Why Paper Towel Waste Facts Are Astonishing

If you've ever wondered, "are paper towels bad for the environment?" you may want to keep reading.


America, we have a problem. We consume a quarter of the world's resources even though we make up only 5% of the population. That's because our throwaway culture thrives on single-use items that seem to know no end: plastic bags, straws, napkins, toilet paper, cotton swabs, and so much more.

Bathroom paper towel dispenser above a waste bin
Photo: @wilhelmgunkel


One of the biggest offenders, however, are paper towels. Paper towel waste, especially in the United States, paints a surprising and staggering picture.


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that the U.S. generated 3.8 million tons of tissue paper and towel waste in 2017.


Americans love using paper towels so much that, according to market research from Euromonitor International, the U.S. consumes nearly half of all the world's paper towels. Imagine roughly $12 billion in sales, and half, belonging to a single country. Compare that to France, which only spends 10% of what the U.S. spends, and is the runner-up.


A common misconception is that since the U.S. has a larger population, more money spent on paper towels makes sense. However, per capita, the average American spends 50-60% more every year than Europeans, and almost 500% more than Latin Americans.


And all before 2020. Paper towel sales have soared since the pandemic, increasing by more than 200%.

Man blind-folded by paper towels
Photo: Novia Wu @wuruoyi


With so many Americans hooked on paper towels, why should we think twice about using them? Aren't they earth-friendly? That's up for debate. 


Unlike reusable goods, paper towels are used once and thrown away. They're not recyclable, even if some are made from recycled materials. According to its 2017 report, the EPA “did not identify any significant recovery of tissue products for recycling." Instead, many single-use paper products end up in landfills where they generate methane as they break down, a greenhouse gas 23 times more harmful than carbon dioxide.

Scott Towel paper towel advertisement from 1936
Photo: ScotTowels Print Ad, 1936


So, why do we use so many of them? Laurie Jennings, the director of Good Housekeeping Institute suggests that our paper towel obsession is driven by our desire for immediate results. If you’ve never considered how to stop using them, it’s because decades of advertising have convinced us that they're convenient. Despite that, they were seen as inferior to kitchen towels and cleaning cloths when first introduced.

Landfill with mountains of waste and livestock scavenging for food scraps
Photo: @popnzebra


Today, climate change demands that we rethink our throwaway culture and the cost of convenience.


Do we need half a roll to wipe up spills or dry our hands, or can one sheet go a long way? Is there a more sustainable alternative like a reusable sponge or dishcloth we can use instead?


A sponge can replace your average paper towel roll 30 times over. That's 3,000 paper towels for the cost of 1 sponge.


Sqwishful sponges are not only reusable but dye and plastic-free. They easily wipe up spills and keep countertops, sinks, and surfaces clean. And after a month of daily use, can compost to create soil for pot plants, garden beds, and yards.


Paper towels, on the other hand, can only be used once, making them less resource and energy-efficient. They're also less absorbent, which creates the need to use more and encourages consumption.

Green building
Photo: @victor_g


When we look at the cost of convenience, what's not up for debate? Small things add up, especially when it comes to waste.


Treating waste as an important and valuable resource presents an opportunity to move away from our "use-and-toss" culture towards a more circular one. The European Commission has already adopted a zero-waste program for the EU with countries like Denmark leading the way. What does that look like? According to Ellen Macarthur, whose foundation helps businesses and governments transition, it's about creating economies based on "designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems."


With the help of businesses and governments, we can become more circular too. By using natural and reusable products, composting and sharing, and preserving our planet's precious resources.