Hey! Now that we’ve gotten your attention with our greenwash-y, SEO-friendly title (thanks, Google), you should know that while there’s no such thing as an “eco-friendly” paper towels, here’s what to be wise on when you’re shopping so you can pick the best option for you, the planet, and the people making your stuff.
Paper towels have come to be seen as an everyday necessity in America. In fact, the U.S. spends about $5.7 billion dollars a year on paper towels -- that’s nearly as much as every other country combined. But why are paper towels a “necessity”? Americans are essentially paying for convenience. Would our behavior change if we all understood the environmental consequences of this convenience? According to the EPA, Americans generated 7.4 billion pounds of tissue waste in 2015, made up of products such as paper towels, tissues, and toilet paper.
Paper towels are biodegradable, meaning that when disposed of correctly (such as in a composting system), they are broken down by microorganisms and leave behind matter that can be safely reintegrated into the soil. However, when biodegradable products make their way into landfills, the lack of oxygen in landfill environments causes these products to produce methane, a greenhouse gas 28-80 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
To combat this waste and methane production, we recommend giving some of your old towels or t-shirts a second life by cutting them up into reusable dish rags. But we’re humans that make messes and sometimes you just need the ease of a paper towel to clean up that nasty spill. Below, we’ll tell you everything you need to know before you stock up.
Paper pulp is the main component in paper towels and can come from various sources: virgin wood, post-consumer recycled content, pre-consumer recycled content, bamboo, or wheat straw.
Virgin Paper Pulp
Virgin pulp is the most popular, but most damaging pulp component. America’s favored virgin pulp comes from the Canadian boreal, where industrial logging for America’s tissue industry currently claims one million acres of forest every year. This practice harms the lives of the Indigenous Peoples in the area and kills off local animals, including caribou. On top of these injustices, industrial logging releases carbon that had previously been stored in the forest’s soil and reduces the number of trees that can absorb earth-warming greenhouse gases. The NRDC reports that making tissue products from 100% virgin fiber generates three times more CO2e than tissue products made from other types of pulp. With these facts in mind, it’s shocking that the three biggest brands in tissue (Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, and Georgia-Pacific) rely primarily on virgin pulp. Clearly, it’s time to change the status quo.
Recycled Paper Pulp
Don’t worry, it’s not all bad news! Recycled paper pulp is an increasingly popular alternative to virgin pulp and is used by brand names like Seventh Generation and Marcal. Recycled pulp minimizes damage to forests and requires only half the water of virgin pulp products. The chemicals needed to whiten recycled paper pulp are also much less toxic than those used to whiten virgin paper pulp. There are two sources of recycled paper pulp: pre-consumer or post-consumer waste. Pre-consumer pulp comes from sources like obsolete paper stock or unused paper products, while post-consumer pulp comes from used paper that has been recycled to give it a second life. Both types of pulp are a massive improvement on virgin fiber in terms of protecting forests, but post-consumer pulp does way more to reduce overall waste. The EPA recommends buying paper towels that contain at least 40-60% post-consumer recycled pulp, but don’t be afraid to go above and beyond; more post-consumer recycled pulp = less waste.
Bamboo has become a popular pulp alternative that is now used by dozens of smaller tissue brands like Grove Collaborative, Who Gives A Crap, and Caboo. Bamboo can grow 20 times faster than trees in the boreal and its cultivation is gentler on the land than the clearing required to harvest virgin wood pulp. According to the NRDC, tissue products made from bamboo pulp release 30% fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared to tissue made from virgin pulp. If you shop for bamboo products, it’s important to look for the FSC certification to ensure sustainable sourcing and transparency in the supply chain.
Wheat straw, a type of “agricultural residue” that is usually burned or landfilled to clear the way for new crops, is the most recent pulp alternative being used in the American tissue industry. Because wheat straw is a natural byproduct of wheat farming, it offers farmers an opportunity to generate additional revenue from a material that was formerly considered waste. Wheat straw is not yet widely utilized in the tissue industry and more research has to be done to understand the implications of using it at scale, but we’re excited to see companies get creative with this pulp in the coming years.
Various chemicals are used when making paper towels out of paper pulp. Below are a few that we recommend avoiding:
- Chlorine bleach, used to whiten most conventional paper towels, contains harmful environmental pollutants called dioxins. These dioxins are emitted during manufacturing, poisoning waterways and animals, and sometimes making their way into our bodies through food. At high levels of exposure, dioxins can cause hormone and immune imbalances, allergies, and even cancer.
- Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong-smelling chemical found in an array of products, including those made with wood and paper. Products made with formaldehyde can release the chemical in gas form which, when inhaled, is known to cause skin, eye, nose, and throat irritation.
We’re thrilled to see more companies hopping on the chlorine-free-bleaching bandwagon, and we’re hoping this will become the norm in a few years' time. Make sure you look for the PCF (processed chlorine free) label on recycled products, and the TCF (totally chlorine free) label on virgin products to ensure you’re supporting this change and staying away from nasty dioxins.
If you compost at home, throw your unbleached paper towels in there! As long as they’re not covered with grease or cleaning chemicals, they’re good to go in. Some people do choose to compost their bleached paper towels, but others avoid doing so, as there is a possibility of contaminating your compost bin with low levels of dioxins. If you don’t have a home compost system, check out findacomposter.com to see if there’s a local composting option near you; they may take paper towels as part of yard waste collection.
Designate paper towels to be used only on “special occasions”, like for those nasty spills that you never want to think about again. For most purposes, paper towels can be easily swapped out for dish rags or kitchen towels.
Let’s be honest… if we can wear the same sweatpants for a week straight without throwing them in the wash, can’t we use the same hand towel for at least that long? Why are we so accustomed to using a disposable item to dry our CLEAN hands?! We recommend switching to kitchen towels for drying clean dishes and hands at the very least. Once your kitchen towels need a wash, throw them in the laundry with your bath towels to feed two birds with one scone.
If we all cut back on paper towel use a little, we could make a big dent in the roughly 7.4 billion pounds of tissue waste heading to the landfill every year. Here’s to giving it a go!