Published: June 8, 2010 Updated: May 31, 2019 Tagged With: DIY cleaners, Plant a tree, Recycled paper


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Paper towels, surprisingly enough, do come from trees. Shocking right? In fact, paper towels truly come from full-on forests not individual trees, but more on that below.

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2019 update: When I first published this article in 2010, I had high hopes that articles like this would help convince folks to quit using paper towels.

Sadly, it’s 9 years later, and the most recent statistics show that paper towel use is still on the rise. You can skip to the end of this article to see the newest statistics. Sigh. Maybe in another 8 years trees will come out ahead.

Read more: How to quit using paper towels forever >>


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Article contents


Why I don’t use paper towels

I haven’t bought any paper towels in years. Someadvocates of paper towels note that non-paper towel users have a self-righteous attitude, but I’m not trying to pull off being better than everyone else. I simply don’t use paper towels because of the following issues…

Paper towels are not eco-friendly and cause multiple problems for the planet (as you’ll find out if you read the rest of this article).

Some people love paper towels

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 claims that no one can give her any good reasons as to why she shouldn’t use paper towels. She also states that there’s a lack of information out there about paper towels. She goes on to say that the cons of paper towels she’s read make no sense.

This author says that the most common arguments against paper towels include:

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 don’t know where she was looking for facts, but I’m shocked, because paper towel facts are easy to find.

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

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.

Many paper towel manufactures note that, yes, they do indeed manufacture paper towels from trees (not a shock) – I think we can all agree that most paper products come from trees.

Learn more about who controls the paper towel market.

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.

According to The State of the Paper Industry there is some good news, tissue products contain far more recycled content than other paper 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.

But doesn’t the paper industry plant a ton of tree?!

You shouldn’t compulsively worry about trees vanishing completely. Technically, as advocates of paper towels often note, the paper industry plants more trees than they consume.Before you give the paper industry a medal though, realizethat replanting trees is not the same thing as preserving forests.

The paper industry calls trees a “renewable resource,” which gives consumers the impression that there are zero problems with cutting down trees, but 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.

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

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Problems created by paper towel production

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 Conterminous 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.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 researchthat on your own time…