Can You Compost Paper Towels? The Surprising Truth!

Most of my readers know that paper towels are my arch nemesis. First of all, they can't be recycled! This is because paper towels are broken down to a pulp during production, and the fibers become too small and weak to be reused again.

Another piece of the puzzle is that paper towels are often used to clean up spills, which might contain food and cleaning products that cannot be recycled.

We do not have the sustainable technology to get around this. So, if you can’t recycle paper towels, you might ask yourself, can I put paper towels in my compost? Let’s find out!

What are paper towels? 

Paper towels are made of two to three layers of soft paper that have been pressed together - usually from softwood trees like pine, fir, hemlock, or spruce.

The wood is mixed with other paper products to make paper towels and ground down to a very fine pulp. It will undergo several processing steps before becoming the paper towel product we are all familiar with.

Some paper towels are sourced from recycled fibers, which is a much more eco-friendly alternative to virgin fiber since these old-growth boreal forests act as carbon sinks, helping us avoid climate change's worsening impacts. 

Paper towels are strong, absorbent, and lightweight, making them a household favorite for cleaning up spills around the home… but they didn't start that way! You might be surprised to learn that paper towels were invented by accident.

In 1907, the Scott Paper Company of Pennsylvania - the leading brand for toilet paper in the US - accidentally rolled a batch of toilet paper far too thick to be used for its original purpose.

The company decided to cut the rolls into smaller pieces and market them as a sanitary product to help prevent the spread of diseases. In just a few years, the new product (dubbed the Sani-Towel®) took off and became a household name.

Unfortunately, with increased popularity also came an increase in paper towel waste! Today, Americans use 13 billion pounds of towels annually—equivalent to throwing out 270 million trees yearly.

Scary. The production of paper towels requires other inputs like chemicals, fuel, water, and electricity, all of which bring the carbon footprint of two standard paper towel rolls to about 15 grams of CO2.

While this might not seem like a lot, it adds up, considering all the paper towels we buy. Paper towels are also a huge contributor to the deforestation of old-growth forests, and as I said before because you can't recycle paper towels, they pile up in landfills at the end of the day.

Can you compost paper towels? 

Many paper products can be composted to set the record straight for my readers trying to maintain a zero-waste kitchen. Some examples of paper products you can compost include paper plates, cardboard, and shredded newspaper.

It’s true that with some of these items, you might be contributing small amounts of chemical contamination to compost bins, but I promise this won’t cause a big issue. If you’re now wondering, “well, can I put paper towels in my compost?” keep reading!

Paper towels made from virgin paper, bamboo, or recycled content can be composted if they are unbleached (chlorine bleach isn’t great for compost) and used to clean up materials and food products that can also be composted.

Paper towels make a great nitrogen-rich brown organic material to add to your compost bin because they break down quickly (it only takes 45 days!). In the past, I have used paper towels as a replacement for grass, leaves, or similar organic brown materials in my compost bin. 

Candice holding a roll of paper towel and a compost bin. Photo The Eco Hub.Pin
Image: The Eco Hub

Which paper towels can’t be composted? 

Now let's move on to dirty paper towels… After all, most paper towels aren’t clean when disposed of. They are covered in food, cleaning products, or other household spills. So, can dirty paper towels be composted? Usually… 

Brown, unbleached paper towels can be thrown in your kitchen compost bin. But if the paper towel is contaminated with material that can’t be composted, unfortunately, it should be thrown in the waste bin.

These include food items like animal fat, and lard, processed foods with high sugar content, and chemical products like liquid medicine or natural cleaning products. Another thing to consider here is viruses.

You want to avoid spreading bad bacteria in your compost pile, so if you used a paper towel to blow your nose and you have the flu, best to throw it out.

When composting paper towels, it's important to note that not all are created equal.

This begs the question... can you compost Bounty paper towels? The answer is likely yes, as most paper towels are made from compostable and biodegradable materials.

Paper towel products from Kirkland, Viva, Amazon, Costco, Brawny, and Simply Truth can technically be composted, but the sorry gets a little more complicated.

Can you compost white paper towels?

The issue with composting white paper towels is the potential presence of bleach. Bleach is a common ingredient in many white paper towels, and it can harm beneficial microorganisms in the compost pile, slowing down the composting process.

