Wait paper towels really come from trees?

Technically my title is misleading because paper towels come from forests not individual trees, but more on that below.

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First of all, to recap, I don’t use paper towels. I haven’t bought any in four or so years and while many advocates of paper towels note that non-paper towel users have a self-righteous attitude I don’t personally not use paper towels to make some grand statement. I don’t use paper towels because…

  • Going without paper towels is one small green step but in the long run it makes a big positive difference for the planet.
  • Paper towels are not eco-friendly and do cause multiple problems for the planet.
  • Most of all though, I skip paper towels because I don’t have a good reason to use them. This isn’t some tricky green issue like toilet paper use or building an off-grid home by hand. Paper towels are not hard to live without. There is an easy alternative for paper towels – cloth.

However, not everyone agrees that giving up paper towels makes that big a difference. Some people don’t even believe that they pose an environmental threat. In Why Being “Paper Towel Free” Is Overrated the author notes, “It’s all the rage to say, “I’m paper towel-less!” like there’s a medal to be won or a badge of honor to wear because of it. There can be a tinge of shame when you sheepishly raise your hand to admit you still use them in your home. Being green enough is a whole new way to keep up with the Jones’. Which ever side of the fence you’re on, it seems like a silly point to cause so much drama, like there should be other issues we might be able to make a bigger personal impact on.

The author of this piece also says that no one can tell her any good reasons why she shouldn’t use paper towels and that there’s a lack of information and stats out there about paper towels. She then goes on to say that the cons of paper towels she’s read make no sense. She lists the most common arguments for dumping paper towels as…

  • Paper towels equal pollution via production and transport.
  • They are made with virgin trees thus “killing” trees.
  • They’re processed with chemicals.
  • They don’t recycle well.
  • There’s no reason to use them if you have cloth.

Then she states that she’s not convinced that any of the above is true. Um? I’m not sure where she thinks paper towels come from if she doesn’t believe they come from trees, and as for the rest, that’s all true too. I’m not sure where she was looking for facts, but paper towel facts are easy to find.

However, since she’s stating there’s no decent information out there how about some paper towel facts, let’s look at some.

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What exactly are paper towels?

Forest products can be tricky for consumers as the is industry broken into some key areas – pulp and paper, wood products, timber, tissue and nonwoven. Paper towels fall under tissue production and is the second most common tissue product purchased by consumers.

Paper products are further divided in different ways by groups such as the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) into items like; Containerboard, Kraft Paper, Paperboard, Printing & Writing Papers, Pulp, Specialty Packaging and Industrial Papers, Tissue and Newsprint.

How are paper towels made?

According to the European Tissue Symposium (a large tissue advocacy group), “The basic raw material in tissue production is wood fiber.” Wood fiber – as in a fiber that at some point originally came from a tree. The wood fiber can be fresh fiber or recycled from waste paper.

Most paper towel makers themselves note that they make their paper towels out of trees (not a big shock) – I think we can all agree that most paper products come from trees. Learn more about who controls the paper towel market.

  • Bounty notes, “Bounty paper towels are made from virgin wood pulp. We make Bounty from trees that are processed into pulpwood. Long fibers from softwood trees, such as pine and spruce, are used. After debarking, the pulpwood is turned into chips that are cooked. The natural “glue” that holds the fibers together is removed, leaving a fibrous pulp mixture. The pulp goes through cleaners and screens and is bleached to make it absorbent. ” Bounty gives a fair and accurate (from what I can tell) statement about how their paper towels are made actually – see more.
  • Brawny paper towels notes, “Sorry, we cannot disclose the exact materials used to manufacture Brawny paper products, as it is proprietary and confidential information.” I’m guessing they use trees? What do you think?
  • VIVA notes, “VIVA Towels are made from 100% virgin fiber. The cardboard cores utilize 100% recycled paper.
  • Scott Naturals Towels are made with 60% recycled fiber. Since I can’t find any Q&A for their original I’m guessing their basic paper towels are made with 100% virgin fiber.
  • Seventh Generation paper towels are made with 100% recycled paper (minimum 80% post-consumer, 20% pre-consumer).

According to The State of the Paper Industry there is some good news, tissues use far more recycled content than other sectors of the paper industry to create products (45%). However the tissue industry is large and as you can see if you visit major paper towel manufacturers sites, the vast majority of paper towels on the market are made with virgin tree fiber.

