A lot of us have paper towels sitting on our kitchen countertops. We grew up with them there—easily accessible and always restocked. In 2017, Americans spent $5.7 billion on paper towels alone—as much as every other country combined. But while they’re undeniably handy, did you know they can cause ecological harm?
How Paper Towels Harm the Planet
Paper towels aren’t recyclable, so they almost always have to be thrown away. However, if you do use paper towels regularly, you can compost them instead of throwing them in the trash. Unfortunately, unless you compost at home, composting facilities still may not accept them. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found paper waste makes up the largest share of municipal waste in the United States.
Not only do paper towels create a lot of waste, but they also contribute to deforestation, which removes important carbon sinks that reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Producing paper towels also requires a lot of water: It’s estimated that one ton of paper towels requires 20,000 gallons of water.
In order to cut down on our usage, we should first ask ourselves why we use paper towels in the first place. Chances are, it’s to keep things sanitary. In 1907, one teacher found that students spread germs using a shared towel. She invented paper towels to reduce the spread of germs in her classroom during cold season. While this makes sense, research from the Mayo Clinic shows that there is little to no difference between using paper towels or reusable hand towels for bacteria removal.
If you’re looking for ways to make your cleaning routine more sustainable, start by reducing how many paper towels you use. Or, opt for eco-friendly paper towel alternatives.
How To Use Less Paper Towels
After using paper towels as the go-to cleaning product for decades, it’s not easy to change our habits. But don’t worry—we have a hack for you that can make you think twice before reaching for the roll.
Instead of keeping paper towels on the counter next to the kitchen sink, keep them hidden. The trick to using less is to make it a choice: reusable or disposable? Try putting your paper towels and dish rags under the sink. If you need them, they’re there. By making them slightly harder to reach, you’ll put more thought into which one you need.
While reusable hand towels tend to pile up, you can keep a designated basket under the sink for used rags. When you’re almost out of clean towels, throw them in with the laundry. It’s that easy.
Eco-Friendly Paper Towel Alternatives
1. Swedish Dishcloths
Want to ditch typical paper towels altogether? Swedish dishcloths are a great place to start. The reusable cleaning cloth replaces both paper towels and sponges, allowing you to clean up in a more planet-friendly manner. (Just one replaces 17 rolls!) Since they’re made of natural materials, they’re also completely biodegradable once it’s time to toss them out.
2. Bamboo Paper Towels
If you still want paper towels but want to shop more mindfully, give Reel a try. The Brightly-approved brand makes its paper towels out of 100% bamboo, which can grow up to three feet per day and regrows naturally. The regenerative plant also absorbs carbon dioxide and produces 35% more oxygen than trees.
3. Reusable Paper Towels
There’s also an option to use reusable cloth paper towels. You can easily make your own with cotton towels or old rags using these instructions. Store-bought versions are available, too—like the above option from Marley’s Monsters.
These changes will take some getting used to, but you can do it! Little by little, we can all make more sustainable choices that better the planet.
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