Paper Towels — Green Alternatives

Somehow we managed to get along without paper towels for thousands of years. How did we do it? Are paper towels necessary? In this second of two posts, paper towel green alternatives are explored.

Recycled Paper Towels

Although making new paper towels from recycled paper is not without environmental impact, it is a green alternative to paper towels made from virgin paper and bleached white with chlorine.

Recycled Paper Fiber

There are two types of recycled paper fiber used to make recycled paper towels.

  • Paper RecyclingPostconsumer Fiber: is paper that has been made into a finished product like a cereal box or sheet of paper, is used, and then recycled. The higher the percentage of postconsumer fiber the higher volume of paper diverted from landfills.
  • Manufacturing Waste Fiber: is scrap generated during manufacturing paper products or repulped finished paper from obsolete inventories.

Recycled paper is sometimes slightly rougher than virgin paper because it is made of shorter fibers and / or comes from different sources.

Paper Color

White recycled paper towels are typically processed in one of two ways.

  • Process Chlorine Free (PCF): no bleach with chlorine or its derivatives is used during the recycling process.
  • Totally Chlorine Free (TCF): paper pulp has never been bleached with chlorine or its derivatives even in the original paper product.

Brown paper towels are not bleached, thus eliminating a manufacturing process which saves energy and resources.

Things to Consider when Purchasing Recycled Paper Towels

  • Look for a 100% recycled paper with a high percentage of postconsumer fiber.
  • Try natural (brown) paper towels as they are less processed than white.
  • Select towels with minimal packaging that is made with recycled material.

Cloth Towels

Cloth towels are washable and can be reused again and again, which is more than any kind of paper towel can claim.

Cloth towels come in a variety of materials, sizes, and price ranges. Some towels are designed with buttons or ties to attach to a bar or handle, like an oven handle. Other towels have loops and can easily be hung on a hook.

Box of Cloth TowelsMost households all ready have items on hand that can be pressed into service as a substitute for paper towels such as dishcloths, washcloths, or pieces of towel from the rag bag. Second hand stores are a good source for inexpensive towels.

Throw used towels in with other laundry loads to minimize water and energy use for washing and drying. Have something really, really icky to clean up, then use a rag and throw it away.

Our Solution

As part of our effort to reduce waste we decided to change our paper towel habits.


The first thing was to use fewer paper towels. For instance, we went back to using a cloth to wipe up spills on the counter or floor. We did not use paper towels for drying hands at home so did not need to break that habit.

We still use paper towels for some things like oily or greasy foods. Newspaper and paper grocery bags are often suggested as alternatives. This seems counterintuitive to me as they may have an even bigger environmental impact than paper towels. Besides, I gave up my national newspaper subscription years ago, and we take reusable bags to the grocery store so don’t have paper bags on hand.

Brown Recycled Paper TowelsRecycled

After we had used up the last of our virgin white paper towel stock, we purchased natural (brown) colored paper towels made with 100% recycled paper of which 90% is postconsumer recycled fiber. The packaging was made from recycled plastic.


While surfing the web, I came across People Towels, a company selling personal hand towels. The idea for the company came from Japan where some public restrooms do not provide paper towels and people carry their own. Travel and camping companies sell personal towels under names like travel, camp, and pack towel. Personal towels are typically made of a quick drying fabric and come with a carrying case.

I decided to buy two personal towels with a carrying case to try when we are away from the house. The fun designs and 1% For the Planet logo on the People Towels website clinched the deal.

The Bottom Line

Are paper towels really necessary? No. Our family could probably eliminate them entirely and maybe we will at some point. In the meantime, we will use less, buy recycled, and use cloth towels more. What about you?

Related Posts: Paper Towels – Use and Environmental Impact

Author: Linda Poppenheimer

Linda researches and writes about environmental topics to share information and to spark conversation. Her mission is to live more lightly on Earth and to persuade everyone else to do the same.

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