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Can You Compost Paper Towels?

We’ve all been there: Fresh after cleaning up a big mess and looking at that pile of tragically soaked single-use paper towels, wondering, “Can you compost paper towels?”.

As luck would have it, you can—with a few catches.

If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you’re already on the journey to a more eco-friendly or zero waste kitchen.

Paper towels, while not quite as ubiquitous as say organic toilet paper, are a pretty standard household item. But in order to maintain a more sustainable home, you’ve most likely wondered if paper towels are worth keeping around, and if you can compost used and clean paper towels or not. 

That’s why we’ve put together this little article to clean surfaces AND clean up any confusion about the common question: can I put paper towels in my compost?

In the following, we’ll answer all the most common questions regarding composting paper towels (or watch the video above).

1. What Is A Paper Towel?

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Image by Eerik

You probably didn’t know that paper towels were actually invented by accident.

Back in 1879, America’s leading paper manufacturers, the Scott Brothers (of Scott Paper), accidentally made thick rolls of toilet paper they rendered not fit for use. 

Bummed (get it?) about the monetary loss they were about to incur, one of the Scott brothers remembered a recent news article featuring sanitary tissues for the common cold. He decided to cut the thick “cloth” into larger squares, and began marketing it as Sani-Towel®. 

Ta-da! The rest is history.

Made from a few layers of soft and thick paper, paper towels are a moderately absorbent and disposable cloth used mostly commonly for drying hands, cleaning spills, and cleaning around the home. 

Because they are highly absorbent for their mass, people find them very handy for dealing with messes, especially in the kitchen.

Different brands market different selling features of paper towels, like color (natural brown or bleached), softness, strength, and absorption abilities. 

How are paper towels made?

To better understand how paper towels decompose in a home compost pile, let’s look at how they’re made.

The manufacturing process in similar to regular paper, with just a few added steps:

  1. The wood is harvested from softwood trees, which produce smooth and long fibers that are most easily turned into smooth pulp.
  2. After the wood is chipped and churned into smooth pulp, it goes through a number of cleaning and (optional) bleaching processes to remove any bacteria or contaminants.
  3. The pulp is pressed into paper—but not as hard as paper for writing. This is how it gets its softer texture.
  4. The paper is bonded to create the two-ply (or sometimes three-ply, or even four-ply) paper towels most noted for their absorbency, strength, and softness.
  5. The layers are embossed for small pockets of air to form between the sheets. These pockets are what helps to absorb water, and it is the embossing style of the manufacturers that determines the quality of the paper towel itself.

If we’re talking about recycled paper towels, that pulp is simply made from recycled paper waste rather than virgin wood pulp.

2. Are Paper Towels Compostable?

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Image by Elena Photo

Because paper towels are made with paper (duh), they’re technically natural (even if we use somewhat unnatural means to create them). That means we can call paper towels biodegradable as well as compostable.

Whether bamboo, virgin paper, or recycled paper towels, you can put paper towels in compost just like other plain paper products—but like composting clothes, there are a few exceptions.

Afterall, if paper towels are not composted—and rather sent to the landfill—the paper towel waste usually becomes anaerobic and contributes to deadly greenhouse gasses such as methane and carbon dioxide. 

No, thank you!

Generally speaking, it will take fourteen to forty-five days for paper towels to totally decompose in your compost pile. When they do, they form a nutrient-rich organic mulch that is highly nutritious for a backyard or apartment garden.

Exactly how fast your paper towels break down depends on a few factors: 

  • Wetness: Wet paper towels will decompose faster, meaning it’s a good idea to moisten them before adding.
  • Size: Small pieces of paper towel will decompose faster
  • Chemicals or greasy residue: Used paper towels with chemicals or grease will decompose a lot slower. 

Can dirty paper towels be composted?

While unused paper towels are compostable always, the same can’t be said for used or soiled paper towels.

You can compost used paper towels sometimes, but depending on what they’re soiled with, some may fall on the list of what not to compost.

When it comes to paper towels, what should you not put in compost?

Generally speaking, you cannot compost used paper towels soiled with the following:

  • Meat, oil, butter, grease, or dairy: They might throw off your compost by creating anaerobic bacteria, and will also lead to foul odors and unwanted pests.
  • Cleaning products of any kind: The chemicals will be harmful to the macro and microorganisms within compost. Even organic or eco-friendly cleaning products will kill bacteria and microbes doing their job. Better to use reusable clothes with these.
  • Human or animal waste: Fecal matter contains bacteria and harmful pathogens not fit for your compost.
  • Viruses: if you blew your nose in a paper towel, it’s fine to compost. If said nose-goo is from a cold or flu though, don’t risk it in your compost. 

All that said, tossing the occasional dirty paper towel with a bit of cooking grease on it into your indoor compost bin likely won’t cause a grave issue.