Bleach can also contaminate the soil if it is not completely broken down during composting. If you want to compost white paper towels, using ones not treated with bleach or other harmful chemicals is important. Look for paper towels labeled as "unbleached" or "chlorine-free."

So, can you compost bleached paper towels? I'd err on the side of caution here. Bleach is a big no-no in my home.

How to compost paper towels?

A roll of white paper towel next to a white compost bin. Photo by The Eco Hub. Pin
Image: The Eco Hub

There are so many different types of composting, which comes into play when discussing how to compost paper towels. Composting doesn't have to be confusing when we know the facts

  1. Start by choosing the right type of paper towel. Look for paper towels made from 100% recycled paper (unbleached), as these will break down faster and more easily in your compost pile.
  2. Before composting, ensure your paper towels are free of contaminants like chemicals, plastic, or food waste. These materials can harm not only your compost pile but also reduce the quality of your compost.
  3. Tear or shred the paper towels into small pieces before adding them to your compost pile. This will help speed up the decomposition process and make it easier for the bacteria in the compost to break down the paper towels.
  4. Add the shredded paper towels to your compost pile and other organic materials like fruit and vegetable scraps, yard waste, and coffee grounds.
  5. Make sure to turn your compost pile regularly to ensure that the materials are properly mixed and aerated. This will help speed up the decomposition process and produce high-quality compost.
  6. Monitor the moisture level of your compost pile. Paper towels are high in carbon, which can dry out your compost pile. To prevent this, keep your compost pile moist by watering it regularly.
  7. Wait for your compost pile to fully decompose before using it in your garden. This process can take anywhere from a few months to a year, depending on the size and contents of your compost pile.

I also want to note that while you can compost unbleached paper towels with natural (organic) cleaners, this might affect the amount of aerobic bacteria in your bin. So keep an eye on it!

Can I put paper towels in city compost?

YES! When composting in a special industrial facility, all you need to do is drop off your compost at a pickup facility or take advantage of your municipal compost pickup programs if you have one.

Most facilities will take white paper towels, but some will ask that it's not soiled with toxic cleaners. Always check if you are not sure.

Composting your paper towel will help divert landfill waste, which is a BIG win. Make sure you take the right steps beforehand to compost correctly. And if you are not sure if your

Compostable Paper Towel Reusable Alternatives:

A stack of Swedish dish cloths. Photo by The Eco Hub. Pin

There are tons of great compostable and reusable paper towel alternatives out there.

1. Use what you have. Old socks, pillowcases, t-shirts, and towels are awesome cleaning rags. I've got a whole post on the best reusable paper towels.

2. Zero Waste MVMT offers Swedish dishcloths comprising 70% cellulose wood pulp and 30% cotton, making them eco-friendly and compostable. These dishcloths are highly absorbent and great for cleaning up spills and messes around the house. A two-pack of these dishcloths is priced at $12, making them an affordable and sustainable alternative to traditional paper towels.

3. UnPaper towels from Marleys Monsters are made from 100% cotton flannel and rolled on a recyclable kraft tube. UnPaper towels are convenient because they work like normal paper towels and are compatible with most reusable paper towel tubes/stands. However, they are washable and can be reused repeatedly. 

4. Juniperseed Mercantile is another brand to look for. Their cotton UnPaper dish towels are fully compostable! Their products are handmade in the USA, which is another advantage.

A final word on Composting Paper Towels

So, can you compost paper towels? You can as long as the paper towel is unbleached and not mixed with any other materials that cannot be composted.

Reducing reliance on paper towels can help protect the environment by reducing waste, deforestation, and carbon emissions.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2018, paper products comprised 25% of landfill waste and 33% of municipal solid waste. Paper production is a major contributor to deforestation, leading to habitat loss and biodiversity loss.

Moreover, the paper industry is responsible for significant carbon emissions. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the paper and pulp industry is the fourth largest industrial emitter of greenhouse gases, accounting for 6% of total greenhouse gas emissions globally. By reducing our use of paper towels and choosing reusable alternatives, we can help to mitigate these environmental impacts and reduce our carbon footprint.

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