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Can You Flush Paper Towels Down the Toilet? (Plus Safe Alternatives)

Can You Flush Paper Towels Down the Toilet? (Plus Safe Alternatives)
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Paper towels are a convenience item that’s a daily staple for many of us, including me and my family. Although we use cloth towels when cleaning up large messes, we always resort to paper towels for just about anything else.

We have always thrown our paper towels right in the trash bin, but as we’ve been trying to become more eco-friendly, we’ve started taking a look at some of our daily habits to see if there’s things that we should change.

We fill up a huge curbside recycling bin every week, but unfortunately, paper towels are not considered safe to recycle. Do we have any other options than putting them in our trash bin and contributing to landfills?

In this article, let’s find out whether or not it’s safe to flush your paper towels down the toilet, as well as what you can do instead.

Can You Flush Paper Towels?

In another post, I discussed why it’s not safe to flush tissues. Not surprisingly, the same logic applies to paper towels. So, the answer is, no, you should not flush paper towels down the toilet.

Like tissues, and unlike toilet paper, paper towels are made to absorb moisture and not fall apart quickly in the presence of water. As a result, if they get flushed down your toilet, they can potentially lead to a clog in your toilet trap or further down in the drain pipe.

If you’ve never dealt with a clogged toilet, consider yourself lucky. In bad cases, you can end up with a nasty mess all over your floors and a costly repair bill from your local plumber for unclogging your pipes.

What to Do if Your Toilet Is Clogged with Paper Towels

If it’s too late, and you’ve already made the mistake of flushing paper towels, you might find yourself with a clog. If that happens, there are a few steps to take.

1 – Use a Plunger

The first thing to try if you’ve clogged your toilet with paper towels is a plunger. A plunger works by pushing and pulling air through your pipe. For light clogs, this is typically enough to loosen up the jam.

2 – Use an Auger

If a plunger doesn’t do the job, the next best thing to try is a plumbing auger (or snake). With a plumbing auger, you stick one end down the toilet and crank the other end with your hand. The movement in your pipes should loosen up any debris in the way.

You can pick up a plumbing snake at your local hardware store. It will typically pay for itself over time as you have various clogs in your home.

3 – Call a Professional

If the two methods above don’t work, it’s time to call a professional plumber. They have the necessary tools to take care of severe clogs. They may even temporarily remove your toilet, depending on how bad the clog is.

If you’ve gotten to this point, be prepared for a relatively expensive repair bill, especially if you have a septic system.

How to Dispose of Paper Towels

Now that we know that paper towels are not safe to flush, what are our options for disposing of them? Sadly, you don’t have many options, but you do have a couple to consider.

Compost Them

If you have a compost pile, adding your used paper towels to it is a great way to keep them out of landfills and do something beneficial for your garden. Paper towels are considered a brown material, meaning that are rich in carbon.

One thing to keep in mind when composting paper towels is that there are times when it doesn’t make sense to do so. For example, if you cleaned up a chemical spill, you’re not going to want to compost your paper towels.

Also, if your paper towels were made with a special coating or contain chemicals, you might want to keep them out.

For more information, see my post about composting paper towels.

Throw Them Away

As much as I hate to throw away something that seems like it could be recycled, this is the best option for most people. Most of us don’t compost at home, whether due to space limitations or a lack of desire.

Whatever the case, if you don’t compost at home, throwing your used paper towels in the trash is the best option.

How to Get More Life Out of Your Paper Towels

While you don’t have many disposal options to choose from, there are a couple of ways to extend the life of your paper towels prior to getting rid of them.

Use Smaller Pieces

A standard roll of paper towel has square sheets that are relatively large. When possible, opt for a brand that offers half sheets, where each sheet is half of the size of a standard sheet.

We switched to these a few years ago, and there is no doubt that we use less paper towels than we used to. The vast majority of the time, you don’t need a full sheet to wipe up whatever it is that you’re trying to clean.

To take this a step further, you can also rip small pieces off of a sheet of paper towel, rather than using the entire sheet. If you’re just trying to clean up a tiny spill, or maybe you need to pick up a dead bug and don’t want to touch it, why use an entire sheet?

In these scenarios, it makes more sense to simply rip off what you need and save the rest for later.

Reuse Them

Something I’ve always been guilty of is treating paper towels as one-and-done. However, most durable brands of paper towels can actually be reused.

The idea here is that if you use your paper towel to wipe up water or any liquid that’s not too disgusting, simply let your paper towel dry out, then use it again to clean up another mess.

Most durable brands of paper towels will give you two to three uses when using this method. This is definitely a great way to cut down on the amount of paper towel that you use, which means more money savings for you and less waste going to a landfill.

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, just like tissues, paper towels are made to absorb moisture and therefore do not break down well in water. With that being said, you should never flush paper towels down the toilet.

Before disposing of your paper towels, consider one of the methods mentioned above to make them go further for you. This will help cut down on the amount of paper towel you use and dispose of.

Once your paper towel has reached the end of its life, the best place for it is right in the trash bin, unless of course you compost at home. In that case, paper towels can make a great addition to your compost pile.