We’d just recommend that you bury those dirty paper towels under brown matter, soil, other food waste, or very in-process composting matter, to avoid any compost problems.

3. Can All Paper Towels Be Composted?

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If you’re wondering, “Can you compost Bounty paper towels?”, the answer is probably yes. 

So, are all paper towels compostable then?

Yes, most paper towels—whether Bounty, Kirkland, Viva, Amazon, Costco, Brawny, and Simply Truth—begin life as compostable paper towels. It’s what we subsequently put on them that we need to be mindful of. 

But what about the big bad B-word (AKA bleach)—are white paper towels compostable?

First, there are different types of bleaching and companies may or may not disclose what kind they use. Chlorine bleaching has a heavy environmental impact, while oxygen bleaching or bleaching with hydrogen peroxide are less toxic.

While chlorine bleached paper towels aren’t ideal for compost (or the environment), in moderate amounts, it won’t actually affect the pH of your home compost.

If that sounds suspect, consider you can actually use trace amounts of chlorine to safely purify water for drinking—not that we recommend doing so.

While you can compost bleached paper towels, we still recommend unbleached options, not only because chlorine bleaching is linked to severe bioaccumulation of toxins in the environment, but because it’s healthier for you to just not have bleached products around the home.

It’s also worth mentioning that you can’t recycle paper towels, bleached or unbleached.

4. How To Compost Paper Towels At Home?

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Now that you know the answer to, “Can I compost paper towels?”, you might be wondering how to do it.

Composting paper towels in a home compost bin is simple and turns them into a nutrient-rich substance with so many benefits—no wonder we think it rocks (er, soils?).

Composting paper towels is a process with only five easy steps. We encourage everyone to include it to greenify their home waste disposal rituals. 

  1. Keep those that get the “A-OK” to compost separate by storing them first in a bin with other carbon-based “brown” waste (like cardboard or unsoiled recyclable paper plates)
  2. Shred or rip the paper towels into small pieces to speed up the decomposition process.
  3. Add in low to moderate amounts to avoid a surplus of carbon-rich “brown” materials. You want a good balance of browns and nitrogen-rich “greens” (like vegetable scraps and most food scraps).
  4. Mix the paper towels well into the compost by rotating the compost bin or using a garden fork. 
  5. Turn the compost every 2-3 days to keep it aerated and hot, ensuring the microbes digest the paper towels and other ingredients, turning it into nutritious garden mulch. 

Composting Paper Towels Industrially

If you don’t have a home compost bin but have access to municipal composting services, you might be wondering, “Can I put paper towels in city compost?”

You bet. In fact, municipal (AKA industrial) composting facilities are better equipped to handle paper towels in large volumes, including soiled ones. Their high heat settings ensure faster decomposition and more complete sterilization.

You should still avoid those soaked with harsh chemicals and soiled with fecal matter of any kind due to contamination issues.

And always check with your city’s guidelines before assuming something is good to go in the green bin.

5. Compostable Paper Towel Reusable Alternatives

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While paper towels are compostable, the most sustainable choice is to reduce your paper towel usage period.

By replacing single-use paper products, you’ll be making major strides toward a more eco-friendly home and a less disposable-addicted world—not to mention you’ll save money, too.

The following are some of our favorite paper towel alternatives

  • Used clothing, towels, rags: The most affordable and circular reusable paper towels are old clothes (like old t-shirts) or rags in lieu of paper towels.
  • Papaya Reusables: Each one of their Swedish dishcloths is the equivalent of seventeen rolls of paper towels.
  • Juniperseed Mercantile: Made from 100% unbleached organic cotton, they’re machine washable and compostable. 
  • Marley’s Monsters: These Unpaper Towels are made with durable cotton flannel to be reused again and again.

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Final Thoughts On Composting Paper Towels

Not only are composting facts fun and interesting, but composting itself is one of the most important things we as individuals can do to divert waste from landfills.

And it’s critical we do so, because if we send organic compostable materials to the landfill, they decompose anaerobically and produce methane, a GHG 25x more potent than CO2.

In other words, let’s compost to curb climate change.

But remember: the journey to sustainable living isn’t a journey of perfection, but of continuous and consistent improvement. 

By reducing our reliance on single-use items like disposable paper towels (and disposing of them in a better way when we do need to use them) we’re helping bit by bit to create a greener planet.

Next time you reach for a roll make sure to include the lightly soiled ones in your home compost routine.

And if you’ve found this article illuminating, please share with your friends and family next time you see them heading to the trash bin with a paper towel or asking, “Can you compost napkins and paper towels?”.

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Can You Compost Paper Towels? Image by Eerik #canyoucompostpapertowels #canicompostpapertowels #canyouputpapertowelsincompost #arepapertowelscompostable #arebamboopapertowelscompostable #areusedpapertowelscompostable #sustainablejungle
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