Friday, March 2, 2012

What's In... Paper Towels?

Oh, great. Now what?!  Sorry to ruin everyone's day, but I made the mistake of looking into what paper towels are made of and how they impact our health and our world.  Surprise, surprise - they kind of suck.  Especially the non-recycled (virgin fiber), heavily bleached varieties that tend to be most readily available at large retailers.

Let's start from the top.  What exactly is a plain old, white paper towel made of?  Here's the simple ingredient list from eHow:

PAPER:  Paper towels are made mostly of cellulose fibers, which are also known as paper.
GLUE: Paper towels have glue in them so that they don't fall apart when they get wet.

CHLORINE: Chlorine is sometimes added to cellulose fibers in an effort to whiten and brighten the product.
DYE OR PIGMENTS: Dye or pigments are added to some paper towels either to change the color of the entire paper towel or to produce designs on the paper towel.
SOFTENING ADDITIVES: Some paper towel brands add softening additives in order to make the product easier on the skin.

Wait - back to the chlorine thing for a minute.  What's so bad about chlorine?  We swim in it and bleach has been a hugely popular cleaning agent for the last hundred years. explains what's so bad about chlorine bleached paper towels:   "Bright white paper towels and napkins don’t get that way naturally. There are several methods of bleaching paper products, some far better than others. The one to avoid is Elemental Chlorine (chlorine gas). This is the worst of the bunch, and is responsible for the release of chlorinated compounds like dioxins and furans, which are powerful carcinogens and mutagens. These chemicals can adversely affect immune systems and reproductive systems and are dreadful for aquatic life and wildlife."

And how much of these "dreadful" paper towels are we consuming each day?  According to SC Johnson, "Every day, more than 3,000 tons of paper towel waste is produced in the U.S. alone*! To make one ton of paper towels, 17 trees and 20,000 gallons of water are polluted."

Uh... yikes?!  Here are some ways to cut down on this negative impact:

1.  BUY BROWN.  If you really like using paper towels, just pick recycled brands that are chlorine-free.  You can spot them on the shelf because they are brown. 

Not sure which paper products to buy, GreenPeace has a handy pocket guide you can download here to help you pick the greenest paper products when you are out shopping.

2.  REUSE.  This may shock some, but you can actually use a paper towel TWICE.  As long as the first mess you wiped wasn't overly grody, simply rinse the paper towel, wring it out and wipe again.  This simple act instantly cuts your paper towel use by 50%.

3.  COMPOST.  I found this great article online about how some waste disposal companies let you toss used paper towels into your green bin for compost pick-up.  There are two garbage companies that pick up in my county: Recology and Allied Waste.  I called both.  Recology DOES compost used paper towels.  Allied Waste DOES NOT compost used paper towels.  Recology for the win!  Of course every garbage company is different, so if you're interest in composting your paper towels, you'll have to call your local garbage service and ask about their policy.  

4.  USE CLOTH.  I recently started using sponge cloths to cut down on my paper towel use and I'm loving them.  If You Care is a German brand (Deutsch lebendig!) and I couldn't find info about them online.  But the packaging says these wipes are awesome for the following reasons: 
  • they are made out of recycled materials, 
  • can be washed and reused repeatedly, and  
  • the packaging is even compostable.  
I keep a stack of these by the kitchen sink and grab one each time I have a mess to wipe down.  After a use, I rinse and toss each one into the laundry.  This way I get the satisfaction of a disposable wipe (because I am a little phobic about smearing germs around the kitchen with a multi-use sponge) without actually throwing anything away.  Wins all around.

Got other paper-towel saving ideas?  Let's hear them!

1 comment:

  1. Awesome!! This definitely solves my dilemma of the gross "sponge on the sink" and "stinky dish cloth" issues without using a million paper towels per week. Thank you! :)


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