Are Paper Towels Compostable? Complete Composting Guide

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Among the most common landfill garbage that we’ll see in your local dumpsite is a bunch of discarded paper towels. They are our most convenient way of getting rid of dirt, whether it’s from our own hands, from our bodies, or even from everyday items such as food and household cleaners.

However, are paper towels compostable? Can they go in the composting bin or taken to the composting facility near you? Are they safe to seep through your garden soil or do they need to go in a black bag and be tossed into a landfill?

The problem with paper towels is that we often use them, which leads to a wide population of used paper towels lingering in a dumpsite. This is not a pretty sight since not only is it unsanitary but it also adds waste of space to the landfill, which could have been used to be filled up with other kinds of garbage.

Although we’re aware that paper towels are made of paper so they will be quite biodegradable, the problem lies in what we used them for, as well as any other underlying materials that are used for making the paper towels that could pose a threat to the environment. So, with this article, let’s learn about paper towels and about composting them.

Are Paper Towels Compostable?

Generally, yes, paper towels are compostable because they are made from plant-based materials. Paper towels are usually made from cellulose fibers, which come from plants and trees. In some cases, such fibers are also made from cotton.

To make them able to absorb anything liquid, wet, or damp without breaking up easily, a paper towel combines cellulose with sugar molecules.

Because sugar will quickly dissolve in your cup of coffee or tea, the same principle is applied to a paper towel when you use it to clean up spills. This is what gives the paper towel the magical (or rather, scientific) ability to wipe off that spilled milk.

Another reason why a paper towel is compostable is that it contains sugar molecules. However, this kind of sugar isn’t made for human consumption, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unsafe! It’s just used for paper towel purposes but it will easily go with your other compostable items just fine.

You can simply toss your paper towels into the composting bin, along with your twigs, leaves, branches, grass clippings, dried fruits, etc. If you don’t have leaves at the moment, paper towels will be a great substitute.

Composting Paper Towels

If your paper towel has been used only for cleaning up water, dirt, foods with plant-based origins, and other organic spills, it will be safe for composting. That’s because such spills are only caused by natural ingredients so they won’t affect the quality of your compost, especially if you want to use it for a vegetable or fruit garden.

Shredding the paper towels into smaller pieces will hasten the composting process. This process is similar to how shredded paper is often used as compost by offices and other businesses. The smaller your compost item will be, the faster it will degrade into healthy fertilizer.

While paper towels will easily go into the composting bin, you should know if the paper towel had certain usages. These usages dictate whether the paper towel is compostable or not. Here are uses of paper towels that make them unusable for composting:

Used for Cleaning Grease

If your paper towel has been used for the kitchen or anything with a greasy feel, such as foundation/makeup or facial oils, it won’t be suitable for composting. That’s because the oil will force air out. This causes a pungent smell in the compost and also ruins its overall quality.

Used in Cleaning Products

If you use cleaning products, such as commercial cleaners, they will have harsh chemicals in them, which are harmful to the soil.

Even if you use organic cleaners with a paper towel, it will still ruin your compost because it will kill the bacteria that will live in the compost to decompose your items.

There are many dangers to using paper towels used with cleaning products due to harsh chemicals. Among the toxic chemicals that are found in household cleaners include:

Ammonia

If you find a household cleaner with ammonia listed on the label, it will cause harm to your health in terms of respiratory problems and your cardiovascular system. Ammonia is commonly found in polishing cleaners, as well as glass cleaners.

Chlorine

Commonly used for cleaning swimming pools and toilets, excessive chlorine can irritate your skin so it shouldn’t go into the compost bin. Moreover, many paper towel manufacturers ensure a chlorine-free production process to become eco-friendlier.

Sodium Hydroxide

You will commonly find sodium hydroxide in strong household cleaners. It can cause skin irritation, dried hair, and a painful throat.

Formaldehyde

This chemical is found in harsh cleaners as well and is often linked to ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) and similar brain diseases as it affects the nervous system. Moreover, formaldehyde is used to preserve dead bodies to avoid decomposing.

Used for Animal Poop

If you ever needed the paper towels to clean up after your dog or other pet, you’ll need to discard them entirely. Animal poop could contain microorganisms that aren’t good for the soil and human health. This is also why composting cat litter isn’t always a popular choice (but it is possible with the right conditions and criteria).

With that said, dog and cat waste can still be composted for certain uses – with the right conditions. They are only to be used for gardens with non-edible plants, such as lawns and flower beds. They shouldn’t be used for your vegetable or fruit garden due to the above-mentioned risk of microorganisms.

To be sure, contact your local landfill or composting facility to ask questions about composting animal waste. In the same way, if you have a pet organization or livestock raiser’s club, you can get information regarding composting such waste. They may give you pointers and/or steps to compost them properly without causing harm to the soil and/or your plants.

Used with Ink and Dyes

Unless you can clarify that the ink and dye came from a natural source (such as fruits, flowers, and the like), paper towels that have been used to clean up ink spills or dyes might not be a great idea for composting. You don’t know what kind of chemicals are in such spillage.

Petroleum is a common ingredient of ballpoint pens and most people will advise you not to compost them, along with printer ink or Sharpie pens. That’s because they are filled with harsh chemicals that aren’t good for the soil.

Are Quilted Paper Towels Compostable?

Yes, they are compostable. Most paper towels can go into the composting bin regardless of their design or if it’s a 2-ply, 3-ply, and so on.

Any regular paper towel is biodegradable from 2 to 4 weeks. That’s because they are already made from very thin material that is easy to break down for bacteria and enzymes. This means that they will even degrade faster than rotten fruits and vegetables.

So, regardless of the thickness of your paper towel or its design, the principle remains the same – paper towels degrade easily and conveniently. As long as it meets the criteria above (doesn’t use any of the harmful chemicals, inorganic, or harmful substances), composting the paper towels would be just fine.

Are Bleached Paper Towels Compostable?

It is possible, but it is not recommended. Bleach, although in small amounts, will eventually accumulate in the soil, seeping through your crops and the rivers.

Among the harmful effects of using bleach in paper towels and putting them into the compost bin include the following:

  • Cause cancer, birth defects, and hormone problems
  • Damages the immune system
  • Causes skin problems and irritation
  • Affects and displaces animals from their habitat
  • Reduces the quality of wastewater
  • Decreases our natural resources due to chemical poisoning

Unfortunately, if you often use bleached paper towels, they cannot go into the compost bin since they have accumulative harsh chemicals. The solution to this problem is to simply switch to unbleached paper towels the next time you go to the grocery store. Although they are a little more expensive than regular white paper towels, they help the environment in the long run.

Can the core or center tube of paper towels be composted?

Yes, the center core, also known as the cardstock, is recyclable since it is also a carbon-rich material that comes from paper, much like paper towels. You can easily put that into the compost bin much like your other paper towels, so long as it hasn’t been soiled with any of the above-mentioned no-go spills.

Related post: Is Parchment Paper Compostable? And How To

Conclusion

To wrap it up, paper towels are indeed compostable, provided that it hasn’t been exposed to harsh chemicals or soil irritants that will affect both your garden crops and your overall health. If you want to start composting in your backyard, paper towels are one of the best items to start with.