The Reality of Recycling Paper Towels

  • By: Sam Richards
  • Date: June 28, 2023
  • Time to read: 8 min.

In today’s fast-paced world, the convenience of disposable products like paper towels is undeniable. They have become an integral part of homes, offices, and various commercial settings, valued for their absorbency and hygiene. However, as environmental concerns rise to the forefront of societal consciousness, questions about their ecological impact are gaining prominence. A critical inquiry that frequently surfaces is: Can paper towels be recycled?

The short answer is not as simple as it seems. While paper towels are composed mainly of paper, their recyclability is often compromised due to various reasons. This article dives into the fascinating and complex world of paper towel recycling, discussing the intricacies of the recycling process, the reasons behind recycling centers’ hesitation to accept paper towels, their environmental impact, and the feasible alternatives for disposal. It also explores future possibilities in the realm of paper towel recycling. The objective is to provide a comprehensive understanding of the issue at hand, prompting us to reflect on our usage patterns and make informed decisions for a sustainable future.

What Is A Paper Towel?

A paper towel is a disposable product made from paper pulp that’s designed to be absorbent, making it ideal for wiping, drying, and cleaning purposes. The paper used to make paper towels is derived from cellulose, a component found in all plants, making it naturally biodegradable.

Paper towels come in a variety of types, with differing levels of thickness, softness, absorbency, and resistance to tearing. They are most commonly found in the form of rolls but can also be purchased as stacks of rectangular sheets. Some are designed for use in the kitchen, while others are intended for bathroom use or general household cleaning.

The manufacturing process for paper towels begins with either new or recycled paper products. These materials are then broken down into pulp, which is later whitened, cleaned, and mixed with water to form a paper mixture. The mixture is dried and embossed to create patterns that help enhance absorbency. Finally, the large paper sheets are cut into smaller squares or rectangles and then rolled or folded into the final product.

Paper towels are widely used in various settings, including households, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, schools, and labs, due to their convenience and hygienic nature. As they are single-use and easily disposable, paper towels help minimize the spread of germs, especially in public restrooms and commercial kitchens.

However, it’s also important to note that this single-use nature contributes to their environmental impact, leading to discussions about their recyclability and alternatives to their use.

The Process of Recycling

Recycling is a complex but necessary process designed to conserve resources and reduce waste. It involves several key steps, each playing a critical role in transforming used materials into new products.

Here is a general outline of the basic recycling processes:

  1. Collection: The recycling journey begins with the collection of recyclable materials. These can come from households, businesses, and recycling centers and can include items such as paper, plastic, glass, and metals.
  2. Sorting: Once collected, the recyclables are transported to a recycling facility where they are sorted into different categories based on their material type. This is a crucial step, as each type of material has a different recycling process.
  3. Processing: After sorting, the materials are processed to be made into new products. For paper products, this includes a stage called pulping, where the paper is mixed with water and broken down into fibers. The pulp is then cleaned, de-inked, and bleached to remove any impurities.
  4. Manufacturing: The cleaned pulp is then ready to be used in the manufacturing of new paper products. This could be anything from newspapers to cardboard boxes or even new paper towels.
  5. Distribution and Use: The newly recycled products are then distributed to markets where they can be purchased and used by consumers, completing the recycling loop.

When it comes to paper towel recycling, the process encounters several obstacles, primarily due to the nature of their use and the quality of the paper fibers they contain. While paper towels are technically recyclable as they are made of paper, they are often contaminated with substances like grease, oil, and cleaning products, making them unsuitable for the standard recycling process. Moreover, paper towels are typically made of heavily recycled fibers already, which further diminishes their recycling potential.

Can Paper Towels be Recycled?

Technically, paper towels are recyclable, as they are made of paper. However, in practice, they are not usually accepted in most recycling programs. The main reason for this is contamination. Paper towels often come into contact with greases, oils, cleaning products, and bodily fluids, making them unsuitable for the standard recycling process. Moreover, paper towels are made of already heavily recycled fibers, which diminishes their recycling potential further.

Why Most Recycling Centers Do Not Accept Paper Towels

Apart from contamination, recycling centers have several reasons for not accepting paper towels. Hygiene concerns are a major issue, given that paper towels are often used to clean up spills, wipe hands, and more. Additionally, sorting paper towels from other waste is challenging due to their texture and size. Lastly, the degraded quality of the fibers in paper towels makes them less valuable for the recycling process.

The Environmental Impact of Paper Towels

Paper towels may be a convenient staple in homes and businesses around the world, but their environmental footprint is a matter of significant concern.

Production Process

The impact begins with the production process. Many paper towels are made from virgin wood pulp, meaning trees are specifically cut down for their production. This deforestation contributes to habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity, and increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, as trees that could absorb CO2 are removed.

