The Dirty Details on Paper Towels

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Discarded paper towels result in 254 million tons of paper towel trash every year. The best choice for eco-conscious consumers are reusables.

Single use paper towels and products are surely convenient, but they come at a heavy cost — to our environment and to our pocketbooks.

Did you know that every day more than 51,000 trees are cut down to support North America’s paper towel habit? Or that the paper industry in general consumes more water than any other single industry on Earth?


  • To make one ton of paper towels 17 trees and 20,000 gallons of water are polluted.
  • Globally, discarded paper towels result in 254 million tons of paper towel trash every year.
  • If just 50% of the U.S. population uses 3 paper napkins a day, that totals 450,000,000 napkins for 1 day—or more than 164 billion per year.
  • If every household in the U.S. used just one less 70-sheet roll of paper towels, that would save 544,000 trees each year.
  • Worldwide the pulp and paper industry is the fifth largest consumer of energy, accounting for 4% of all the world’s energy use.
  • Over 60% of the roughly 17 billion cubic feet of timber harvested worldwide each year is used for paper and pulp.
  • The paper industry uses more water to produce a ton of product than any other industry.
  • Discarded paper is a major component of many landfill sites, accounting for about 35% by weight of municipal solid waste.
  • Pulp and paper is the third largest industrial polluter to air, water and land in both Canada and the United States, and releases well over 100 million kg of toxic pollution each year.

Facts and figures like these help highlight the costs of our dependence on a product that’s used once and then tossed. It’s alarming, but what can we do? After all, we’re just one person. But I suspect this may be exactly the kind of attitude that makes a bad problem worse. The kind of mindset that says, “Eh, no matter what I do or don’t do, it’s not going to have an impact. After all, I’m just one person.”

As it turns out, there’s a lot we can do to help conserve resources like trees and water, especially when we’re talking about paper towel and napkin usage. When many of us commit to a few small, conscious choices, it’s amazing the difference we can make. And it doesn’t have to be particularly hard or inconvenient!


Teach your kids to minimize usage and to limit to one paper towel, whether at home or in public.

Did you know that used paper towels, though hard to recycle, can be composted? Just make sure they are the unbleached, chlorine-free variety and that they haven’t been contaminated with any chemicals that could disrupt your compost.

Of course, using towels and tissues made from recycled paper also helps conserve precious resources.


Because electric hand dryers save trees and create less waste than paper towels, you may have wondered whether they were more Earth-friendly than using a paper towel. Well, you guessed right: there’s evidence that they are at least a little more environmentally friendly about 95% of the time. So when your choice is between paper or air to dry your hands, air is almost always the most Earth-friendly choice.


The best choice of all for today’s conscious consumers are towels and napkins made from high-quality, quick-drying microfiber. A good-quality microfiber is much more Earth-friendly than paper, and even offers a number of benefits over reusable cloth towels and napkins:

  • It’s more absorbent.
  • It dries more quickly.
  • It’s extremely soft on the skin.
  • It’s durable and resists pilling.

Additionally, a family of four can easily spend $650 – $1,000 on paper towels over the course of five years! Reusable towels and napkins are an easy zero waste kitchen swap to make that will save you from having to buy package after package of the single-use paper products.

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