Life is messy. We try to be clean and tidy, but things keep dripping, spilling, or spraying. Kids don’t pay attention, pets have accidents, and we don’t always have a pile of clean rags on hand. Our first reaction is to grab a paper towel off the roll — or better yet, a handful of paper towels. Well, why not? They’re cheap, plentiful, and disposable. They make the mess go away. And everyone else uses them, right?
That may be true in the U.S., where we annually spend almost as much on disposable paper products as the rest of the world combined. Elsewhere, people are happy to use rags, mops, and sponges. Maybe it’s our relatively affluent society and our cultural preference for quick solutions. Check out this article in The Atlantic for Joe Pinsker’s thoughts on the topic. But the most important things to keep in mind are:
How did all this begin? And how do we stop using paper towels?
Disposable paper products are nothing new. History records the invention of toilet paper for the convenience of China’s Ming Emperor Hongwu in 1391. Mass manufacture of this product in the U.S. can be traced back to 1867 Philadelphia and the brothers Irvin and Clarence Scott. In 1907, Irvin’s son Arthur had a railroad boxcar full of toilet paper that had just been rejected as too thick. Inspired by a local schoolteacher who had his students wiping their noses on small squares of writing paper during a rhinovirus epidemic, Arthur began marketing this perforated, rolled paper as Sani-Towels, small disposable sheets for use in public restrooms at train stations, hotels, and restaurants. The product’s tagline? “For use once by one user.” By 1931, Scott Paper Company found a lucrative niche for their disposable paper towels: the kitchen of every American home. They standardized their rolls to a 13-inch width, perforated every 18 inches, and the modern kitchen paper towel was born.
While Scott may have built a multimillion-dollar industry on this product (with competitors such as Bounty, Sparkle, and Brawny far exceeding them in recent years), there’s no proprietary secret to how paper towels work their absorbent magic. Indiana Public Media offers an entertaining Moment of Science on the subject.
To summarize, paper towels are composed of cellulose fibers, which are compound structures of smaller sugar molecules. Sugar molecules interact so easily with water molecules that cellulose fibers will rapidly attract any moisture coming into contact with them. Cellulose is a naturally occurring plant fiber, and the paper in paper towels is refined and layered in a way that makes the most of these sugar molecules’ water-attracting properties.
But much of this cellulose fiber is derived from wood pulp, and that wood comes from harvested trees… and here we begin to see an environmental problem.
Growing a Green Family helpfully shares a manufacturing overview from Bounty Towels, a best-selling paper towel that begins as virgin wood pulp:
“We make Bounty from trees that are processed into pulpwood. Long fibers from softwood trees, such as pine and spruce, are used. After debarking, the pulpwood is turned into chips that are cooked. The natural ‘glue’ that holds the fibers together is removed, leaving a fibrous pulp mixture. The pulp goes through cleaners and screens and is bleached to make it absorbent.”
While some brands offer product made from recycled (post-consumer) materials, the paper towel industry overwhelmingly starts with virgin (pre-consumer) wood. Large-scale industrial operations may rely on farmed trees rather than cutting down wild forests, but that brings its own set of sustainability issues. Conservatree notes that tree farming is a monoculture, a system of artificial forests that lacks the biodiversity of true forests — and has been replacing true forests and negatively impacting wetlands at a measurable rate in this century. Farmed trees are heavily treated with unhealthy pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Additionally, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ranks the pulp and paper industry as the biggest global water consumer and, after the chemical and steel industries, the third biggest greenhouse gas emitter.
Bounty’s description also refers to bleaching the wood pulp as part of its manufacturing process. This refers specifically to chlorine, a toxic chemical that yields dioxins and furans as byproducts. Manufacturers might also add formaldehyde and BPA to improve wet-strength and durability. All of these compounds are carcinogenic and environmentally harmful.
In some circumstances, a paper towel can be reused. If you’re able to rinse out the mess it’s absorbed and let it dry, the towel is good for another few wipe-ups. But once those cellulose fibers start breaking apart from each other, there’s nothing more you can do with it. Then what? Can you recycle a used paper towel?
There are two main reasons why it’s difficult to recycle paper towels. The first is that recycling centers won’t accept materials permeated with food grease or germs. That seems to categorically exclude paper towels given how most people use them. The second reason has to do with the physical properties of paper. Every time it’s recycled, the fibers get shorter, and after about six iterations, they won’t be able to bond into new paper. For a product that relies on especially robust cellulose fibers to do its job, this isn’t practical.
After America’s long relationship with paper towels, it might be hard to imagine life without them. If you wanted to cut back and use them sparingly for, say, pet messes or cooking oil, are there any “good” paper towels out there?
You can find a number of “green” paper towels, such as Seventh Generation (100% recycled paper, 80% of which is post-consumer) and Scott Naturals (60% recycled). Any color or pattern printed on a green paper towel would have to be a vegetable-oil-based ink, since petroleum-based inks take much longer to biodegrade. While green paper products leave a smaller carbon footprint in their manufacture, they’re still disposable consumer items and still require fossil fuel for the trucks that carry them from factory to point of sale. And they’ll still sit in landfills producing greenhouse gases once you’re done with them.
The Eco Family Life blog suggests that the average American uses 80 rolls of paper towels every year. This equals 65 million tons annually. Manufacturing just one ton of paper towels requires the wood pulp from 17 trees and an overall water consumption of 20 thousand gallons. For a disposable product that goes to landfill after a single use, that’s quite resource intensive!
Since most of the world seems to function perfectly well without generating the equivalent of the 3,000 tons of paper towel waste that the U.S. discards daily, it shouldn’t be too hard to break this habit. Here are some alternative approaches to consider.
Before you start purchasing paper towel replacement products, you’ll find some useful solutions within your own household waste stream:
Cloth woven from natural fibers is one of humanity’s oldest manufactured goods. Whether you prefer cotton, flax, hemp, or something else, there are many product types to choose from:
To meet the demands of a market searching for alternatives, product designers have developed a number of interesting solutions, some more eco-friendly than others. For example, while bamboo paper towels (one variety of unpaper towels) sound like a great idea, they’re essentially rayon, which means that you can’t recycle or compost them once they wear out.
During our century of living with paper towels, we’ve come up with a range of uses that go well beyond mopping up messes. Here’s still another set of alternatives to meet some of those needs:
One of the most common excuses for not changing our behavior is “But we’ve always done it this way.” It’s true that American households has been paper towel dependent since 1931, but let’s start changing that here and now. For the sake of preserving Earth’s forests, we should learn from other countries, where people use fewer paper towels — or none at all — in their daily lives. Small changes, like using rags and cloth towels in the kitchen, might be awkward initially, but you will quickly get used to it. Look at the alternatives, find the ones that work best for you, and say goodbye to paper towels as we significantly reduce our use of this unnecessary product.
If you like this article on how to stop using paper towels, check out more information about sustainable living on GreenCitizen’s How to Recycle blog.
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