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Are Paper Towels Recyclable? (Plus Alternative Disposal Options)

Are Paper Towels Recyclable? (Plus Alternative Disposal Options)
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My wife and I have two kids, two dogs, and three cats. As you can imagine, that leads to a lot of messes. Although we try to be environmentally conscious, we often take the easy route when it means it will save us some time and effort.

In this case, I’m referring to using paper towels over cloth towels. While most of us would probably prefer to produce less waste, using paper towels often makes more sense, at least in the heat of the moment when you need to clean up a mess.

While we’ve already determined that you can’t flush paper towels, there are other alternatives that seem more reasonable, such as recycling.

In this article, let’s find out whether or not paper towels can be recycled. We’ll also take a look at some alternative disposal methods and go over ways to make our paper towels last longer.

Can You Recycle Paper Towels?

Paper towels, as the name implies, are made of paper, so they should be recyclable, right? Unfortunately, no, papers towel cannot be recycled. There are two main reasons for this.

The first, which is obvious to most, is that paper towels are typically contaminated with items that cannot be easily removed during the recycling process.

If you think about it, what’s the purpose of a paper towel? To pick up contaminates, right? Only clean and dry items should be recycled, so that eliminates most paper towels right away.

The second reason is actually the main reason why you shouldn’t recycle paper towels. During the recycling process, the fibers in paper get shorter and shorter.

Paper towels are often the final step in the recycling process, meaning they are typically made from recycled paper that has gone through the recycling process several times. The fibers in paper towel are simply too short to go through the recycling process again.

How to Properly Dispose of Paper Towels

It’s unfortunate that paper towels aren’t recyclable, but we do have a couple of alternative options to choose from.

Compost Them

As I mentioned in another post, paper towels are a great item to compost. They break down easily (due to their short fibers, as mentioned above) and provide a nice carbon-rich source to help balance out your carbon-to-nitrogen ratio.

Just be aware that there are certain scenarios where it doesn’t make sense to compost paper towels. For example, if you used your paper towels to clean up chemicals, you’re not going to want to add them to your compost pile.

Generally speaking though, composting provides the best option for disposing of paper towels in a way that can actually benefit the environment.

Throw Them Away

If you aren’t able to compost at home (or simply don’t want to), your best option for disposing of paper towels is to simply throw them in your trash bin.

While this isn’t going to do anything positive for the environment, it is a better option than trying to recycle something that can’t be recycled.

Before you throw them away though, consider using one of the methods below to make your paper towels go further.

How to Extend the Life of Paper Towels

One of the best ways to help the environment, while still using paper towels, is to make your paper towels last longer. There are a couple of simple tricks you can try at home that will save you some money on paper towels and keep you from disposing of so many of them.

Reuse Them

Most people falsely assume that paper towels are only made for one use. Although paper towel manufacturers would probably prefer that you only use them once (so you have to buy them more often), that’s not always the case.

Surprisingly, most durable brands of paper towel can withstand 2-3 uses when allowed to air dry between uses. Simply use your paper towel to clean up a liquid, let it dry, then use it again.

Obviously, you have to consider what you’re cleaning up when reusing paper towels. You wouldn’t want to clean up a harsh chemical on the first use, then wipe your child’s face on the second use.

Use Smaller Pieces

A standard roll of paper towels comes with large square sheets. Recently, many manufacturers have started offering rolls with half sheets, which have twice as many perforations (each large sheet can be torn in the middle).

By buying and using half-sheet rolls, you’re very likely to use less paper towels, as you typically don’t need a full sheet to wipe up a small mess. We changed to these a few years ago in our home, and I’ve definitely noticed that our paper towel rolls last longer.

If you really want to cut down on your paper towel usage, you can take this a step further by tearing off only what you need (even less than a half sheet, in many cases).

There are often times when I don’t even need a half sheet, so I’ll simply tear a corner off of one and use only that portion of the paper towel.

Use Them Sparingly

The best thing you can do to cut down on your paper towel usage is to simply use less of them. For cleaning up food or drink messes, use cloth towels. To make this easier, have a couple on hand in your kitchen for easy access.

By reserving your paper towel usage for chemical cleanups, you’ll significantly cut down on your usage, which not only cuts down on waste, but also saves on expenses.

Final Thoughts

Most of us want to do what we can to help the environment, and it sure would be great if we could simply throw our paper towels in with our other recyclables. Unfortunately, paper towels are not safe to recycle, for various reasons.

On the plus side, we do have a nice alternative to the trash bin by composting our paper towels. And before composting or throwing them away, we have a couple of simple methods to make them last longer.

By using these methods to extend the life of paper towels, we can still use them while having a minimal impact on the planet.