Are Paper Towels Biodegradable
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Paper towels are a popular disposable item in U.S. homes.
We use them to clean up messes, clean/dry fruit and vegetables from our garden kitchen, and even as napkins at parties and cookouts.
They’re such an integral part of daily life that we often just toss them in the trash without a second thought.
But is there a greener way to dispose of our paper towels?
Are paper towels compostable? Can you recycle paper towels? What happens if you flush paper towels?
In this article, I answer all of your questions about paper towels, and reveal whether they are really an eco-friendly option for your home and business.
Are Paper Towels Compostable?
The answer to this is a little complicated and is similar to the rules for paper plates.
Most paper towels are made from natural fibers and can 100% be composted when clean (providing they’ve not been treated with disinfectants or fragrance). But what sort of eco-warrior would compost a clean paper towel?
The general rule of thumb is that if a paper towel is lightly soiled with organic materials, it’ll be fine to compost. Basically, if the thing you’ve contaminated the paper towel with could have been composted, then the paper towel is also ok to be composted.
Your compost heap will thrive if you feed it the right amount of paper towels. The bacteria and microorganisms will feed on the carbon-rich paper towels and generate heat.
However, paper towels contaminated with inorganic and/or chemical-based products should not go anywhere near your compost bin.
Paper towel contaminates not ok to compost include:
- Cleaning products and chemicals (even eco-friendly cleaning products) can harm the good bacteria in your compost bin
- Any animal product (meat, dairy, eggs, etc.)
- Grease and oil
- Most animal* or human bodily waste
- Germs from blowing your nose when sick
*Note that in certain states, including California, residents that have their compost collected by waste management companies may be permitted to include animal waste. However, you MUST check with your waste collector first, because the majority still do not allow this.
Are Paper Towels Biodegradable?
The answer to this should be a resounding yes! Right?!
Paper towels are made from wood pulp, a natural and biodegradable material. Plus, I’ve already said they’re compostable.
However, there are subtle differences between being compostable and being biodegradable.
Composting is the process of breaking down organic matter into nutrient-rich soil. To do this, you need both oxygen and moisture.
Biodegradation, on the other hand, is simply the breakdown of material by bacteria or other living organisms. This can happen with or without oxygen.
This is explained in greater detail by Arabella in her excellent What Does Biodegradable Mean? An Easy 5 Minute Guide article.
While paper towels will biodegrade in landfill, it can be a prolonged process depending on the conditions. Also, some facilities are very particular about what level of paper towel contamination they’ll accept.
Are Paper Towels Recyclable?
The recycling process for paper towels is the same as recycled toilet paper, meaning you can technically recycle it. However, most municipal recycling facilities don’t accept dirty paper towels because they’re challenging to recycle if contaminated with grease, oil, chemicals, etc.
The absorbency of paper towels can also cause recycling machines to clog.
Another issue is that many paper towels are already made from recycled paper and often not a good enough quality to be recycled again.
So, unfortunately, the answer is no. Paper towels are not recyclable.
Are Paper Towels Bad For The Planet?
Recycled paper towels are much kinder to the planet than paper towels made from virgin wood pulp.
The production of virgin paper towels requires water, energy, and chemicals. This process results in the release of greenhouse gasses and other pollutants into the environment.
Some less regulated paper towels might even contain wood from virgin forests. This means they contribute to deforestation, a major environmental issue.
Looking for paper towels approved by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a simple and effective way to ensure the wood used was responsibly sourced from a sustainable forest.
Recycling old paper into paper towels also uses the same resources but at a much lower level.
Are Paper Towels Flushable?
You should never flush paper towels down the toilet. This is a big no-no!
Paper towels are not designed to break down in water and can clog your pipes if flushed. They can also cause issues at sewage treatment plants, where they can end up blocking pumps and filters.
Toilet paper is flushable because it’s made from pulp that has been specifically treated to break down in water.
So, next time you’re wondering whether or not you can flush that paper towel, just remember…when in doubt, throw it out…or even better, compost it if it’s not contaminated with something nasty. Catchy huh!? 😁
How Quickly Do Paper Towels Decompose?
This depends on where the decomposing is taking place:
Paper towels should fully decompose in a home composting system within a few weeks to a month.
