reusable paper towels that you can use in your home, including cloth napkins, washcloths, and dish towels.

Cloth napkins are a great alternative to paper towels for wiping your hands or cleaning up small spills. They are reusable and can be washed and dried like regular laundry. Washcloths are another option for cleaning up spills or wiping down surfaces.

They are small and easy to store and can be washed and reused. Dish towels can be used for various cleaning tasks, such as wiping counters or drying dishes. They are durable and can be washed and reused many times. #zerowatecleaning

To use them effectively, I keep them handy in an easily accessible location, such as a kitchen drawer or countertop basket. I use them for various tasks, such as cleaning up spills, wiping down counters and surfaces, and cleaning up messes.

You must wash them regularly in hot water with a natural laundry detergent to prevent bacteria and odors from building up.

I also assign different towels for different purposes to prevent cross-contamination. I write the name of the room on the tag. You can also color code them, dark for the kitchen and light for the bathroom.

After washing, ensure your towels are completely dry before storing them in a designated container or hanging them on a hook.

2. Swedish Dish Clothes

Candice using a white swedish dish cloth to wash a large mason jar. Photo by The Eco Hub. Pin
Image: The Eco Hub

To say that I LOVE these would be a major understatement! These work and are an integral part of my eco-friendly cleaning routine.

If you don't know them, Swedish cloths, also known as Swedish dishcloths or sponge cloths, are a type of reusable cloth towel that originated in Sweden. They are made from wood pulp and cotton fibers, giving them unique texture and absorbency.

They can absorb 20 times their weight in water, making them great for cleaning up spills and messes. They are also durable and long-lasting and can be washed and reused often.

One of the unique features of Swedish cloths is their ability to dry quickly, which helps prevent bacteria and odors from building up. They also come in various colors and patterns, making them a stylish and eco-friendly addition to any kitchen.

Wet a Swedish cloth with water and wring it out before cleaning up spills or wiping down surfaces. When you're finished, rinse it out and hang it up to dry. When cleaning your Swedish cloth, you can either hand wash it or toss it in the washing machine.

One of the best things about these is how versatile they are. I use these to clean EVERYTHING in my home.

If you're tired of using paper towels to clean your counters and other surfaces, consider switching to a Swedish sponge cloth. They're great for cleaning baseboards and other tough-to-clean areas, and you can even compost them when you're done.

Don't forget to dust your plants with a Swedish sponge cloth to keep them healthy. They're also perfect for cleaning beeswax wraps. Keep your windows streak-free with this handy tool, and polish your stainless steel appliances for a sparkling kitchen.

If you're a gardener, keep a Swedish sponge cloth in your garden bag to wipe dirt off your face or hands. And if you're a parent of young children, a Swedish sponge cloth is perfect for cleaning sticky fingers.

Another big plus is that these can be composted in your backyard compost system or in something like a Bokashi Bin. But, they might not be accepted in your local organic waste facility. So it's so important that you check.

Just because something is labeled compostable or biodegradable does not make it eco-friendly in and of itself. This is another example where greenwashing is ripe.

It's important to note that not all biodegradable materials are compostable, and not all compostable materials are biodegradable. Additionally, products labeled as "compostable" or "biodegradable" may require specific conditions to break down, so following the manufacturer's instructions for proper disposal is important.

3. Unpaper Towels (reusable cloth towel rolls)

A roll of unpaper towel on a small table. Photo by The Eco Hub. Pin
Image: The Eco Hub

Have you ever heard of unpaper towels? They look and work like paper towels but are completely reusable (I love the idea of a “reusable paper towel”). There are several versions of these:

  • Single-layer unpaper towels: These are simple unpaper towels made from a single layer of fabric. They can be rolled or folded and stored in a dispenser for easy use.
  • Double-layer unpaper towels: These are similar to single-layer unpaper towels but are made from two layers of fabric for added absorbency.
  • Roll-up unpaper towels: These unpaper towels come on a roll, similar to traditional paper towels. You can tear off as much as you need and then roll them back up for easy storage.
  • Button-pull unpaper towels: These unpaper towels come with buttons or snaps that allow you to pull them apart for use. They can be snapped back together for easy storage.

I highly recommend all of the above, but I have a few words of caution about using the ones that have buttons or snaps. The buttons or snaps can come loose or break over time, especially if the unpaper towels are used or washed frequently. This can make them less effective for cleaning and can shorten their lifespan.

Also, I found the buttons can sometimes scratch delicate surfaces like glass or stainless steel if you're not careful. The buttons or snaps can rub against the surface, leaving small scratches or marks.

A final word on paper towels

So, are paper towels recyclable? Unfortunately, you cannot recycle paper towels. We can’t give paper towels a second life until sustainable technology is up to speed. This issue becomes even more complicated when you consider all the chemicals that go into making paper towels.

Plus, they are often soiled and contaminated with food or other materials that can’t be recycled (or composted). On the bright side, there are many sustainable alternatives to help you on your sustainable living journey!

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