The Environmental Impact of Paper Towels

Paper towels might be the perfect metaphor for the wasteful, throw-away society America became in the 20th century. The harm done to the environment during their manufacture, and the amount of waste they produce, are scandals that are largely unrecognized by those who use them.

Paper towels were invented by the Scott Paper Company in 1907. Details are sketchy, but it appears they may have been created as an expedient reuse of a rail car full of another paper product that didn’t meet specifications. Individual paper towels didn’t go into regular mass production until 1922, and it was 1931 before rolls of paper towels were introduced for kitchen use.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and papers towels have become a daily fact of life for most Americans. More than 13 billion pounds of paper towels are used each year in the USA, amounting to 40 pounds – the equivalent of 80 rolls – per person, per year. (That’s one roll every four and a half days for every man, woman and child.)

Producing all that paper consumes a lot of resources, including 110 million trees per year, and 130 billion gallons of water. Comparably huge amounts of energy are required to manufacture and deliver it from the factory to the store, causing plenty of carbon dioxide to be emitted into the atmosphere. After a single use, it all goes into the landfill – some 3,000 tons annually – where it generates methane as it decomposes. Like carbon dioxide, methane is a greenhouse gas that’s strongly implicated as a cause of climate change. The convenience of paper towels comes with a heavy price far above what you pay in the store.

Some progressive cities, including San Francisco, are leading the charge to compost used paper towels, which at least puts the raw material back into use. But unfortunately, most cities and towns cannot afford to implement programs like this, and it does nothing to address the other environmental costs of paper towel production and distribution.

The only practical approach to reducing the environmental impact of paper towels is to use less. It’s not hard, and it will save you money. In public restrooms, use the electric hand dryer if you have a choice. If you don’t, take just one towel instead of three or four. After each hand-wipe, shake it out flat to expose more surface area that’s still dry, and use it again.

At home, use reusable cloths in most cleaning tasks. They work better than paper towels, they cost less in the not-so-long run, and they’re better for the environment. It may still make sense to keep a roll of paper towels around for some limited uses like cleaning up blood or animal accidents, but for most everyday cleaning jobs, reusable cloths just make sense.

For a great choice in reusable cleaning cloths, check out the Durafresh cloth from GlobEco Maine. They’re made sustainably in Maine without synthetic chemicals, they rinse almost entirely germ-free in cold water, they’re washable multiple times for excellent economy, and at the end of their long life, they’re compostable – a great alternative to economically wasteful, environmentally harmful paper towels.