If you’re worried about trees vanishing completely, you shouldn’t be because technically the paper industry plants more trees than they consume – however if you’re going to be realistic and appreciate this fact you also need to be aware that replanting trees is not the same thing as preserving forests.

The paper industry calls trees a “renewable resource,” which gives the impression that there are zero problems with cutting down trees however it’s way more complex than that.

As Conserveatree notes, “Counting trees individually misses much of their value. “Saving forests” should be the resource focus. Trees are not a “crop” in the normal sense of the word. They are not planted on agricultural farmland. Before a tree farm is planted, forests have to fall. While some trees are grown on plantations for the paper industry, particularly in the southern United States, these replanted trees do not make a true forest. They are usually managed intensively, with heavy use of petrochemical inputs such as pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. They are monocultures, without the mix of types of trees, different ages, bushes, undergrowth, snags, etc. that true forests have. Therefore they also do not have the wildlife, birds, amphibians and biological diversity of a true forest.

Also unlike a true forest, replanted trees are not self-sustaining and require resources and human time. Tree pulp is only truely “renewable” when the wood has been independently certified as sustainably-harvested Visit the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) for more info on sustainably harvested forests.

Are there really negative eco-issues created by paper towel production?

  • The pulp and paper industry is the single largest consumer of water used in industrial activities and is the third greatest industrial greenhouse gas emitter, after the chemical and steel industries (OECD Environmental Outlook, p. 218). However, the The State of the Paper Industry says it’s a little better noting that the paper industry is the 4th largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions among United States manufacturing industries, (contributing 9% of the manufacturing sector’s carbon emissions).
  • 75% of the plantations established for paper and wood products in the last 20 years have been established at the expense of natural forests (USFS, SFRA 2001) and the conversion of forests to plantations is the leading cause of freshwater wetland loss in the region. (US Fish & Wildlife Service, Status and Trends of Wetlands in the Conterminious United States 1986 to 1997.)
  • Rob Gogan, the recycling and waste manager at Harvard University, estimated that paper towels can account for 20 to 40 percent of an office or dorm’s waste by volume (source).
  • Typical paper towels are manufactured using chlorine, a known toxin which releases carcinogenic dioxins into the environment.
  • According to The State of the Paper Industry, in total, paper accounts for 25% of landfill waste (and one third of municipal landfill waste) and most paper towels are hard to recycle (see below). This wouldn’t be such a big deal except for that municipal landfills account for one third of human-related methane emissions. In turn, methane is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
  • The majority of all commercial inks used in paper are made with petroleum, a non-renewable resource. Vegetable oil-based inks such as soybean, linseed, corn, cottonseed, canola, China wood and rosin are super available and more environmentally sound and make recycling easier but few paper towel makers choose vegetable-based inks (some do).

Of course we could get into all the damage the paper industry does on the whole, but that’s not 100% related to paper towels so you can read that on your own time…
Environmental Impacts of the Paper Industry

Who buys paper towels and how many are they buying?

RISI, king of all information and trends related to the global forest products industry, who by the way is an advocate for clients in the pulp and paper, wood products, timber, tissue and nonwovens industries, they’re not an environmental group, notes that the USA is by far the leading consumer country of tissue products (pdf); “Consumer toilet tissue and kitchen toweling, by far, accounted for the largest volume of growth in North America in 1996-2006.

  • The US remains the largest single market because of its continued growth in the per capita consumption. It takes the worldwide lead for tissue consumption at close to 24 kg, followed by Canada at 22 kg.
  • North Americans currently purchase tissue products in the following amounts:  toilet tissue (45%), toweling (36%), napkins (12%), facial tissue (6%) and other uses, including sanitary (1%).
  • RISI also notes that tissue products including paper towels can be divided into “at home” and “away from home” (Commercial & Industrial) usage markets. Although AF&PA breaks it down one further adding “Specialty” which simply includes wrapping tissue for gifts and dry cleaning, as well as crepe paper for decorating.
  • 2/3 of North American tissue consumption happens at home. The high rate of paper towel use is attributed to “New products and product modifications by all the main players, including Procter & Gamble (P&G), Kimberly-Clark (K-C) and Georgia-Pacific (G-P). Decorative designs, nice print quality and color embossing have made toweling an attractive product for use not only in the kitchen, but also in many other household applications.” Additional reasons noted as to why we buy more tissue in American include, “The generally positive attitude towards consuming and shopping; the wider variety of tissue goods available; strong promotion of brands.

