The Paper Towel Problem by Heather Ramsey

Paper products account for more than a third of waste in US landfills, with paper use expected to rise steeply over the next few decades. A large amount of this paper comes from products like paper napkins and paper towels, which are used once and, since it is not possible to recycle them, only once, before being sent to the landfill.

Often, these products are bleached using chlorine, a process that is harmful for humans and the environment, as chlorinated compounds are linked to cancers and reproductive harm and build up higher concentrations as they pass from the environment to one animal then the next, up through the food chain. The bleaching process does not boost the effectiveness of a napkin or paper towel; its only effect is to lighten the color of the paper, since many consumers tend to associate whiter papers with cleanliness and darker ones with dirt. Unfortunately, as lighter papers may contain these harsh chemicals, it is actually rather the opposite.

The paper-wasting habit, while certainly occurring at home, is a frequent occurrence away from home as well. When in a public restroom while shopping, at a movie, or at a restaurant, people tend to use fistfuls of paper towels without a second thought. At fast food restaurants, customers tend to grab stacks of napkins along with their straws and condiments, ensuring not only that they won't need a second trip for more napkins, but also that they will have quite a few left over at the end of the meal with nowhere to go but the trash can. After witnessing this phenomenon (and participating in it without realizing it), it hit home to Pete Kazanjy what a big, and unnecessary, problem this was. After finding the same problem in public restrooms, where people tend to take several more paper towels than needed to dry their hands, Pete began the These Come From Trees blog ( where he aims to remind everyone (including himself) that items like paper towels and napkins came from trees and that we should be mindful when using them.

Rather than pointing the finger at all of us for being insensitive and wasteful, Pete's realization came after noticing that he, too, was taking more than necessary without a second thought. This inspired not only the blog, but a sticker designed to be placed on paper towel dispensers in public restrooms, available for purchase on the site. Many businesses have bought the stickers (after all, less paper use in their restrooms means less money spent on buying it in the first place) and the stickers are available for free to educational institutions. While I wouldn't recommend placing stickers guerilla-style, if you own or manage a business or even just frequent one, advocate for their use. Testing has shown that the stickers reduce paper towel use by about 15%.

And, despite my skepticism that electric hand dryers are more efficient than paper towels, research has shown that that is, in fact, the case. This is especially true since hand dryers will likely continue to improve in efficiency, while paper towels will remain as wasteful as they are today. So, if a restroom has both a dryer and paper towels, use the dryer. The extra few seconds it takes will be worth it.

Aside from using fewer paper products when out and about, there is plenty to be done at home as well. Since in this case, recycling the used product isn't an option, it is even more important to buy recycled paper towels and napkins, with the highest available percentage of post-consumer content. Seventh Generation has a line of recycled paper towels, and many larger supermarkets have their own brands, as well. Just by switching to paper towels made from recycled paper, we could save several million cubic feet of space in landfills and hundreds of thousands of trees.

And, lest we put too much focus on recycling, it is perhaps more important to return to the first R - reduce. A relatively easy way to reduce paper towel use is to switch to reusable cloth towels for the majority of your cleanup jobs. Sponges can often be a useful substitute for cleaning up messes, as can micofiber cloths or even rags made of old t-shirts. Cloths and rags can be used for cleanup, then tossed in the washer with the rest of a load of laundry, then reused over and over. The same goes for cloth napkins at the dinner table.

A good goal to set is to try to use reusable cloths for three fourths of your cleanup - that way you'll still be able to throw away a few paper towels when the mess is one of those special messes that you can't imagine cleaning up any other way, and you'll still be reducing your waste by quite a bit.

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Volume 5, Issue 2, Posted 11:23 PM, 01.27.2009