Paper towels seem like a brilliant invention. What’s more convenient than disposable towels that you never have to clean or use again? Just buy new and throw away the old one. What we may not think about when we use paper towels is the extreme waste they generate and what their effects on the environment really are.

Paper towels were first invented as a way for medical facilities to prevent the spread of germs. At first, these disposable products weren’t as popular as they are today, but that quickly changed. Paper towels were soon used in homes across the United States, and waste began piling up.

The effects of paper towels

Paper towels, like any paper product, are made from trees. That means every time you use a disposable towel, you’re using the inside of a tree to clean your counters and surfaces. Throughout your life, you will probably use thousands and thousands of scrolls, which will be the equivalent of an entire forest. Imagine a local forest you’ve walked through being completely cut down for just paper towels!

It’s not just trees that are consumed for paper towels

Paper towels use many more resources than trees. First, the trees must be grown to make the product. These can be grown on a farm or, more likely, just cut. This requires heavy machinery that uses fuel and labor to get the job done. Those trees then need to be transported to a facility to be cleaned and processed. The process will use more resources such as oil, and especially water.

The product will then be transported to a packaging facility. From there, they will go to a warehouse to be distributed, then to the grocery store, and then to your home. Imagine the amount of fuel used to transport these trees! This means that the fewer disposable towels and paper products you use, the fewer trees that will be felled.

paper towels in landfills

Landfills are full of disposable paper products such as diapers, napkins, printer paper, notebooks, tissues, and paper towels. There is no way to recycle or reuse many disposable paper products like sanitary napkins and diapers (not to mention unsanitary!). What happens to these paper products? Eventually, paper products biodegrade. The amount of time it takes for paper towels to biodegrade varies, but is typically about a year. The thicker the towel, the longer it will take to break down in the environment. Perhaps the biggest problem is that paper isn’t the only thing in paper products, and also that we’re using paper towels faster than they can biodegrade in the environment. We are using up our resources faster than we can replace them, and waste is piling up even faster.

Chemicals on paper towels

Paper towels aren’t exactly just trees. To increase absorbency, they were subjected to dioxins and other ingredients (the process is not described on the roll of paper towels). They are also bleached to give them their white color. The dangers of chlorine bleach have been well documented. Babies and young children are especially vulnerable to the effects of chlorine bleach. To reduce your exposure to these chemicals, limit your use of paper plates and towels. Instead, use regular plates, cloth napkins, and items that can be washed and reused.

why we need trees

Trees give us oxygen and filter our air. Since the Industrial Age, the world has been producing emissions that have been polluting our atmosphere. Trees are one of our only hopes to help clean the air, and we’re cutting them down much faster than we can keep up with replacing them. Trees also help filter soil and water, and provide much-needed shade for our homes. Wildlife also depends on trees for their existence. Excessive use of trees will result in the extinction of some species, it will trickle down to the human species one way or another. As we face the ugly prospect of climate change, it’s essential that we maintain as many trees as we can to help reduce emissions and filter the air we breathe. The United States is the largest user of disposable paper products, using 50% more than Europe and 500% more than Latin America. Despite the awareness around the consumption of disposable paper products, consumption continues to rise, making it even more important to spread the word about going reusable.

packaging waste

Like most other products created today, disposable products are wrapped in an outer layer of plastic, adding to their overall waste. The outer packaging has no other use than to contain the product. After opening the product, it is thrown away. It cannot be recycled. These thin plastics take thousands of years to photodegrade in the environment. Unlike biodegradable items, this means it will never really go away, it will just get smaller and smaller, eventually making its way into our waterways and drinking water.

How to reduce consumption

To cut down on your use of paper towels, try using a reusable towel instead. Wring out the towel and rinse as needed, washing the cloth in the washing machine when necessary. You’ll be surprised how much fewer times you’ll take out your trash simply by going reusable. It’s a great feeling to have a lighter load of trash! If you live in a city that charges per bag, that’s another potential savings for you. For apartment and condominium complexes, this could mean stable rates and rents due to the stability of the cost of dumpsters and dump truck rentals. In other words, the savings could be passed on to you.

The cost savings of going reusable

Going reusable isn’t just great for the environment, it’s great for your wallet. The cost savings add up quickly. The average cost of a package of paper towels is more than $1 per roll. A typical family probably uses a couple of rolls per week, maybe even 3-5. This can really add up! That’s about $3-5 per week, and lots of trees per week too. It’s hard to justify cutting down a few trees a week just to clean the counters, isn’t it? By going reusable, you’ll immediately realize the cost savings. Unlike the disposable variety, reusable ones can be used over and over again. The other benefit of going reusable is that you won’t have to lug your towels to the grocery store. They take up a lot of space in the shopping cart and in the store! The reusable ones take up a fraction of the space and can be stored right under the kitchen sink.

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