Paper towels should fully decompose in a commercial composting facility within 30-90 days.
If sent to a landfill, disposable paper towels can take years to decompose, depending on the conditions and what other material it’s been mixed with.
The Pros And Cons Of Composting Paper Towels
- An excellent way to add carbon to your compost pile
- Paper towels break down relatively quickly, especially if shredded
- Reduces paper towel waste going to landfill
- You turn a waste product into food for your garden
- Difficult to compost if contaminated
- Too many paper towels can make your compost pile too wet
- Shredding large quantities of paper towels can be time consuming
- It can be tricky and messy sorting which paper towels are acceptable for composting and which aren’t
How To Compost Paper Towels Like A Pro
If you have a healthy compost pile in your backyard, follow these simple steps to feed it paper towels:
- Separate out the paper towels that are suitable for composting, and store them in a small compost caddy with other ’brown waste’ such as cardboard.
- Once the small compost caddy is full, rip up or shred the brown waste and add it to your compost pile.
- Mix well with a trowel or garden fork.
- Turn the compost regularly, once every 2-3 days. This ensures the compost stays hot and aerated, and allows the microbes to digest the paper towels.
Can you compost paper towels without a compost pile?
Not got a compost pile in your yard? No worries! Try this simple hack I used at college:
- Gather up all of your used paper towels and place them in a container. I recommend using a kitchen scraps container or a countertop compost bin.
- Add some water to the container, just enough to dampen the paper towels.
- Place the lid on the container and set it in a sunny spot.
- Wait for 2-4 weeks for the paper towels to break down into compost. Once they’ve broken down, you can add them to your garden or house plants as mulch.
And that’s it! By following the simple steps above, you can compost your paper towels and help reduce methane emissions from landfills.
Paper Towel Alternatives
If you don’t like the idea of trees being cut down for your paper towels, you have plenty of alternative options, such as:
- Organic cotton reusable unpaper towels
- An old bath towel cut into squares
- An old cotton shirt for larger jobs
- Swedish Dishcloths
If you decide to go down the reusable route, ensure you wash on an eco setting and use a non-toxic healthy laundry detergent.
Frequently Asked Questions
What About The Paper Towel Tubes/Cores? Are They Eco-Friendly?
Yes. Paper towel rolls are usually made from cardboard and are pretty eco-friendly. Also, because the cores are clean, you can easily recycle them.
Can You Compost Bamboo Paper Towels?
Yes, but make sure they’re 100% bamboo and don’t have any plastic or other non-biodegradable materials (such as synthetic rayon).
How Can White Bleached Paper Towels Be Safe To Compost?
The chlorine dioxide used to whiten paper towels is considered safe. The water company uses it to kill germs in the water supply.
You can usually compost both bleached paper towels and unbleached paper towels. However, always check the packaging or contact the manufacturer if in doubt
What Does Brown Waste Mean?
Brown waste is carbon-rich material that helps balance out the nitrogen from the green waste (grass clippings, etc.) in your compost heap.
Is Bread OK In Compost?
Yes, but it will attract animals, so you might want to tear it up into small pieces and bury it beneath other compost material.
Are Egg Shells Compostable?
Yes, but they take a while to break down, so you might want to crush them first.
Can I Compost Cooked Pasta?
Yes, cooked pasta is fine to compost. However, if you have a lot of it, it’s best to add it in small amounts and bury it deep, so it doesn’t attract animals.
The Final Word
Paper towels are compostable!
However, I don’t feel comfortable recommending that we all mindlessly use a bunch of them daily.
This is one area of our life where the three Rs of waste management come in handy.
We should try to reduce our reliance on paper towels.
Maybe clean a little less. Or just use one square instead of two.
If the paper towel is still clean(ish) and dry(ish), then maybe clean something else before tossing it.
Or, consider using some of the reusable alternatives I mentioned earlier in this article.
Ok. This should say compost. Apologies for the artistic license.
However, the more time we spend sorting compostable paper towels from the rest, the less we end up sending to landfill.
Get In Touch
Are you a heavy user of paper towels? Or have you already converted to reusable alternatives? Drop me a line and let me know.