Plastic Free July 2020: Day 23 – Paper Towels



In the U.S., more than 13 billion pounds of paper towels are used annually. That’s the equivalent of 80 rolls – per person, per year or one full roll per person every 4 days (Source).

Not to mention, paper towel rolls run from $0.80 to $3.00 per roll!


Paper towels can sometimes be composted, but if they’re covered in grease or toxic chemicals, like car oil, you definitely don’t want to add them to your garden compost. And worse, paper towels almost always come packaged in plastic (Although you can find PCR paper towel rolls packaged in paper from
When I started the zero waste process, I took a look in my trash can to see what I was throwing out the most, paper towels were pretty much the biggest offender.  I would even use paper towels just to dry my hands. In hindsight,  I’m a little embarrassed, but I just didn’t know any better. No more excuses!
But you don’t have to go out and buy brand new dish towels to use. If you have an old bath towel that’s starting to tatter, cut it up into smaller rags/dish towels. If you don’t have anything at home, try a second hand store. I can almost always find hand towels and dish towels at thrift stores for around $1 per set.



The problem with paper:

Even if paper towels are being sourced from renewable forests or post consumer recycled paper, creating these rolls requires energy, clean water, and requires transportation to be sold. The most sustainable option is to reuse what you have whenever you can. That’s also the most cost effective option!

Of course, if you really like the convenience of pulling a towel off of a roll, you still can! Even with reusable towels. There are “unpaper” towels which can fit onto any paper towel holder. Some have snaps so they’er easier to roll back up after washing:

Reusable “Unpaper” Towel Options:

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Unpaper Towels with snaps

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“Unpaper” Towels

These unpaper towel options aren’t exactly cheap. My first recommendation is always to reuse, reuse, reuse. Then try second hand. Then when all else fails, a new reusable is still more sustainable than repeatedly buying single use items. The first option runs at about $18. If a person is using a roll of paper towels every 4 days (on average) this set of unpaper towels will pay for itself in less than a month.

Paper Towel Facts:

  • Paper towels are not made of plastic: of course, they are mostly made from trees but also from recycled paper.
  • Regardless, most paper towels come wrapped in non-recyclable plastic.
  • Paper towels are compostable: true if you have access to home compost or city compost, and if you don’t use them with chemicals. If composting is not an option, they end up in landfills because they CAN’T BE RECYCLED.
  • Printed paper towels are made with nasty inks and dyes, and sometimes even chemicals scents People use A LOT of paper towels: 13 billion pounds each year in the US → 40 pounds, the equivalent of 80 rolls, per person, per year
  • Environmental impact in the US: producing all that paper consumes a lot of resources, including 110 million trees per year and 130 billion gallons of water. On top of that, you can add the energy to manufacture the paper towels and transport them from the factory to the store to your house and finally to the landfill or the composting facility.


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