Are Paper Towels Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

Are Paper Towels Sustainable? Here Are the Facts

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Every great invention has its flaws. Whether you’re drying your hands or cleaning up a spill, paper towels can always do the job. Paper towels are great for a quick fix, but they may not benefit the environment in the long haul. So we had to ask: Are paper towels sustainable?

On the whole, paper towels are not sustainable. Paper towels’ production causes deforestation, chemical pollution in freshwaters, and fill up our landfill. And then, they are made for single-usage and disposal. Some better sustainable alternatives are reusable cloth towels and modern air dryers.

You’d be surprised at how much goes into making your perfect batch of paper towels. Unfortunately, almost every stage of a paper towel’s life-cycle is unsustainable in one way or another. Keep reading to learn more about the life-cycle of paper towels. Including better and sustainable alternatives you can use instead!

Here’s How Sustainable Paper Towels Are 

To understand the sustainability of paper towels, we must assess their life-cycle and each stage’s sustainability. The life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of products. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. 

The four stages of the life cycle of the paper towel that we will be looking at are:

  1. Sourcing the materials
  2. Manufacturing from pulp to paper towels
  3. Usage
  4. End-of-life

Across all these stages, paper towels are unsustainable. They have a tremendous negative impact on the environment that we have largely ignored for far too long.

But, it’s never too late to start learning about the sustainability of paper towels. We will now look at each stage in detail to understand the life-cycle of paper towels.

How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Materials For Paper Towels

Like paper, most paper towels are made from ‘virgin’ wood pulps, recycled materials, or a combination of both. Virgin pulps are made from softwood trees as they contain longer fibers which make the paper stronger. The bark from these trees is chemically or mechanically broken down into smaller pieces to form a pulp. The pulp is cleaned with chlorine bleach and is ready to be rolled into white paper towels. 

Speaking about the virgin wood pulps: Did you know that the virgin wood pulp industry in Canada accounted for 23% of its forest product exports? In the past 20 years, Canada lost 28 million acres of forests to the wood pulp industry. Many wildlife and ecosystems vanished and were destroyed by deforestation. The chemicals used to treat the pulp also consume and pollute the surrounding waters and habitats. 

All things considered, recycled paper towels could seem like a more sustainable option for the environment. It recycles post-consumer materials and does not require cutting down trees – logging. LetsGoGreen states that for every single roll of recycled paper towel used, 544,000 trees are saved – that’s a lot of trees! Often, these green companies also stay away from harmful chemicals when producing recycling paper towels. You will find these products by looking for brown paper towels with Totally Chlorine Free (TCF) labels. 

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing From Pulp to Paper Towels

The virgin or recycled pulp is fed into a paper-making machine. It is heated, dried, and rolled out to form paper sheets. The sheets are embossed and bonded together with water-based adhesive to create your one-, two- or three-ply variations of paper towels. Finally, the rolls are cut out to the desired shapes, packaged in plastic, and sent out for distribution. 

The paper and pulp industry are the fourth largest contributor to the emission of greenhouse gases. In fact, the industry consumes a whopping 4% of the world’s energy! Producing one ton of paper towels uses and pollutes 20,000 gallons of fresh =water. Imagine how much water we could save by choosing not to use paper towels? 

Unfortunately, recycled paper towels may not be the most sustainable option, after all. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology reports that the environmental impact of producing recycled paper towels is almost equal to virgin pulp paper towels. In terms of CO2 emissions and water consumption, recycled paper towels are not any better or sustainable for the environment. 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Paper Towels

The paper towel is a common household item and is an ever-growing global industry. In 2020, 321.87 million people used paper towels in America. Over 13 billion pounds of paper towels are used per year in America alone. Ocean conservancy suggests counting the number of times you reach out for a paper towel in the next few days. You will be surprised at how many you use every single day.

Then, after one wipe, paper towels cannot be used again. They are mostly single-use. And, as you’ve already known, this habit is not sustainable at all. How many trees or gallons of water are we going to keep using to keep our hands dry and clean? This ‘use and abuse’ of paper towels harms our environment at the cost of our convenience.

How Sustainable Is the End-Life of Paper Towels

Today, almost all used paper towels end up as waste in a landfill. 254 million tons of used paper towels are collected globally every year! It is also reported that paper towels count for 20 to 40% of waste from offices and dorms alone. Unlike paper and cardboard, paper towels are strongly advised to not be recycled. Once used, paper towels are soiled with dirt, oils, and other solvents. They harbor bacteria and contaminate the ‘clean’ paper products.

You might find separate bins for disposing of paper towels in toilets. And wonder, why? These paper towels are often used for composting. In Ontario, for example, paper towels are spread across landfills to strengthen the soil and prevent erosion. You too can compost paper towels in your home. But, only if they are unbleached and not greasy. The composting process ensures that primarily carbon dioxide is produced and not methane (as emitted in incineration plants). 

At this stage, recycled paper towels would be easier to compost than virgin paper towels as they are less likely to be bleached. That said, recycled paper towels or paper products are harder to recycle. The paper fibers are too short to be used again as pulp. Your best bet will be trying to keep them clean and compost them when possible. Better yet, reduce the usage of paper towels altogether!

Are Recycled Paper Towels More Sustainable Than Virgin (Unrecycled) Paper Towels?

Using recycled paper towels may seem like a more sustainable option to save a few trees and prevent chemical pollution. Recycled paper towels give post-consumer materials a second-life, and most are Totally Chlorine Free (TCF) too. You may also see products with Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification. This ensures that companies source recycled materials from sustainable and controlled forests. 

Choosing recycled paper towels is a significant first step to sustainability. But, studies show that recycled paper towels’ overall environmental impact is still substantial and almost equal to virgin paper towels. If you had to choose a recycled paper towel, your best sustainable option would be going for one that is unbleached, TCF, and FSC certified – basically, anything brown. 

More Sustainable Alternatives to Paper Towels

Small But Mighty Cloth Towels

Cloth towels are reusable and will last for as long as possible – if you look after them. The impacts of manufacturing and transportation of cloth towels may be similar to paper towels. However, the reusability aspect trumps the single-use trait of paper towels.

Even better sustainable options are biodegradable cloth towels, usually made from bamboo. If possible, choose a cloth that does not contain added pigments or dyes – they too contribute to pollution. Recycled rags or old clothes also make great alternatives to cloth towels. Lastly, save energy and reduce microplastic production by washing your cloth towels with cold water and air drying.

Cold Air Dryers: The Future

Today, almost every public toilet has a hand air dryer. Air dryers are better at drying our hands and do not produce any waste in landfills. Some may argue that air dryers consume way more energy, and are not entirely sustainable, particularly for warm air dryers. Scientists have found that warm air dryers are just as bad as paper towels in carbon emissions

Cold air dryers like Dyson’s Airblade are super-efficient, taking up to just 12 seconds to dry your hands! Cold air dryers are 80% more energy-efficient than warm air dryers. Overall, cold air dryers have the least environmental impact on all grounds.

If your toilet does not have high-tech cold air dryers, reach for the warm air dryer instead. Warm air dryers will generally have a lower green-house impact than using paper towels.

Final Thoughts

We can all agree that overall paper towels are not sustainable for our environment. Recycled paper towels or FSC certified products will make a difference to carbon emissions and our landfills.  Before you reach for more paper towels, ask yourself, do I really need to use this many paper towels? One less roll of paper towel used will go a long way.

Fortunately, there is an abundance of sustainable alternatives to paper towels. Pick up some cloth towels, use an old rag, or–if you are lucky–a cold air dryer.

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