Updated: Aug 27, 2022
tl;dr: none of us are perfect and that the smallest of changes, when accumulated and popularized, can make a difference. Don't use paper towels.
Hopefully many of you are familiar with the incredible works of Douglas Adams, starting with his iconic book, The Hitchhikers's Guide to the Galaxy. In this guide, one of the most important tips is that "any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the Galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with" The towel has many handy uses. It can be used as a sail to propel your watercraft. When wet, it can be a very effective weapon. Use it as a distress signal, or cover your head to ward off noxious fumes. And when dry and clean enough, obviously you can also use it to remove moisture. Apparently the towel is the Swiss army knife of woven cloth items. Instead of interstellar travel, let's focus on some relatively mundane Earth-related issues. By the way, my recommendation is that if you are going to get a towel, definitely consider a Restoration Hardware towel. You'll thank me later, I promise you.
Many households have towels for various purposes. Most homes have a kitchen drawer filled with them. A large number of those drawers have been filled with rags, rarely used. If they are lucky, they were neatly folded into the drawer, almost a somber burial ceremony, never to be opened again. All too frequently, the towels are balled up and crammed into whatever space is available. Our towel drawer is a little bit of both. We also rarely use them. Until the other day, when after spilling something on the floor. In a rush to clean it up, I reached for the closest thing available to me, which was a roll of paper towels. My wife has dived enthusiastically with me into the world of sustainability work. She proved it in such a tiny, yet substantial manner when she suggested that I use an actual cloth towel to clean it up instead of a paper towel. We both stopped for a moment, realizing the magnitude of what had just occurred. Of course the best thing to do is to use a cloth towel that can be rewashed and dried. However, we still purchase and use paper towels more often than we want to admit. The fact that it was my wife, and not myself, who prompted the correct use of the cloth towel was definitely very cool! It was so cool, that she casually suggested that the next blog post be about her prompting me to use a towel. What is the term? Ahh, yes, "happy wife means happy life" So here we are, talking about towels in this week's blog post.
The towel that is mentioned in the Hitchhiker's Guide is not a paper towel. Thank goodness for that. Why not? Paper towels are a staple in the average American kitchen. There are many reasons for this. They are absurdly convenient. Again, why not have the interstellar towel be a paper one? Well, because when we look at paper towels through a sustainability lens, there are some significant costs to that convenience. There is a process called life-cycle assessment (LCA) that can applied to all products. The stages for paper towels are sourcing, manufacturing, usage, and end-of-life. In every single stage of the LCA, paper towels are very much unsustainable. First, something that might not be widely known is that the paper and pulp industry is the fourth largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The industry also uses about four percent of the world's available energy. Additionally, one ton of paper towels uses and pollutes 20,000 gallons of freshwater to produce. The US consumes 6,500,000 tons of paper towels every single year. That means 130 billion gallons of water are impacted annually. Other LCA issues include the fact that paper towels are not easily recyclable. Contamination with dirt, oils, solvents, chemicals, and bacteria makes recycling very challenging. While recycled paper towels do save a ton of trees (LetsGoGreen claims that every single roll of recycled paper towels saves 544,000 trees), the water and carbon emissions of recycled paper towels is relatively the same as virgin pulp paper towels. Knowing these facts, how awesome are paper towels now?
It is estimated that paper towels count for 20-40% of all waste from offices and college dorms. They really are a very convenient item to have. Despite that convenience, much of that consumption can be drastically reduced, and it frankly desperately needs to be. The reality is that paper towels are everywhere, and use up a huge amount of space in landfills. A better place for paper towels to end up is actually in the compost pile. Unfortunately, only non-bleached towels qualify for this, and those cannot contain any grease. Even doing good comes with challenges, which begs the question: isn't it just easier not to use paper towels at all? When all the issues are added up, do the benefits out weigh the damage that something so seemingly innocuous can cause to our world? The answer is sadly, no. What are some alternatives? Cloth towels are ideal, especially if you can repurpose cloth from other sources to turn them into towels or rags. I can attest that old Brooks Brothers shirts make wonderful dust rags. Bamboo cloths are a terrific sustainable option as well.
We can make some serious reductions to our paper towel use if two things are present. The first is to identify suitable replacements, which we've been able to produce for you. The second is the willingness to break habits that have been ingrained into our consumptive muscle memory. My wife ably showed that not too long ago by rejecting the quicker-picker-upper and suggesting I use a good old fashioned rag instead. The truth is that none of us are perfect and that the smallest of changes, when accumulated and popularized, can make a difference. In this case, not only did that result in a happier wife, but also in the tiniest of ways, a happier planet. Maybe cloth towels have some pretty cool purposes here on Earth as well. I would suggest having 42 of them : )