Paper towels are ubiquitous in homes and businesses across the United States. In this first of two posts, we’ll discover who invented paper towels, how we use them, and their environmental impact. The second post will focus on “green” paper towel alternatives.
Who Invented Paper Towels?
I came across two accounts regarding the invention of paper towels and there are likely more.
One story says that in 1907, a Philadelphia school teacher was trying to reduce the spread of colds among her students. She felt germs were spread via the shared cloth towel kids used for drying their hands, so she began giving each child a piece of paper to wipe their hands on and then throw away.
About the same time, Scott Paper Company received a defective shipment of paper stock that was too thick for its intended use to make toilet paper. Arthur Scott heard the teacher’s story and came up with the idea to make the thick paper into rolls, perforated into small sheets, and then sell them as disposable paper towels called Sani-Towels. In 1931, Scott Paper Company introduced paper towels for kitchen use and the rest is history.
The second story occurs in Berlin, New Hampshire. In this account, while working for the Brown Company, William E. Corbin, Henry Chase, and Harold Titus collaborated on experiments to improve papermaking which resulted in a paper towel product. In 1922, Nibroc (Corbin spelled backwards) paper towels went into production.
What Does Tissue Paper have to do with Paper Towels?
When the term tissue paper is mentioned, paper towel is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. It is most likely facial tissue or gift wrapping tissue. The American Forest & Paper Association defines and categorizes tissue paper as follows:
- At-Home (Consumer): products such as toilet paper, facial tissue, napkins, paper towels, and other special sanitary products.
- Away-from-Home (Commercial & Industrial): products serve markets such as hospitals, restaurants, businesses, institutions, janitorial supply firms and super stores.
- Specialty: wrapping tissue for gifts and dry cleaning, as well as crepe paper for decorating.
Paper Towel Use
At home paper towels are used for mopping up spills, cleaning surfaces and people, soaking up grease from fried foods, drying hands, covering food in a microwave oven, napkins, and the list goes on.
In the workplace, outside of paper towels used during work processes, they are most likely used for drying ones hands, wiping up spills, and for food related tasks like covering food in a microwave, as a napkin, or impromptu place mat.
I could not locate specific facts on how many paper towels are sold or used in the United States or anywhere for that matter, and I was unwilling to shell out money for an industry report. On one website, it stated the average family uses two rolls of paper towels per week. I doubt it.
Paper towels and paper bags are similar in respect to raw materials, energy and water use, pollution and environmental damage (please see related posts listed below for more information).
They differ when it comes to waste and recycling. According to U.S. EPA figures, 3,490 thousands of tons of Tissue Paper and Towels were generated in 2009 of which a negligible amount was recycled. Tissue paper products include toilet paper, facial tissue, paper towels, and napkins. Used toilet paper ends up in water treatment facilities and facial tissue, napkins, and paper towels usually make their way to landfills
Paper towels may be composted depending on what they were used for and the composting method. For instance, paper towels used to dry hands are typically compostable. On the other hand, paper towels used to for cleaning may contain chemicals that will not work well in a composter. Greasy paper towels may attract unwanted critters in a home composter but may be fine in a commercial operation.
Paper towels generally come wrapped in plastic which has its own environmental issues.
- Bags — Paper vs. Plastic: Environmental Impact
- Bags — Paper vs. Plastic: Reuse, Recycle, Compost, or Toss?
- American Forest and Paper Association – Tissue Paper
- History of Berlin, New Hampshire – Inventions
- Kimberly-Clark – Wikipedia
- Paper Towel – Wikipedia
- U S. EPA publication “Municipal Solid Waste Generation, Recycling, and Disposal in the United States Tables and Figures for 2009 Report”
- Wikipedia – Paper Towel