Paper Towel Problems

paper towel problems

This month, we spill the beans about paper towels and their destructive roll . . . er, role . . . regarding the greater environment.

By the end of this story, you might feel pretty wiped, but we shall endeavor to include a few upbeat tips for you to soak up.

OK, no more paper towel puns. Let’s pivot to the grim facts.

In 2020, Americans used more than 13 billion pounds of paper towels, according to Dennis Kamprad of the sustainability-focused website Impactful Ninja (“Are Paper Towels Sustainable? Here Are the Facts”). Presumably, that weight is pre-use. In any case, it is pre-posterously heavy.

That 13 billion pounds of paper towels, Terrapass blogged recently, is equivalent to “throwing out 270 million trees.” Americans, the blog states, are responsible for almost one-half of paper towel use on the planet.

Kamprad writes that paper towels’ environmental shortcomings extend through all four stages of what he describes as their life cycle: sourcing the materials, manufacturing, usage and disposal. He summarizes the first two stages this way:

“Like paper, most paper towels are made from ‘virgin’ wood pulps, recycled materials, or a combination of both. Virgin pulps are made from softwood trees as they contain longer fibers which make the paper stronger. The bark from these trees is chemically or mechanically broken down into smaller pieces to form a pulp. The pulp is cleaned with chlorine bleach and is ready to be rolled into white paper towels.”

Kamprad adds that “in the past 20 years, Canada lost 28 million acres of forests to the wood pulp industry.” That wood pulp was used for all types of paper products, not just paper towels. But still. Plus: “The paper and pulp industry are the fourth largest contributor to the emission of greenhouse gases. In fact, the industry consumes a whopping 4 percent of the world’s energy.”

So clearly, paper towels are not good for the environment. But how else can we take care of spills, splotches and the like?

Terrapass offers these eight alternatives to paper towels: beeswax food wraps, chambray napkins, cotton kitchen cloths, huck towels, linen or cotton bowl covers, linen bread bags, linen cocktail napkins and sponges. You also can employ rags, which can be old or somehow compromised towels or even clothes (T-shirts and socks, for example).

Kamprad endorses biodegradable cloth towels, usually made from bamboo. “If possible, choose a cloth that does not contain added pigments or dyes—they too contribute to pollution.” He further suggests that any towel or fabric used for cleaning purposes should be washed in cold water and air-dried to lighten its carbon footprint.

Where can one buy bamboo-based paper towels in the Sacramento region? Natural foods stores (the co-ops in Midtown and Davis) and “greener” grocers such as Whole Foods and Sprouts are options. Your closets, drawers or dusty boxes, bins and bags in the attic or cellar might prove to contain a gold mine in terms of paper towel alternatives.

Once you have reduced or replaced paper towel use in your household, what say you move on to the logical next step toward paper-product-avoiding virtuosity: handkerchiefs! Eh? What’s that you are saying in such a dismissive tone? We hear you, but perhaps you could give it at least a little thought.