Living without Paper Towels

The United States ALONE uses 13 billion pounds of paper towels per year. Paper towel production has a termed called “cradle-to- grave”, this is in reference to a business’s environmental impact throughout the process of creating the product, to how the product is ultimately discarded. This is in contrast to “cradle-to-cradle” production which models’ systems after nature circular cycle of everything has a purpose.

Here is just some more general background information if you are interested, if not you can skip down to alternatives below!

Here are some not-so-fun facts about single use paper towels:

  • According to the EPA, paper makes up the largest share of municipal waste in the US.
  • To produce paper towels, it takes:
    • 110 million trees per year
    • 130 billion gallons of water per year
    • Huge amounts of energy and resources for manufacturing and transportation (releasing CO2)
  • After being used once, it ends up in the landfill where it will release methane (more harmful than CO2) as it breaks down
  • Paper towels are not recyclable
  • Pulp and paper are 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.
  • Worldwide the pulp and paper industry is the fifth largest consumer of energy, accounting for 4% of all the world’s energy use.
  • Pulp and paper mills discharge water that’s riddled with solids, dissolved organic, alcohol, inorganic material such as cholates, chlorine and metal compounds. All of this contributes to soil and water pollution.

The not-so-bad facts about paper towels

            You read that right, as with most things there is a flip side and although I am biased and would strongly advise avoiding paper towels as often as possible- if not altogether here are some alternative points on the benefits of this industry from a study linked here:

  • Annual removals of wood in the U.S. are less than half of annual net growth. In other words, each year forests of the United States grow more than twice as much wood as is harvested or otherwise removed.
  • Should markets for wood simply dry up, then there is a very real likelihood of land conversion to other uses such as urban development or agriculture. Avoiding use of paper may well result in significant loss of forest land.
  • The reality is that the greatest incentive for continued investment and retention of our nation’s forests is a stable market for paper and other wood products.

One of my favorite and most frustrating things I find about sustainability is that not only do you have to consider those many environmental impacts, but you also need to consider societal impacts such as regulations and the people that depend on those jobs that industry creates.


Alternatives & Where to Find Them

Use What You Have - First and foremost the best option is to use what you already have! Look around, any old t-shirts or towels you could cut up? Do you already have a collection of dish towels that you never use? Ask around, see if family or friends have the same that they aren't using and could give to you.  

Buy Second Hand- Check out your local thrift stores, flea markets, swap meets, farmers markets, and antique shops. You can usually not only find unique and one of a kind items, but for a fraction of the cost, supporting local businesses/ communities, and helps the environment by using what is already in circulation.

Make Your Own- Have scrap fabric, old cloths, or yarn? Cut into desired size and sew the edges, or crochet and knit squares (make sure yarn is 100% cotton or hemp).

Support other small businesses and Makers- If you want to buy new find someone in your community, or a local maker online on sites like Etsy are perfect for finding high quality and ethically made products

            (Of course, I have to mention that ZippNada sales 100% cotton knitted towels made locally in Lake Havasu)

What I personally use and my experience

            I gave up paper towels entirely when I moved out on my own. I did so for two main reasons 1) I was a college student who simply couldn't justify spending money on something that I was literally throwing away (click here to read about the cost benefits) and 2) The many environmental reasons listed above.

For me it was incredibly easy, I have a large stack of ZippNada knitted towels I use only for cleaning, vintage and hand me down tea towels for food preparation and other miscellaneous stuff, fabric napkins I made, and lastly I have some old rags that I use for any messy gross stuff. I throw whatever’s used in the wash once a week and good as new! For me personally I don't miss paper towels and honestly when people make a comment or ask about it I completely forget, it's just a normal habit for me.  My advice for just beginning is you can either quit cold turkey, or ease your way into it, whichever fits with your lifestyle and comfort level no way is better than the other.

What is your experience/ set up or reasons for/ against using single use paper towels? Leave us your answer in the comments below!