Did you know that US citizens spend about $5.7 billion/year on paper towels? This is an incredible amount of money spend on products that will just be thrown away and end up in landfills. This is totally unnecessary, as there are lots of alternatives out there that are not only great for our dear planet but can also save you lots of money.
Why I am not using paper towels?
A couple of years ago I stopped buying paper towels. Why you ask? Well, in my opinion, paper towels are:
Incredibly wasteful and unnecessary as you use it once and then they are grown out.
Not as sustainable as you might initially think. Read more below.
Easily replace by something more sustainable.
So, with all these good reasons to stop using paper towels, why would I continue to use them? Right… I am not.
How are paper towels made?
As you read above, paper towels are not as sustainable as you might think. More specifically, the whole paper industry is not very sustainable. You can read more about that here. But right now we are looking into the paper towel industry more specifically.
Paper towels consist of paper pulp (the absorbent core ingredient), ink (for decorative purposes), water-based adhesives (hold the layer together and keeps paper attached to the cardboard core), and conditioners (for strength and consistency of the paper).
The main ingredient of paper towels is paper pulp. In contrary to what you might think, paper pulp does not consist 100% out of paper. Paper towels are made similar to commercial paper. The towels start as softwood trees. These trees produce long and even fibers that can be turned into pulp. After the bark is removed, the wood is carefully chipped into small pieces. Afterward, the wood pieces are dissolved using chemicals creating pulp.
This pulp can be easily manipulated into a variety of shapes like paper towels. Before it can be used it must first be cleaned and bleached to make it white. The pulp is mixed with a resin so the pulp fibers can bond again and it is rolled into a thin layer to create paper.
Paper layers for paper towels are not as hard compressed together as for example regular paper as paper towels need to be much softer. Here is where the water-based adhesive is used. Some towels are also embossed to create small pockets of air to increase the absorbency. The towels are printed for branding and decorative purposes.
Problems with paper towels?
You might think that paper towels are made from a renewable source aka trees which give the impression that it shouldn’t affect our environment as much but there are a few things to take into consideration.
Trees are not a crop like maize. They are not planted on agricultural farmland and harvested after a few years. A forest needs to be ‘removed’ to make way for trees to be planted for the paper industries (not all trees are suitable to create paper). The newly planted trees are not self-sustaining and require resources and time before they can be harvested. Tree-pulp can be renewable but only if the wood has been certified as sustainably harvested.
But the biggest problem with paper towels is that they are thrown away. Worldwide 254 million tons of trash every year is generated each year solely from paper towels. Even worse, paper towels (even though made from recycled content) can’t be recycled due to the added adhesive to make them stronger when wet.
How much do paper towels cost me?
And then there is the cost to take into consideration. The average US household uses about 2,5 rolls of kitchen towels (incl paper tissues) per week (during the current Covid-19 Pandemic this amount might be even higher). Which is actually the highest paper towel consumption in the world.
Let’s say for this example each paper kitchen towel roll costs $1,- (not the cheapest ones but also not the most expensive ones). The average family uses 2,5 rolls per week and there are 52 weeks per years so:
2,5 rolls x 52 weeks x $1,- = $130,- per year.
What are the alternatives?
Did you know that for one ton of paper towels 17 trees and 20,000 gallons of water are polluted? So, it is time to look for a more sustainable alternative.
Use what you have
Old washcloths, dish towels, or even old t-shirts can all be cut up into smaller towels that can be used as unpaper towels. After wiping up spills you can toss them in the washing machine to be used again.
Unpaper towel roll
If you want something a little nicer than the regular paper towel roll, then you are in for a treat as there are so many super cute prints available for your unpaper towel roll. These unpaper towels are made with 2 layers of fabric. One super absorbent layer is made with a muslin cloth and one decorative layer. Both are 100% cotton and there is even an organic version available. They are not only great to save money and paper, they also look super cute in your kitchen.
How much do I save?
Next to saving lots of trees (17 trees for a ton of paper as you read above), the use of unpaper towels also save you a lot of money. It might be a larger investment initially but through the year you will notice that it saves you a lot too.
If you use what you have, you could save the above mentioned $130,- each year simply by not purchasing paper towels anymore.
But even if you decide you want something pretty in your kitchen and choose an unpaper towel roll with a nice print it doesn’t set you back as much as you might think.
Let's say you want 2 sets (as 2 sets make a full roll) of $35,- a set. So, the whole set will set you back $70,-. You will use them often of course so after about 5 years they are completely worn out. So, on a yearly base unpaper towels will cost you:
$70,- / 5 years = $14,-
Saving you: $130,- - $14,- = $116,- on a yearly base.
I hope these explanations and calculations gives you just the extra bit of motivation to consider an alternative to the regular disposable paper towels.