Recycle Paper Towels

The Dilemma of Recycling Paper Towels

Q: Is it possible to recycle used paper towels? If so, why aren’t there recycling containers for them in public restrooms (like at airports or business offices)? If there is some barrier to recycling them, what would it take to overcome it—be it a process to make them recyclable, or a viable system to collect and recycle them?

Asked by Andy Grubb, ’05, Oceanside, Calif.

The Ubiquitous Disposable Paper Towels

Imagine a life without paper towels, even if it isn’t that difficult to do. These disposable paper cloths can be found everywhere. We use them in public restrooms to minimize the spread of germs, and at home for various cleaning tasks. However, it seems wasteful to discard them after just one use. Each sheet of paper towel weighs merely two or three grams. If we assume that every person in the United States uses five sheets of paper towel per day, we are generating over 6 million pounds of paper waste daily. This amount of waste would occupy landfill space comparable to two large swimming pools in the Water Cube at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. Additionally, in oxygen-depleted landfill conditions, paper towels decompose and produce methane, a greenhouse gas that is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

The Recycling Conundrum

Unfortunately, paper towels cannot be recycled in the same way as other paper products because the fibers are typically too short for further use. Nowadays, paper towels are commonly made from recycled paper, and with each reuse, the paper fibers become shorter. Papermaking fibers can usually be recycled five to seven times before becoming too short to be reused. Paper towels and napkins are usually the final stage in the recycling process. Furthermore, only clean recovered paper, free from contaminants such as food and trash, can be recycled. Paper towels, however, exist to clean up messes. There is also a concern that the germs, food, and mold on these disposable products would contaminate clean paper in recycling bins, which is also the reason pizza boxes (which have long fibers) are not accepted as paper waste.

Sustainable Alternatives

Despite the limitations of recycling, there are still better alternatives to sending paper towels to the landfill. The very characteristics that make paper towels challenging to recycle make them ideal for composting—a process that eliminates germs and transforms the short fibers and spills into affordable, high-quality mulch for gardens. Moreover, the controlled composting process ensures that the greenhouse gas produced is primarily carbon dioxide, rather than the more potent methane.

Large-scale composting facilities are becoming increasingly prevalent in the United States. However, it is safe to assume that a majority of paper towels still find their way to landfills. While you can add some unbleached paper towels to your home compost pile, for larger quantities, it is better to rely on municipal or commercial composting operations. can help you locate facilities in your area. Certain waste-disposal companies accept paper towels as part of yard waste. Other options include using low-energy air dryers in public restrooms or embracing reusable rags or cloths at home. But are these alternatives truly better for the environment? We have the answer for air dryers this month; however, the question of rags is another matter—why not ask it?

Jingshi Wu is a PhD candidate in the department of geological and environmental sciences.

Paper Towels

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