Are Paper Towels Recyclable? A Dive Into The Dirty Details
We all use them from time to time (some of us more than others), but what do we do with them after?
Are paper towels recyclable? Or compostable, maybe?
Knowing whether you can recycle used paper towels is important—especially given the global demand for the ever-ubiquitous and beloved disposable paper products.
Worldwide consumer spending on them was a whopping $12 billion in 2017, and that number continues to rise.
From workplaces to public restrooms to personal kitchens, who can imagine a world without paper hand towels?
But on a low-waste living journey, we feel it’s necessary to spill the truth about those things we use to clean up spills; Not only are they bad for the environment, but also paper towels are not recyclable.
Still, you can wipe your tears (with a non single-use alternative) because there are some better options for this sanitation item than the landfill.
Keep reading, as we answer all the most common questions regarding recycling paper towels and napkins and what to do with them instead.
1. What Is A Paper Towel?
Did you know paper towels were invented by accident?
All the way back in 1879, America’s leading paper manufacturers, the Scott Brothers (of Scott Paper), made thick rolls of toilet paper completely by accident in a manufacturing snafu that they rendered not fit for use.
Feeling in the gutter about the loss of revenue to be incurred, one of the Scott brothers recalled a recent news article that featured sanitary tissues for the common cold. At the time, Philadelphia (where the factory was based) had a cold and flu epidemic and many locals were demanding sanitation measures.
In a proper “eureka” moment, one Scott brother decided to cut the thick paper “cloth” into larger squares, and Scott Paper began to market it as Sani-Towel®.
They’ve since been a household staple in much of the world.
But what are they exactly?
Manufactured from two, three, or four layers of soft paper (AKA trees), most paper towels today are an absorbent and disposable cloth used for drying hands, mopping up spills, and cleaning.
Exceedingly absorbent for their lightweight mass, people find them handy when managing messes, especially in the kitchen.
You’ll often see different popular brands market different features of paper towel rolls, such as color (natural brown or bleached), softness, strength, and absorption abilities.
2. How Are Paper Towels Made?
To better understand whether kitchen paper towels are recyclable into a second life, it’s helpful to know how they got their first one.
Manufacturing all paper products is similar, with a few extra steps for these spill solutions:
- Wood is harvested from softwood trees (like pine, spruce, hemlock, or fir) to be turned into long, smooth fibers.
- The wood is chipped, churned, cleaned, and (oftentimes) bleached.
- The resulting decontaminated smooth pulp is pressed into paper—but not pressed as stiff as the paper products used for writing—giving it a more supple texture.
- The paper is bonded using a series of resins and softeners to create various ply paper towels.
- An embossing process creates small pockets of air between the sheets of softened paper, giving it the ability to absorb liquid.
If they’re recycled paper towels, that pulp is simply made from recycled paper waste rather than virgin wood pulp, which is better from an ecological standpoint.
3. Can Paper Towels Be Recycled?
Despite being similar to other recyclable paper products, they are sadly 100% not possible to recycle.
No matter the brand or condition–from Bounty to Amazon Basics—even clean paper towels aren’t recyclable.
Unused or soiled, recycling facilities will never accept them, because it’s impossible to give them a second life.
But why are paper towels not recyclable?
The reason is twofold (or should we say two-ply?).
First, recyclable paper towels aren’t possible because of the manufacturing. Even though they begin as an organic element (trees), they are pummeled into a pulp that is so soft and fibrous, the natural wood fibers are too weak to do anything with again.
Add in all the toxic additives to make them bright white, strong, soft, scented, and absorbent, and it’s more impossible still to give them a next life.
Second, specifically related to why wet or soiled paper towels are not recyclable, soiling of any paper product renders it not fit for the recycling process.
Even harder paper products like paper plates aren’t recyclable if soiled.
From start to finish, nothing about the creation or usage process enables a recyclable end of life for paper towels.
Are empty cardboard paper towels recyclable?
Yes! The one sweet (cardboard) center to paper towel rolls is that the cardboard tube inside is recyclable.
4. Are All Paper Towels Non-Recyclable?
White paper towels aren’t recyclable, but some aren’t bleached or as soft, and usually only get used to dry hands.