But so many people are trying to live green – that means we must be buying fewer paper towels…

No. Tissue use is a growing global product category meaning we’re buying more not fewer paper towels as time goes on.

In fact tissue growth, especially paper towel growth is extremely large in the USA. According to Brad Kalil, Director of Tissue, RISI. Some quick points about growth in this sector include…

  • The tissue market is one of the strongest growing segments in forest products.
  • In just the last 10 years the North American tissue market has expanded 2.1% annually while the rest of the world has grown by 4.6% annually. It would seem that worldwide usage would be more, but even though worldwide tissue growth in total is nearly double that of North America, the United States is still the largest tissue market in the world.
  • During the last 20 years North American consumption of tissue has increased by 5 kg which as RISI points out means that the, “The tissue business continues to have good growth opportunities even when the market is mature and product penetration is high.”
  • Overall demand for tissue products in North America is forecast to grow at an average annual rate of 1.2% over the next three years (2008-2010), growing nearly 93,000 tonnes annually.

Additionally, global production in the pulp, paper and publishing sector is expected to increase by 77% from 1995 to 2020 (OECD Environmental Outlook. Paris: OECD, 2001, p.215)

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Are recycled paper towels better than paper towels made with virgin wood fiber?

Not by much and not at all when compared to reusable cloth. Recycled paper towels create problems because they’re harder to recycle than even regular paper towels and they make people think they’re taking a greener step – i.e. it’s ok to use paper towels so long as they’re recycled when really reusable options are better.

That said, I still think recycled paper towels are a little better because they use less virgin tree fibers. For example one NRDC study found that if every household in the U.S. replaced just ONE regular roll of virgin fiber paper towels with ONE roll of 100% recycled paper towels, it would save 544,000 trees. And The State of the Paper Industry notes that paper products made with 100% recycled content uses 44% less energy, produces 38% less greenhouse gas emissions, 41% less particulate emissions, 50% less wastewater, 49% less solid waste.

Imagine how many trees and other resources we’d save if we all ditched paper towels altogether!?

Environmental Defense (pdf) does note that while producing recycled paper uses much less total energy than producing virgin paper, producing recycled paper may use more or less purchased energy (a subset of total energy), in the form of fossil fuels and purchased electricity (depending on grade). Some lifecycle assessments have seen fewer benefits to creating recycled paper products vs. virgin paper products but the debate about this is ongoing. Basically reusable products are greener than both recycled or virgin paper products.

Conservatree – one of the biggest pushers of recycled paper ever even notes that use reduction is a better eco-goal than recycled; although both together is best they conclude.

Anyhow if you do buy recycled paper towels only use them when you REALLY need them and then use them to an excess. Use them until they’re used up well. Then attempt to get rid of them in a more sustainable manner.

Can you recycle paper towels?

No. Not so much. Most local recycling centers will not accept products of any kind with food grease on them. Recycling centers also may refuse to take paper towels due to concern about germs. In fact the entire New York recycling system won’t accept any paper towels for recycling and tells residents to put them in the trash.

Plus when paper towel products are made with recycled fiber content it shorten the fibers and makes them harder to recycle. The EPA notes, “Every time paper is recycled, the fibers get shorter. After being recycled five to seven times, the fibers become too short to bond into new paper.

Also keep in mind that despite what paper towel companies may say, paper towels once tossed in the landfill do not decompose as nicely as everyone thinks. Biodegradability in landfills is highly overrated.

Very few paper towels are recovered for recycling. According to the EPA’s Characterization of Municipal Solid Waste by Weight (pdf) in 2001, 3,260 tons of paper towels and tissues were generated. Of that amount there was no recorded recovery by municipal solid waste and 3,260 tons were thus discarded – keep in mind though that the MSW reports do not include backyard composting.

  • Recycle all the paper towels you use that don’t have soaked in grease on them.
  • Recycle all the cardboard tubes.
  • You can compost paper towels at home for garden mulch so long as they don’t have grease on them.
  • You can recycle most paper towel packaging – usually packaging is #7 or #5 plastic – search Earth 911 for a recycling center that accepts it.

