Hey! Now that we’ve gotten your attention with our greenwash-y, SEO-friendly title (thanks, Google), you should know that while there’s no such thing as “eco-friendly” paper towels, here’s what to be wise on when you’re shopping so you can pick the best option for you, the planet, and the people making your stuff.
Paper towels have come to be seen as an everyday necessity in America. In fact, the U.S. spends about $5.7 billion dollars a year on paper towels -- that’s nearly as much as every other country combined. Before you go ordering a pack of 36 rolls, here’s what you should know about how paper towels are made and how to use them.
WHAT TO BE WISE ON
All paper towels are made of some type of paper pulp, but not all pulps are created equal. While virgin pulp is the most damaging, alternatives like post-consumer recycled or bamboo pulp can help reduce deforestation and associated emissions. Certifications like those from the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) can help you sort out which brands are sourcing pulp from responsibly managed forests to help with biodiversity restoration and forest conservation. Also know that paper towels aren’t naturally white, so you’re better off with paper towels that are chlorine-free to avoid the nasty dioxins associated with bleaching.
THE FACTORS TO CONSIDER
Paper pulp is the main component in paper towels and can come from various sources: virgin wood, post-consumer recycled content, pre-consumer recycled content, or bamboo.
Virgin Paper Pulp
Virgin pulp is the most popular, but most damaging pulp component. America’s favored virgin pulp comes from the Canadian boreal, where industrial logging for America’s tissue industry currently claims one million acres of forest every year. This practice harms the lives of the Indigenous Peoples in the area and kills off local animals, including caribou, which are indicator species that serve as a barometer of health for the forest. On top of these injustices, industrial logging releases carbon that had previously been stored in the forest’s soil and reduces the number of trees that can absorb earth-warming greenhouse gases. The NRDC reports that making tissue products from 100% virgin fiber generates three times more CO2e than tissue products made from other types of pulp. With these facts in mind, it’s shocking that the three biggest brands in tissue (Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, and Georgia-Pacific) rely primarily on virgin pulp. Clearly, it’s time to change the status quo.
Recycled Paper Pulp
Don’t worry, it’s not all bad news! Recycled paper pulp is an increasingly popular alternative to virgin pulp and is used by brand names like Seventh Generation and Marcal. Recycled pulp minimizes damage to forests and requires only half the water of virgin pulp products. There are two sources of recycled paper pulp: pre-consumer and post-consumer waste. Pre-consumer pulp comes from sources like obsolete paper stock or unused paper products, while post-consumer pulp comes from used paper that has been recycled to give it a second life. Both types of pulp are a massive improvement on virgin fiber in terms of protecting forests, but post-consumer pulp does way more to reduce overall waste. The EPA recommends buying paper towels that contain at least 40-60% post-consumer recycled pulp, but don’t be afraid to go above and beyond; more post-consumer recycled pulp = less waste.
Bamboo has become a popular pulp alternative that is now used by dozens of smaller brands. It’s important to note that the use of bamboo – in paper products and as a construction material – is nothing new. Bamboo has an extensive history in Asia and South America, and it’s about time we stop colonizing the use of bamboo here! Bamboo can grow 20 times faster than trees in the boreal and its cultivation is gentler on the land than the clearing required to harvest virgin wood pulp. According to the NRDC, tissue products made from bamboo pulp release 30% fewer greenhouse gas emissions compared to tissue made from virgin pulp. At the same time, bamboo can also be considered an invasive plant, is water intensive, can require significant fertilizer application, can have impacts on biodiversity, and can result in forest clearing (i.e. deforestation). So, don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that ALL bamboo is more sustainable simply because it is bamboo. If you shop for bamboo products, it’s important to look for the FSC certification to ensure sustainable sourcing and transparency in the supply chain.
Various chemicals are used when making paper towels out of paper pulp. Below are a few that we recommend avoiding.
Most conventional paper towels use chlorine bleach to give them that bright white sheen. Unfortunately, chlorine bleach contains harmful environmental pollutants called dioxins. These dioxins are emitted during manufacturing, poisoning waterways and animals, and sometimes making their way into our bodies through food. At high levels of exposure, dioxins can cause hormone and immune imbalances, allergies, and even cancer. Look for paper towels that are unbleached or chlorine-free.
Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong-smelling chemical found in an array of products, including those made with wood and paper. Products made with formaldehyde can release the chemical in gas form which, when inhaled, is known to cause skin, eye, nose, and throat irritation.
When we’re in a bind or overwhelmed by greenwashy-messaging, certifications can help us make choices that keep the environment and social good in mind. Here are some certifications to look out for on paper towels.
The Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) has a robust set of forest certification standards that enable forest managers in the United States and Canada to demonstrate that they are measuring quality, biodiversity, wildlife habitat, species at risk, forest conservation value, forest fiber content, and forest product traceability. The SFI is also committed to promoting forest-focused collaborations rooted in recognition and respect for Indigenous Peoples’ rights and traditional knowledge, as well as conservation.
Rainforest Alliance certification programs promote best practices for protecting standing forests, preventing the expansion of cropland into forests; fostering the health of trees, soils, and waterways; and protecting native forests.
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification ensures products come from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits. FSC has close to 50 forest management standards that apply in over 85 countries, so if you want to ensure that you’re purchasing paper towels from responsibly managed forests, make sure it bears the FSC label.
A FEW TAKEAWAYS
The carbon footprint of paper towels is relatively small compared to other household goods, but considering soiled paper towels are unrecyclable, it’s important to use alternatives when possible. When purchasing paper towels, try to buy those made of post-consumer recycled or bamboo pulp, that have SFI or FSC certifications, and that are chlorine-free to reduce their environmental and ecological footprints.
COMMON QUESTIONS WE GET
“What kind of paper towels are the most sustainable?”
While there’s really no such thing as “sustainable” paper towels because they all are the result of deforestation, we came up with this list of more sustainable paper towels based on what they’re made of.
“Should I use a dish towel instead of paper towels?”
At its core, the paper towel vs. cloth debacle comes down to water use. Because it takes less water to make one square foot of paper towel (~.05 gallons of water) than it does to make the equivalent rag AND it takes about five times more paper towels than rags to cope with similar messes, the two are equivalent from a water consumption standpoint. Even so, try designating paper towels to be used only on “special occasions”, like for those nasty spills that you never want to think about again. We recommend switching to dish towels for drying clean dishes and hands at the very least.
“Are paper towels biodegradable?”
Paper towels are biodegradable, meaning that when disposed of correctly (such as in a composting system), they are broken down by microorganisms and leave behind matter that can be safely reintegrated into the soil. However, when biodegradable products make their way into landfills, the lack of oxygen in landfill environments causes these products to produce methane, a greenhouse gas 28-80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. To combat this waste and methane production, we recommend composting your unbleached paper towels or giving some of your old towels or t-shirts a second life by cutting them up into reusable dish rags.