Furthermore, the production process itself is resource-intensive. It requires significant amounts of water and energy. For example, according to the Environmental Paper Network’s Paper Calculator, it takes 2.5 gallons of water to produce a single roll of paper towels. In terms of energy, the paper industry is the fourth largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions among US manufacturing industries, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Usage and Disposal

When it comes to usage, paper towels are designed for single-use, meaning they quickly become waste after serving their purpose. Unlike other paper products, they cannot be recycled due to contamination from food, oil, cleaning products, or bodily fluids. As a result, used paper towels often end up in landfills. According to the EPA, paper towels accounted for 2.2 million tons of waste in the United States alone in 2020.

Once in a landfill, as paper towels decompose, they produce methane—a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide.


Finally, it’s important to consider the impact of the packaging used for paper towels. While this varies by brand and location, it often involves plastic wrap, contributing further to plastic pollution if not properly recycled.

Given these considerations, the need for more sustainable alternatives and better disposal options for paper towels becomes evident.

Alternative Solutions to Paper Towel Disposal

While recycling paper towels may present challenges, several alternative solutions can help manage their disposal in a more sustainable way. These include composting, use of reusable alternatives, and participation in innovative programs and initiatives.

Composting Paper Towels

Composting provides an eco-friendly solution to paper towel disposal. Here are the basic steps involved:

  1. Collect Used Paper Towels: Ensure the paper towels haven’t been used with any harmful chemicals, greases, or oils that could be detrimental to the compost pile.
  2. Add to Compost Pile/Bin: Paper towels, being a source of carbon, can balance the nitrogen-rich green waste like vegetable peelings.
  3. Turn Your Compost: Regularly turning the compost pile helps to aerate it and speed up the decomposition process.
  4. Use Your Compost: Once fully decomposed, use your compost to enrich the soil in your garden.

Reusable Alternatives to Paper Towels

There are many reusable alternatives that can help reduce reliance on paper towels:

  1. Cloth Napkins and Towels: These are highly absorbent and can be easily washed and reused.
  2. Microfiber Cloths: Known for their durability and high absorbency, these cloths can be used repeatedly before washing.
  3. Sponges: Ideal for cleaning tasks in the kitchen and bathroom.
  4. Bamboo Towels: These are reusable, washable, and made from a fast-growing, sustainable resource.

Innovative Programs and Initiatives

A number of innovative programs and initiatives aim to reduce paper towel waste:

  1. Green Bin Programs: Some municipalities provide green bins for compostable waste, including paper towels.
  2. Educational Initiatives: Many organizations run campaigns to educate the public about the environmental impact of paper towels and promote more sustainable alternatives.
  3. Company Sustainability Goals: Some companies are setting goals to reduce their environmental footprint, including minimizing the use of paper towels in their operations.
  4. Product Innovations: There are growing innovations in products designed to replace paper towels, such as highly absorbent, washable, and biodegradable options.

By embracing these alternative solutions, it’s possible to significantly reduce the environmental impact of paper towel use and disposal.

Eco-friendly alternatives to paper towels

In addition to reusables, there are also several eco-friendly alternatives to paper towels. These include bamboo towels, which are made from a highly renewable resource, and microfiber cloths, which are highly absorbent and durable. These alternatives, while initially more expensive, can save money in the long term due to their reusability and durability.

The Future of Paper Towel Recycling

Advancements in recycling technologies and increased consumer demand for sustainable products may potentially open the door for more effective paper towel recycling in the future. Government regulations, manufacturer commitments to sustainability, and consumer education can also play a significant role in shaping the future of paper towel recycling.


The issue of paper towel recyclability presents a complex challenge. Despite the convenience and ubiquity of paper towels, their environmental impact — from resource-intensive production to problematic disposal — warrants critical consideration. The fact that they are typically not recyclable due to contamination and the degraded quality of their fibers, further compounds the issue.

However, not all is lost. Several sustainable alternatives and disposal methods are emerging as viable options. Composting, for instance, provides a straightforward and eco-friendly solution for managing paper towel waste at home, provided the towels are free from harmful contaminants.

Similarly, a shift towards reusable alternatives, such as cloth napkins, microfiber cloths, and bamboo towels, can substantially reduce the demand for and subsequent waste generated by paper towels.

Innovative programs and initiatives also play a critical role in shaping a more sustainable future. From green bin programs to educational initiatives and corporate sustainability goals, these efforts not only raise awareness about the environmental impact of paper towels but also help foster more responsible consumption patterns.

The future of paper towel recycling may see improvements as advancements in recycling technology evolve and as societal commitment to sustainability strengthens. Ultimately, however, it’s clear that reducing our reliance on paper towels and embracing more sustainable alternatives where possible will be vital in mitigating the environmental impact of our daily practices.

In conclusion, each individual’s actions matter, and every effort made towards more sustainable choices can contribute to the collective goal of a healthier, more sustainable planet.

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