Paper towels are indispensable for a household. But the environmental footprint that is left behind with the use of paper towels is not very pretty.
Why Paper Towel Is Not Sustainable
Paper towels are made from wood fibers which are harvested from trees. Trees are cut down in large quantities and sent to paper mills to produce paper towels. This causes mass deforestation.
Deforestation leads to calamity in our system of life. It makes wild animals lose their habitat and causes the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to rise. This disrupts the water cycle resulting in unexpected and unwanted climate changes.
Environment Pays Price For Production
Pulp and paper mills requiring a massive supply of virgin wood is not the only way environment is paying its price. The entire process (separation of fibers, creation of pulps, drying of papers, etc.) releases harmful particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, and greenhouse gases into the air.
There is a heavy reliance on fossil fuels which is a nonrenewable source of energy. A decent supply of water is also a must for creating slurries. No wonder why paper towels are listed among the products with the highest carbon footprints.
Increases Waste And Litter
Paper towels are single-use products. They are normally used once and then discarded into a bin. It contributes to single-use waste. It looks uglier in bigger households where many people use paper towels.
They are more problematic in public places where recycling options are limited. Streets, parks, or events where paper towels are served are not disposed of properly. A lot of these paper towels end up as litter endangering the environment and wildlife.
The decay of paper towels produces methane gas which is more potent than carbon dioxide possessing a bigger threat to the climate.
What To Replace Disposable Paper Towels With
The most sustainable alternative to single-use paper towels is reusable paper towels that are made of renewable resources. They can be used as a direct replacement where other options like cloth napkins or microfiber cleaning clothes are not.
Reusable paper towels can be categorized into two groups:
I like cotton-based towels to bamboo-based even though they are both made of renewable raw materials as cotton can be fully recycled whereas bamboo has to be composted. A longer lifespan is also a plus for cotton-made paper towels.
Paper towels from The Useless Brand are my go-to recommendation. They come with a sturdy and reusable cardboard roll so that your towels can stay organized. It fits nicely in normal-size paper towel holders.
The material is 100% cotton and the absorbency improves as you wash them. They are machine washable and dryable. You can get them in different patterns or plain white if that is your style.
On another note, if you happen to get cotton-based paper towels, wash and dry them at least 3 times before the first use. It might feel otherwise that it is not absorbing liquids. And do not be surprised if they shrink after washing. Rolling them back into the cardboard will solve the problem for you.
What Good A Reusable Paper Towels Roll Can Do
Most reusable paper towels, especially the ones that are made of cotton, are sustainable as cotton is cultivated and harvested from crop fields rather than forests and does not require any deforestation.
Some companies grow cotton organically meaning instead of using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers they use natural methods like crop rotation, composting, and natural pest control. This mitigates damage to the soil and the environment.
Paper towels that are made of bamboo are also a good option as bamboos regenerate very fast and do not require replanting.
Reusable paper towel solves the problem of single-use waste to a larger extent. It is true that the wear and tear on those towels will make you trash them at one point but it does not happen as frequently as a traditional paper towel. They have a lifespan of a couple of months to a year.
It might be out of scope, let’s say in a public place, to provide everybody with reusable paper towels. But starting to practice it in closed events or environments is already a big step toward sustainability.
They are recyclable if you dispose of them correctly, unlike normal paper towels which are non-recyclable and non-biodegradable.
Saves Production Energy
Let’s start here with some facts about disposable paper towels:
- 321.87 million Americans used paper towels in 2022, which is projected to be 331.16 million in 2024. Source: Statista
- 17 trees and over 20,000 gallons of water is what it takes to produce one ton of paper towels. Source: Creighton University
Switching to reusable paper towels can reduce the demand for disposable paper towels, and so is the number of trees that are cut down.
Not only that it helps with reduced deforestation, but reusable paper towels can also be recycled back to new ones since they use recyclable raw materials like cotton fibers and bamboo.
Saves Money In The Long Run
Money is saved when you make a switch from single-use paper towels to reusable paper towels. Where you needed, let’s say, one roll every week, a reusable paper towels roll will last from a few months up to a year.
Cotton-based paper towel saves you more, more than bamboo-based because it lasts significantly longer than its counterpart.
The Tradeoffs Of Using Reusable Paper Towels
Does Not Absorb Water Just As Good
Paper towel alternatives do not feel as absorbent as normal paper towels. It is because the paper industry has evolved over hundreds of years and mastered the art of absorbency with custom wood fiber refinement. Where our eco-friendly paper towel industry is still in its early days.
Note that materials like cotton increases their absorbency as you soak and dry them. This is why washing and drying your newly bought cotton-based paper towels a couple of times can go a long way.
Like any other reusable product, reusable paper towels can add up to your maintenance game.
How much maintenance are we talking about? Bamboo-made paper towels need to be hand-washed with cold water and cotton-made ones can be thrown into your washing and drying machines.
Cotton-made paper towels will save you time if you get a second batch for when your first batch is in the washing machine.
No matter which one you choose, hygiene should be at the top of your priority if you want to go this sustainable route. They will retain bacteria and germs if not washed properly or frequently.