To sum up:

Going back to the original blogger from Why Being “Paper Towel Free” Is Overrated the author notes, “Which ever side of the [paper towel] fence you’re on, it seems like a silly point to cause so much drama, like there should be other issues we might be able to make a bigger personal impact on.

There’s a lot of drama surrounding paper towel use. It’s not a small topic and it’s certainly very complex. Cloth isn’t perfect (as I’ll point out in a post soon) but the reusable qualities of cloth along with less manufacturing (you won’t be buying cloths every week), lifespan and the lack of packaging means cloth adds up to a better eco-choice than paper towels.

Coming up soon — cost comparisons of paper towels vs. cloth and some arguments for paper towels. Oh, and later today we’ll have the drawing for the winner of the KidsCraft Playhouse – I promised Cedar he could do it, but he’s still at school.

Are you using paper towels?

[paper towel image via here]

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  1. Lynn says

    I stand in awe. I’m serious! This post ought to be in the college curriculum! It’s amazing. I want you on the jury when I’m appearing in front of one! You are able to look at the facts, bring it all together in a reasonable way. Thank you! I’m seriously blown away!

  2. Jennifer says

    Ha ha, you’re so funny. I just hate when people say there’s no info out there. There’s usually a way to find information. It’s like not knowing makes something ok to use. I don’t always buy Fair Trade coffee and it’d be like me saying, well, it’s ok because there’s not enough info out there. But I KNOW non Fair Trade coffee is bad – even though the info out there about it is confusing. There is info out there so it’s a choice I’m making. You can’t just say paper towels are ok or that conventional coffee is fine because there’s not enough info. Rant over. Hopefully some folks will learn some facts and make their own choice about paper towels.

  3. Lynn says

    You are 100% correct. The information IS out there, but from my experience in talking to people about this stuff, the confusion does them in. They don’t want to take the time to do the research. In fact, that’s why they come to people like you (and us). They want US to do the research, and honestly, many want to be told what to do.

    Green Halloween is a great example. People’s questions are: What are the alternatives and where do we get them?

    What’s great about articles like this one is that when people do WANT the facts, I can send them here to fill up their brains. They don’t have to go searching all over the web–who has time for that?

    I absolutely think that more and more people WANT to make the right choices. On the other hand, there always will be people like the one you start off talking about in the piece, who don’t want to be bothered and they use “there is no definitive proof” or whatever as their excuse rather than just admit they don’t want to do it.

  4. Jennifer says

    But it’s better to use less rather than have to recycle more. The recycling situation as a whole has plenty of downsides.

  5. Karen says

    Excellent post…and timely! I was just getting started on making some cloth napkins. I ditched paper towel and napkins many meals ago for all the reasons you write about. I replaced them with mostly vintage linens and sometimes new ones made from conventional cotton. This time around I’m going even greener by using less chemical and water intensive fabrics such as sustainably produced hemp and linen. Thanks Jennifer for such an informative piece.

  6. NV says

    as an environmental engineering student, I can tell you that using cotton cloth is just (if not more) harmful for the environment than using tree products. Why? Because of the amount of water needed in order to manufactor cloth made of cotton. It’s the same with LEDP plastic (plastic bags from the supermarket). Cloth bags consume far more water to manufactor than plastic bags. There’s always give and take.

  7. Luke says

    NV, but how many times can you use a cloth bag. I use most of mine for years and when they’re done I use them for longer as rags. How many plastic bags does that equal? Also, cloth bio-degrades, plastic does not.


  1. […] products use up entire forests – in total, 75% of the plantations established for paper and wood products in the last 20 years […]

  2. […] 1. Reusable over disposable!  Cloth napkins can be used and washed over and over and over again.  Well obviously, but why does it matter?  Paper napkins and paper towels are usually used once, and then tossed in the garbage.  Yes, the garbage not a recycling a bin.  This means used paper napkins quickly become a component of landfills because once they are stained with food they cannot be recycled.  Each time paper napkins and towels are thrown out, landfills grow larger and larger.  The landfills then produce air pollution by production of methane gas, contaminate fresh groundwater supplies, and cause soil pollution.   Not cool.  To get in-depth about how cloth napkins are kinder to the environment than paper napkins and towels, click here. […]

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