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

Paper Towels — Use and Environmental Impact

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.

Scott  Paper TowelsAbout 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.

Nibroc Paper Towels - Brown Paper CompanyThe 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.

Environmental Impact

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

Compost BinPaper 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.

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