We all know that the convenience of paper towels is just unmatched – quickly sopping up spills with no added clean-up. We’ve also likely all heard that we’re “supposed to” switch out these ditchable ones for something reusable to be more sustainable. Well, should we? Are reusable paper towels really better for the planet than disposable paper towels? The answer may not be as straightforward as you think. Like all products, there is more below the bleached-white surface…especially when it comes to sustainability.
First… what is a reusable paper towel?
You may be wondering, “What makes a reusable paper towel different from, say, a rag? Are we just talking about rags?” Excellent question! While some reusable paper towels are wolves in sheep’s clothing – i.e. a dish towel that brings with it all of the impacts of the textile industry – some others are made with paper-like fibers (yes, even the ones that claim to be “paperless”). Let’s take a look at the options out there for a quick spill fix. Heads up – we’re sopping up some tradeoffs, here.
Wait! Why are conventional paper towels “bad”?
It’s not that they’re bad per se, but they do have some pretty significant impacts on the environment. The carbon footprint of paper towels is relatively small compared to other household goods, but since soiled paper towels are unrecyclable and often end up in landfills, it’s important to consider alternatives when possible. In the U.S., 2% of total landfills are made up of paper towels. Many paper towel brands also bleach the goods to give them that bright white sheen. Bleaching uses potentially harmful chlorine in the process, which produces several by-products like dioxins and furans, which can lead to cancer and hormonal changes.
All in all, there are some “better” conventional paper towels out there. Look for unbleached, 50% recycled content paper towels. Go unbleached or look for either processed chlorine-free or totally chlorine-free materials. Paper towels made from virgin wood pulp (AKA a product of new trees) can support deforestation – no thanks! And, for a formaldehyde-free product, look for no added dyes or fragrances.
Reusable v. Disposable. Who wins?
Let’s look at some of the most common qualities of reusable paper towels, and see how they chalk up against conventional paper towel qualities. For this comparison, we’re only going to be evaluating the qualities of reusable “paper” towels, and not those that are made of textiles. Because, c’mon, those are really just rags.
Cellulose vs. Wood Pulp
Sike… these materials are pretty much the same thing. Many reusable paper towel brands tout the use of “paperless” cellulose as a more “sustainable” alternative to the paper-based materials in conventional paper towels. First off, cellulose is a plant-based material that is the main ingredient in many papers and cardboards. And, more importantly, wood pulp is one of the most common ingredients used to create cellulose-based materials.
It is expected that we will have more than 460 million metric tons of paper and paper-based materials on the planet by 2030. That’s a whole lot of paper. Now, you may have heard that “wood is a renewable resource!” While this is true, the industrialized paper-making industry currently outpaces the rate at which forests renew and has a lot of other environmental impacts that are associated with paper production. Wood-derived paper (including cellulose fiber-based paper) is energy and water intensive, produces significant amounts of effluents (liquid and chemical pollution of waterways), and contributes to deforestation if not properly managed.
Why does this matter? Well, it’s a common greenwashing technique to rebrand existing products as more “environmentally friendly”, even when they’re almost identical to an existing product that we know has some negative impacts on the environment. This isn’t to say that there aren’t other forms of cellulose that have less negative impacts on the environment – say, pollen-based cellulose – but from our review of existing products, we couldn’t find any pollen-based reusable paper towels. A bummer, we know.
Bamboo vs. Wood Pulp
Bamboo is a common material used in reusable paper towels as an alternative to wood pulp. It’s important to note that the use of bamboo – in paper products and as a construction material – is nothing new. Bamboo has an extensive history in Asia and South America, and it’s about time we stop colonizing the use of bamboo here! No surprise since bamboo can have some awesome social benefits. Tons of studies have investigated the economic impact that bamboo production has had on household incomes, and the results show that increased bamboo production can reduce poverty. Bamboo is also a rapidly growing plant. When compared with hardwood production, bamboo can have yields that are seven to ten times higher than those of hardwood.
However, when we consider the extensive impacts of bamboo cultivation in comparison to periodic harvesting in natural forests (a more sustainable alternative to create wood pulp than industrialized deforestation), bamboo is not scientifically proven to be environmentally preferable. While the above remains true, bamboo can also be considered an invasive plant, is water intensive, can require significant fertilizer application, can have impacts on biodiversity, and can result in forest clearing (i.e. deforestation). So, don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that ALL bamboo is more sustainable simply because it is bamboo. How…bamboo-zling.
If so many of the materials in paper towels and reusable paper towels are the same, why can’t I reuse normal paper towels?
The secret ingredient? Many reusable paper towels mix cellulose or bamboo with cotton. You heard us, cotton. Cotton is the most widely used natural fiber on the planet – it really is The Fabric of Our Lives®. Unfortunately, conventional cotton is a water-intensive crop that takes a significant toll on the soil and is associated with deforestation. Cotton is also particularly vulnerable to pests and other insects, which has led to a flourishing agrochemical industry around its cultivation. Almost 10% of all agricultural chemicals and 25% of all insecticides are used in the cotton industry. Ugh.
So…in the battle of reusable paper towel vs. conventional paper towel vs. dish towel, who wins?
When it comes down to reusable paper towels and conventional paper towels, it’s hard to determine if the reusable paper towels always win. This is because the industry isn’t so cut and dry. Some paper towels are made with recycled materials and are unbleached… and this may change how they chalk up against those reusable ones, which may be made of similar or the same materials as some recycled-material paper towels. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any credible (aka peer-reviewed) studies that compare reusable paper towels, conventional paper towels, and dish towels with the appropriate levels of nuance for each product. However, we did some digging on the impact between conventional paper towels and dish towels, and the answer comes down to how each of these products is used. That’s right…whether a product is more sustainable depends on what it’s made of and how it’s used.
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Are you using disposable paper towels made of virgin or recycled materials?
- 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.
Here are some pointers to help you feel confident that you’re using your spill-cleaning tools in the most sustainable way:
- 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.
- When you do throw reusable paper towels in the wash, be sure that the 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 disposable paper towels instead. (For the full dish behind this analysis, check out this blog.)
- When ditching paper towels, remember to dispose of them properly. If they’re unbleached, toss those bad boys in the compost! If they’re bleached, direct them to the trash. And, always remember, unused paper towels (bleached or unbleached!) cannot be recycled because the fibers they contain are too short to be made into new paper. Used paper towels also cannot be recycled because they can't be cleaned (for more on this check out our How to Recycle blog.)
At the end of the day, there’s no clear winner in a battle for the lowest impact between single-use paper towels and reusable paper towels. Textile-based cloths have a significantly higher impact (associated with the inclusion of cotton!) than their disposable unbleached paper friends. A fully, 100% cotton rag has over four times the impact of unbleached paper towels. But, if you keep that bad boy in use for a long, long time they might be worth it. All in all, you’re A-OK using unbleached disposable paper towels – especially if you’re not using a wad for a small spill! For a compilation of our favorite paper towels, check out our Top Products list – warning: this list may not include reusable paper towels…yet.