four paper towel rolls on a window sill

The Environmental Impact of Paper Towels

Week 33

Since we've adjusted all of our cleaning products to be a little more sustainable, it's finally time to tackle our paper towel habit. I use paper towels pretty liberally when I'm cleaning and before Week 8 of my Tiny Waste Resolution, I was using them as napkins for most meals. This is going to be a tough one, but we've made it so far already. Let's ditch those paper towels!

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What is the problem with paper towels?

Paper Waste

In one survey of 2,000 Americans, adults used an average of 145 rolls of paper towels every year. In total, Americans use an estimated 13 billion pounds of paper towels annually. And according to the EPA, tissue paper and paper towels contributed 7.58 billion pounds of MSW (Municipal Solid Waste) in 2018. Although paper towels are biodegradable, they can take a month to break down when sent to a landfill.

Water Waste

There is one paper towel specific statistic that I've seen on multiple websites stating that 20,000 gallons of water are required to make one ton of paper towels. However, all of them cite The Paperless Project as a source and it seams their website no longer exists. I can tell you, however, that one sheet of paper requires, on average, 3 gallons of water. So, while we don't have hard numbers on the amount of water used to produce a roll of paper towels, it is clear that all paper production requires a lot of water, which is an extremely valuable resource that we should do our best to conserve.


The Paperless Project is also cited for the number of trees used in paper towel production, 17 trees per ton. Again, since they are no longer an active source, we'll have to go another route. A few months ago, while looking at the environmental impact of toilet paper, I found an article from National Geographic stating that worldwide, 27,000 trees are cut down, every day, just for toilet paper. The average American uses 23.6 rolls of toilet every year and according to the survey mentioned above, they use roughly 145 rolls of paper towels every year. So, even if we cut that number in half, it's safe to say that a lot of trees are being cut down to supply our paper towel habit.

I want to briefly go over the negative effects of deforestation as mentioned in an article by

  • Greenhouse Gas Emissions - Greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide are the leading cause of climate change. Trees release oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide... unless they are cut down.
  • Soil Erosion - Roots from trees and other plants keep soil compact. When forests are removed, the soil loses it's anchor, making way for erosion and in serious cases, disastrous mudslides.
  • Water Cycle Disruption - Trees soak up water from the ground which they release into the atmosphere during photosynthesis. That moisture eventually becomes rain, which goes back into the ground and our oceans. When large swaths of trees are removed, the land can become barren and dry.
  • Biodiversity Losses - Deforestation alters the landscape too quickly for plants and animals to cope, so many do not survive.

What about wet wipes?

The majority of wet wipes are made with plastic resins like polyester or polypropylene. Wet wipes will not only take hundreds of years to break down in a landfill, but they are often the culprit of plumping, septic, and sewer clogs.

Can paper towels be recycled?

Paper towels are not generally accepted for recycling since the fibers are not sufficient to make new products. The cardboard tubes, however, can and should be recycled or repurposed.

Is there a more sustainable option?

Simply cutting down the amount of paper towels you use is a step in the right direction, but please read my next post for 5 Sustainable Paper Towel Alternatives. And if you opt for wet wipes on a regular basis, consider making some reusable cloth wet wipes to use instead.

5 Sustainable Paper Towel Options →