Life gets messy, and we all have to (literally and figuratively) clean up nasty spills sometimes. What do you reach for when you knock over your iced coffee or your kid drops their PB&J on the floor? In recent years, reusable dish towels have come into the spotlight as a “sustainable” alternative to disposable paper towels. But how much of a difference are you really making by swapping out your towels? Turns out, answering this question is more complicated than it appears, and involves assessing the carbon footprint of dozens of different scenarios. Talia Rubnitz, our intern from Yale’s School of the Environment, took on a month-long research project with the goal of quantifying the life cycle impacts of paper towels and reusable dish towels. What we learned through her extensive research is that the answer comes down to how you use each of these products. Are you using virgin or recycled paper towels? Are you washing each dish towel after one use, or after ten uses? Are you washing one dish towel at a time, or only washing them with full loads of laundry? Ultimately, you can use both products in environmentally efficient ways, or in not-so-efficient ways.
I’m sure we can all agree that paper towels are the path of least resistance when it comes to cleaning up spills. The fact that you can throw them away immediately after use is super appealing, especially if you don’t want to deal with a secondary cleanup, aka laundering your dish towels. But what environmental impact does this out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach have? As it turns out, it totally depends on the components of the paper towels that you are using. We went deep on paper towels in a previous post and encourage you to check it out for more info on the subject.
For the purposes of this comparison, all we need to know is that the paper towels are primarily made out of paper pulp, which comes from two main sources. The first is virgin paper pulp, which comes from the Canadian boreal where industrial logging for America’s tissue industry currently claims one million acres of forest every year. Yup, virgin paper pulp is pretty much evil, and we try to avoid it whenever possible. The second source is recycled paper pulp, which comes from sources like obsolete paper stock, unused paper products, or better yet, used paper that has been recycled and given a second life. How different are these two sources? Virgin paper towels have almost double the carbon footprint of 100% recycled paper towels (Want the actual numbers? It’s a ratio of 52 grams of CO2e per use to about 31 grams of CO2e per use. In case you were wondering, that little ‘e’ after CO2 means the metric is accounting for not just carbon dioxide, but also other GHG emissions like methane and nitrous oxide that are potent contributors to climate change.)
As you can see, the impact of your paper towel use can vary by 40% based on whether you are using virgin or recycled paper towels. For this reason, it’s a no brainer to go recycled if you’re an avid paper towel user. Check out our Wise Guide to see the best of the best.
With dish towels, your impact isn’t so binary. The emissions associated with the use of a dish towel can vary from as low as 1.14 grams of CO2e per use to as high as about 242 grams of CO2e per use. If you’re wondering how that’s possible, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s break it down.
Unlike paper towels, the key areas of impact for dish towels don’t stop at the materials used to make it. In fact, when it comes to dish towels, the complications really start at the use phase. To simplify a complex conversation that otherwise really can’t be simplified, let’s assume that we are only using 100% cotton dish towels. Under this assumption, the impact of your seeming simple dish towel can vary based on the type of detergent you use, the number of uses per laundry cycle, the number of items washed per laundry cycle, and the type of washer and dryer used to launder the dish towels. Of that list, the biggest variations come from the number of times between washes and the number of items per wash.
Bigger Bundles are Better
Did you know that when you wash 12 dish towels per load (which is roughly about half a load of laundry) instead of one dish towel per load, the carbon footprint per load decreases by about 92%? Holy guacamole stain! When you increase the load size to 24 dish towels (a full load of laundry) from 12 dish towels, we drop another 50% or so. Pretty awesome, huh? On the flip side, when you decrease the number of dish towels in a load of laundry from 24 towels (full load) to 1 towel, the increase in the carbon footprint is a whopping 2274%.
Get Dirtier Between Washes
The impact can also vary significantly based on how many times you use a dish towel before you throw it in the laundry. Using a towel ten times instead of only six times before washing it decreases the associated carbon dioxide emitted per use by about 40%.
Alas, this is one of the main reasons why no towel can actually claim that it’s “sustainable”…because it always depends how you use your towels. That said, we love when we can use science and data to back up our habits and prove that our efforts are lessening our carbon footprints and contributing to positive change.
Energy-Efficient Machines Make a Difference
How about the type of washer and dryer you have? I mean, that creaky old machine in the basement of your NYC walk-up can’t be as efficient as the brand-spanking-new machine that your friend in the suburbs just bought, right? Let’s look at four scenarios to decide what’s best and what’s worst: Best Machinery with Best Practices, Best Machinery with Worst Practices, Worst Machinery with Best Practices, and Worst Machinery with Worst Practices.
(Nerd Alert: This part is super science-y, but really important for clarity.) For our purposes, the “Best Machinery'' is the most energy-efficient - a Frigidaire FWFX21D4EW washer, which uses only .203 kWh of energy per load, and a Bosch - WTW87NH1UC dryer, which uses only .4416 kWh of energy per load. The “Worst Machinery” is the most energy intensive - a Maytag - MVWB965H washer, which requires 1.05 kWh per load, and a Samsung - DVG50R85 dryer, which requires 2.427 kWh per load. The “Best Practices” in this case are most uses per wash (10 uses) and most towels per load (24 towels), washed with the least carbon-intensive detergent (liquid at 112.9 CO2e per load). Conversely, the “Worst Practices” are fewest uses per wash (6 uses) and fewest towels per load (1 towel), with most carbon-intensive detergent (pods sold in a PET plastic jug at 418.7 CO2e per load). Ok, phew. We made it.
Here’s how these four scenarios stack up:
As you can see, we find the best of the best scenario when we combine the Best Machinery with the Best Practices and end up in the worst-case scenario when we combine the Worst Machinery with the Worst Practices. Well that’s a real brain buster…that was the expected outcome, right? When you combine best with best, you’re going to get the best, duh. But what we found shocking was the incredible discrepancy in carbon emissions. The worst-case scenario is 211 times worse than the best-case scenario from a GHG emissions perspective. That’s a significant difference.
The fun doesn’t stop there: we also found the middle-of-the-road scenarios to be super interesting. It’s fascinating to learn that even if you have the least efficient washer and dryer, you’re still better off using dish towels as long as you’re following the Best Practices. And if you are following the Worst Practices, you’re actually better off using 100% recycled paper towels. Even 100% virgin paper towels are a massive improvement over using the Worst Practices with the Worst Machinery.
Any way you cut it, the use phase clearly has a significant impact on the emissions associated with your dish towels. So, unless you’re going to use dish towels responsibly, you may consider sticking to your regular old 100% recycled paper towels.
TL;DR: HERE ARE YOUR CLEAN-UP OPTIONS FROM BEST TO WORST:
- Best Practices and Best Machinery: 1.145 grams of CO2e per use
- Best Practices and Worst Machinery: 6.069 grams of CO2e per use
- 100% recycled paper towels: 31.297 grams of CO2e per use
- Worst Practices and Best Machinery: 44.92 grams of CO2e per use
- 100% virgin paper towels: 52.163 grams of CO2e per use
- Worst Practices and Worst Machinery: 241.92 grams of CO2e per use
At the end of the day, there’s no clear winner in a battle for lowest emitter between single-use paper towels and reusable dish towels. No matter what kind of washer and dryer you have, try and use your dish towels as many times as possible before throwing them in the wash, and when you do throw them in the wash, be sure that load is full. You’re not doing anyone any favors by only using your dish towels a few times and washing them solo. If that’s your MO, you might want to consider sticking with paper towels instead. Who knew cleaning up spills could be so numerically complicated?!
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In addition to our internal analysis, we reviewed the following sources to back up our findings. Check them out or shoot us a note if you want to learn more about our process.
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