Paper towels are used constantly without a second thought. People don’t see paper towels as “bad for the environment” because compared to many other things we dispose of, they aren’t. Paper towels decompose within 2-4 weeks in a landfill. (hoaxorfact.com) But in the United States, 13 billion pounds of paper towels are used every year. That is a lot of unnecessary trash. Typically, paper towels are made from recycled products. This means the materials have been used time and time again and cannot be recycled further. (oceanconservancy.org) Paper towels can be composted, which would be best, but this is not a feasible option to many people. Also, aside from the waste created by the paper towel itself, there are many other factors. Just like anything else, there is waste created from the packaging, there are gases released during production, and there is energy used for transportation, etc. If you make a conscious effort, cutting back consumption is not difficult. The first step is to notice your impact. Take notes of your usage over the course of a week and see what can be changed. When you wash your hands do you use 4 paper towels? Can that be cut back to two? Or may just one? When you clean your countertops at home, how many paper towels do you use? Could that be replaced with a reusable rag?
Here are some easy ways to cut back your daily use:
Meal Time: Growing up, my family would rip the napkins off before they were needed. This means, even if they didn’t get used, they would end up in the trash when meal time was over. At a minimum, we were using one napkin per person, three times a day, just for eating. This adds up to a lot of waste and it can certainly be cut down to zero by using a reusable alternative. If you want your dining room table to look fancy or if you want to take the easy way out, you can find reusable cloth napkins at just about any kitchen or home store. If you want to take your environmentalism one step further, you can up-cycle old t-shirts into cloth napkins. Cutting out simple rectangles does the job just fine but you could make them look a little nicer with stitching on the edges too.
Cleaning: Many people save old t-shirts or towels to use as rags for the car but what about inside the house? Don’t use the same towels after they have been greased up but save a few extra t-shirts for cleaning the windows, the mirrors, the counter tops, the fridge, and much more. Theoretically, paper towels can be completely eliminated from your cleaning supplies.
Washing Your Hands: In your own home, it’s a no brainer. Use a hand towel and leave it by the sink to be used many times over. In public restrooms, it becomes a little bit more difficult. Whether you choose the electric hand dryer or the paper towels, use them sparingly. There are many different arguments to be made defending the electric hand dryer and the paper towel as there is no direct answer to say which is more environmentally friendly. Depending on what you are wearing that day, the best option might be to avoid both and just wipe your hands on your pants… But seriously, start with just one paper towel and see how far that gets you. Don’t reach for the second, third, or fourth until you know you need it.
“Paper Towels – What’s the Big Deal Anyway?” Ocean Conservancy, 10 May 2017, oceanconservancy.org/blog/2012/10/12/paper-towels-whats-the-big-deal-anyway/.
Damarla, Prashanth. “How Long Does It Take to Decompose – Facts Analysis.” Hoax Or Fact, 23 July 2017, http://www.hoaxorfact.com/science/how-long-does-it-take-to-decompose.html.