You know them as the scratchy, stiff items that are a staple in public restrooms, but are brown paper towels recyclable?
While unbleached paper towels are better for the environment, sadly they likewise cannot be recycled.
As with their bleached brethren, their fibers are too short for paper recycling facilities to be able to transform them into new paper products.
The same goes for recycled options, such as Seventh Generation paper towels.
While being made from recycled paper means they’re inherently more sustainable, this also means their fibers are shorter to begin with.
Paper fibers can generally be recycled five to seven times before they’re too short to be reused. Being recycled into paper towels and napkins is usually the last stop along the recycling process chain.
Will Napkins And Paper Towels Be Recyclable In The Future?
As the technology stands now, we can’t recycle napkins and paper towels, but technology is hinting it may one day be possible.
A new paper towel recycling initiative in the UK called Tork PaperCircle® gives businesses the option to place a special recycling bin in their washrooms for collection through the recycling company.
The “world’s first paper hand towel recycling service” works by fully dissolving away the resin used to bind the layers of paper together, then heating the fiber blend to remove bacteria and viruses and make it able to be pressed into new sheets.
However, their paper recycling process appears intensive and costly (not to mention the unknown factor of the dissolving agents, which could counteract the entire eco-friendly intent) so whether it could ever be adopted on a wide scale is questionable.
It’s also designed for those used to dry hands, so while this process might render wet paper towels recyclable, it’s unlikely to change the fate for dirty ones.
5. Alternatives To Paper Towel Recycling
Now you may be asking, “If I can’t recycle then, what can I do with used paper towels?”
The blue recycling bin is out (and putting them in risks recycling contamination), so what is the best way to dispose of used paper towel rolls?
Despite some advice floating around the ether, you should never flush paper towels, as you risk severely clogging and damaging your home’s plumbing.
But you can still avoid landfill waste and compost paper towels instead.
Unused paper towels are always welcome to your indoor compost bin, as are some used paper towels—so long as they are not contaminated with meat, grease, oil, milk, or butter. These can throw off the pH of the compost pile and attract pests.
Likewise, those that have viruses, human or dog droppings, or cleaning products (natural or chemical) should be left out of the compost.
To compost them, simply rip them up into small pieces, and scatter throughout your compost with enough food waste and green matter.
If you’re without a home compost bin but have access to municipal composting services, you can compost them here, too.
Municipal composting facilities are even better equipped to break down paper towels in large volumes, including soiled ones. Their high heat settings ensure faster decomposition and more complete sterilization.
6. Alternatives To Single-Use Paper Towels?
A zero waste philosophy ranks product disposal with 5 Rs: refuse, reduce, reuse, rot and lastly, recycle.
That means refusing paper towels is the most eco-friendly choice. And let’s admit it: we could all stand to reduce paper towel waste.
But what to replace them with?
There are tons of reusable paper towels available, and switching to one saves you money, and makes for an eco-friendly home and a less disposable-addicted world. Here are some:
- Upcycled rags: Wondering what to do with old clothes? Tear them into rags to use instead of paper towels.
- Washable cloths: Reusable kitchen towels by brands like Marley’s Monsters and Juniperseed Mercantile provide a way to clean up messes repeatedly using the same item.
- Swedish dishcloths: Made of plant cellulose, one of these compostable cloths (such as Papaya Reusables’) can replace 17 paper towel rolls.
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Final Words On Can You Recycle Paper Towels?
In answering “no” to the question, “Do you recycle paper towels?, we learned that paper towels are, in fact, not so eco-friendly.
Then again, being a single-use paper product—of which we consume a colossal 400 million tons per year—that was probably obvious.
Paper products that can’t (or don’t) make it to the recycling plant account for approximately one quarter of the waste at landfills globally.
That aside, paper production leads to a number of environmental crises like deforestation, biodiversity loss, energy and water waste, air pollution, heavy water use, frequent contamination, along with other detrimental not-so-eco-friendly waste problems.
It’s time we all reassess our worldwide single-use addiction, and opt for greener reusable options.
Next time you see a friend or family member reaching to clean a spill with a roll of paper towels, share this article with them to let them know it’s not recyclable and (hopefully) encourage better choices in the future.