Paper Towel Effect

In the United States, paper towels can be found in nearly every home, office, and business. And it’s not just here in the U.S., these disposable towels are a big business all over the world, with over $12 billion paper towels sold annually. [1] While paper towels are useful and convenient, have you ever stopped to think about their environmental impact? While paper towels generally have a small carbon footprint—about 0.06 lbs of carbon dioxide each—collectively they are contributing to deforestation, global warming, and an ever-increasing waste problem. [2] Below, we will explore the real impact of paper towels, and what you can do to help reduce the bad and increase more eco-friendly alternatives.

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Paper Towels?

Paper towels are made in a similar way to other popular paper products like cardboard, writing paper, and tissues. Each of these products is molded from a pulp that contains a mixture of small pieces of wood and water. The pulp industry accounts for about 0.5% of total CO2 emissions in the U.S. [3] According to one study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), using two standard cotton paper towels from a roll to dry your hands will have a carbon footprint of just over 15 grams of CO2. On a nationwide scale, those few grams can begin to add up with Americans using around 13 billion pounds of towels annually—that’s equivalent to throwing out 270 million trees every year! [4]

What Environmental Problems Can Arise From Paper Towel Use?

The production of paper towels can hurt the environment. Producing paper towels requires things like trees, chemicals, fuel, water, and electricity—contributing to millions of metric tons of CO2 annually. [5] While manufacturing causes many issues like pollution and the reduction of natural resources like trees and water, the disposal of these towels is also an issue. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), paper and cardboard waste—of which paper towels are a contributing factor—make up the largest percentage of waste materials in the U.S. [6]

How to Reduce the Carbon Footprint of Paper Towel Usage?

While it is clear that paper towels are not the best for those wanting to live with less waste, the good news is that paper towels are, for the most part, entirely optional. There are many viable alternatives to traditional paper towels that will still help you wipe, dry, and clean without all the negative impacts on the environment.

Alternative Sources

Americans are responsible for nearly half of the world’s paper towel usage, spending over 5 billion annually. [7] For those millions of people, there are more sustainable and less expensive, alternatives, including:

  • Beeswax Food Wraps
  • Chambray Napkins
  • Cotton Kitchen Cloths
  • Huck Towels
  • Linen Or Cotton Bowl Covers
  • Linen Bread Bags
  • Linen Cocktail Napkins
  • Sponges

Microfiber Cloths

One of the most popular applications for paper towels is to keep on hand for kitchen spills and messes. Microfiber cloths can be an excellent alternative to cleaning up your kitchen. That’s because their tiny fibers help increase absorbency, and in many instances, clean even better than paper towels. Best of all, these eco-friendly alternatives are also fairly inexpensive, with a pack of 25 costing around $10.

Cotton Napkins

Cloth or cotton napkins are another excellent alternative to paper towels, and like microfiber cloths, they are great at picking up spills. They can also help replace paper napkins at your dinner table, and a high-quality napkin will last you for years to come. These napkins are inexpensive, too, with a pack of five usually costing less than $2.

Eco-Friendly Paper Towels

If these paper alternatives don’t work for your situation, then there are still more eco-friendly paper towels, including those that are made from 100% recycled materials. These types of paper towels don’t contribute to growing deforestation problems and often forgo dyes, fragrances, and inks that can also contribute to pollution. The EPA also notes that the production of recycled paper towels requires about 40% less energy to produce, potentially cutting greenhouse gas emissions by almost half. [8]

Hand Dryers vs. Paper Towels

While there are many easily adaptable alternatives to paper towels for your home, there are fewer options for public restrooms in schools, businesses, and offices. One popular replacement over the last several years has been air dryers for your hands. While a lot of research has been done to determine whether or not these electric dryers are any better for the environment compared to paper towels, the answer is, it depends. Many factors go into the calculations, including the type of dryer or towel, how they were manufactured, and the kind of energy used to power the dryers themselves. MIT conducted one of the most comprehensive studies on the best ways to dry your hands when it comes to the environment. They concluded that paper towels and older warm air dryers were the worst. Compared to newer dryer innovations such as the Dyson Airblade, paper towels, and warm air dryers produce up to 70% more carbon emissions. [9]

How to Offset Your Carbon Footprint of Paper Towels?

As you make the switch from paper towels to greener alternatives, you will be helping reduce your carbon footprint. But, for those times that paper products are simply unavoidable, you can still bring your collective footprint down to zero with a personal carbon offset subscription from Terrapass. These monthly plans will help you calculate your annual carbon footprint for everyday activities, including drying your hands with the occasional paper towel. To get started, calculate your carbon footprint today with our carbon footprint calculator. It’s 100% free to use and only takes a few minutes, but it can go a long way to helping our planet be a safer, cleaner place to live.

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  1. Pinsker, Joe. “Americans Are Weirdly Obsessed With Paper Towels.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 10 Dec. 2018,
  2. “Our Carbon Footprint: How Do Paper Products Fit in?” Two Sides North America, 21 Mar. 2018,
  3. “Myth: Paper Production Is a Major Cause of Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” Two Sides North America,
  4. Erica. “Dirty Little Secret.” QSR Magazine, 22 Sept. 2013,
  5. “Myth: Paper Production Is a Major Cause of Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” Two Sides North America,
  6. “National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 3 Dec. 2019,
  7. “America’s Paper Towel Obsession, Explained.” Mental Floss, 2 Jan. 2019, “”8. Koerner, Brendan. “Are Electric Hand Dryers Better for the Environment than Paper Towels?” Slate Magazine, Slate, 17 June 2008,