Are Paper Towels Recyclable?

Recycling paper towels may seem like a no-brainer, but they cannot be treated the same way as regular paper. This article will delve into the reasons why paper towels should not be included in your recycling, offer alternative options to paper towels, and provide suggestions on how to handle used paper towels.

The Environmental Impact of Paper Towels

Paper mill Machine

In short, the production of paper towels poses a significant threat to the environment. Paper products, including paper towels, are one of the leading sources of industrial pollution in North America, ranking third. Furthermore, the paper industry is the fifth-largest consumer of energy worldwide.

According to the Word Green Organization in Hong Kong, the production of just one ton of paper towels requires the cutting down of 17 trees and results in the pollution of 20,000 gallons of water. To put this into perspective, the EPA estimates that in 2018 alone, the US generated approximately 3,790 thousand tons of soft paper product waste, such as tissue paper and paper towels. Unfortunately, the majority of this waste ends up in landfills.

Biodegradability of Paper Towels

Cleaning of closed vinyl plastic window. Protective yellow gloves on hands and cleaning cloth with sprinkle

Yes, paper towels are biodegradable because they are made from natural wood pulp. However, this biodegradation process is hindered when paper towel waste is sealed in non-biodegradable plastic bags within landfills. The conditions required for paper towels to break down and biodegrade back into the soil are not accessible inside a garbage bag.

Why Paper Towels Should Not Be Recycled

The primary reason paper towels are not accepted in recycling programs is that they become soiled after being used to clean up messes. This makes them potential contaminants for other clean recyclable materials. It is crucial to avoid recycling used paper towels in your general recycling bin.

Another reason paper towels are not recyclable is that they are made from small fibers that are not suitable for the recycling process. Additionally, the production of paper towels involves the use of resins and adhesives that are not conducive to recycling. Therefore, even clean paper towels should not be placed in your regular recycling.

Alternatives to Paper Towels

Napkins made from recycled paper

Using washable towels, such as regular dish towels and rags, is a simple alternative to disposable paper towels. The ability to wash fabric towels repeatedly makes them the most suitable option.

There are also numerous eco-friendly alternatives available, such as Swedish dishcloths. One of these cloths can replace approximately 17 rolls of paper towels. They are also biodegradable and much more cost-effective than repeatedly purchasing paper towels.

Many other paper towel alternatives on the market boast effectiveness and eco-friendly attributes. Opting for reusable options instead of single-use paper towels is a sustainable choice.

Consider Recycled Paper Towels

Trash bin for composting with leftover from kitchen on blue background. Top view. Recycling scraps.

While there may be occasions where paper towels are necessary, it is advisable to choose recycled paper towels instead. Several companies now offer paper towels made from recycled materials. The packaging will indicate whether recycled materials were used.

Although these recycled paper towels are still considered single-use items, their production consumes less energy and water since they utilize recycled materials rather than extracting new resources. Purchasing products made from recycled materials contributes to a lower overall carbon emission rate compared to using products made from virgin materials.

Recycling Paper Towels Properly

If your municipality has an organics program, it likely accepts used paper towels that are free from grease, oil, or cleaning solutions. Although you should not include used paper towels in your regular recycling bin, recycling them in the organics bin is a viable alternative. Since the fibers in paper towels are broken down into small particles and originate from natural wood fibers, they can be safely disposed of in organics.

Composting Paper Towels

Flat lay with paper towel tube on blue background.

Yes, paper towels can be composted. If an organics program is not available in your area, you can compost them in your own compost pile. However, be cautious not to include paper towels with grease, oil, fats, or chemicals in your compost. These substances do not decompose properly in all-natural compost. It is also preferable to use paper towels made from recycled materials.

Alternative Composting Method

Composting is an excellent way to recycle paper towels by incorporating them into your organic waste and diverting them from landfills. However, not everyone may have the means to start their own compost. In such cases, you can tear up the paper towels into small pieces and scatter them in your garden soil. Mixed into the dirt, they will decompose naturally.

Don’t Forget the Cardboard Tube

Trash bin for composting with leftover from kitchen on blue background. Top view. Recycling scarps concept. Sustainable and zero waste lifestyle.

The cardboard tube inside your paper towels is a completely different material and is 100% recyclable. Remember to dispose of it in your regular recycling bin.


Recycling paper towels can lead to contamination in the recycling process. If you have any questions about how your local recycling program handles paper towels, please refer to the ‘What Goes Where’ search tool in the Quill And Fox mobile app created by Recycle Coach. If you have any additional ideas on how to repurpose soiled paper towels and reduce waste, feel free to share them with us below.