To Towel or Not to Towel?

by Emily Bushman

For years I have been faced with an earnest and sincere question. Are paper towels evil? Are thousands of trees being cut down every year because I want an easy clean-up option to everyday spills and less time wasted letting air blow on my hands in the restroom?

It may seem like I’m being facetious, but this question really does haunt me and has ever since I decided to have children. For those who don’t have children, let me explain just how wasteful I began to feel shortly after my daughter was born. There were mountains of disposable diapers that had to be thrown away; my only other option was cloth diapers and my fear of touching baby excrement soon convinced me that disposable diapers were the way to go. I guess I could have created my own brand of newspaper diapers, but I’m pretty sure my phobia of feces would still not have been entirely silenced. Then there were the tiny glass jars of baby food that can’t be recycled, soon followed by the slightly larger plastic containers of baby food that can’t be recycled. My solution to this was to make my own baby food, aka feed my daughter what I was eating only mashed up. That idea actually worked and made me feel better until the time she decided that the food I ate was yucky and needed to be thrown all over the kitchen floor. This increased my use of paper towels immensely. My solution was that I should use cloth towels to clean up these frequent messes. This increased how often I did laundry and therefore increased how much water and energy I used. It was beginning to look hopeless. Was I doomed to live a wasteful life?

Then my second child was born. Yes, that’s right. I have two children that are 25 months apart. Yes, I have heard of birth control. Any responsible environmentalist knows it is unwise to bring another adorably wasteful child to this already crowded planet, but I did it anyway and I don’t regret it. It’s true. I don’t care about anything else but my own happiness and comfort, so I deserve this guilty conscience. In response to my guilt, I started buying paper towels made from recycled materials. Paper towels were now a necessity of life. I justified that it was okay to use them because I no longer had time to use the shower every day and balanced my conscience on the water and energy savings. But we lived in Canada, it still wasn’t quite good enough for my friends that came over and eyed that roll of paper towels and sadly shook their heads when they thought I wasn’t looking.

I decided to do some research. Paper towels are made the same way all paper is made. Paper derived from virgin wood pulp carries a double environmental burden. Deforestation and indiscriminate logging damages ecosystems, causing flooding, erosion and silting. It is estimated that the average American uses 50 pounds of paper tissue per year and that 40% of trash found in our landfills are paper products. Tissue paper (paper towels, toilet paper, etc.) cannot be recycled, therefore buying recycled products is essential. Look for goods with the highest Post Consumer Waste (PCW) content and also any products that are Processed Chlorine Free (PCF). PCW refers to the amount of pulp derived from paper that was used by consumers and then recycled. PCF means no additional chlorine or chlorine derivatives have been used to bleach the final recycled product. Some labels will say they are Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF) which sounds good, but actually means a chlorine derivative has been used to bleach the paper.

Now that we all agree paper towels have their place in this world, I have thought of a few fun ideas for those who would like to practice environmentally conscious paper towel use. Instead of stationary, why not write your friends and family a line or two on a sturdy recycled paper towel? Tired of overpriced art paper and all you want to do is sketch? Recycled paper towels average at $0.03 per sheet! So go crazy with your paper-towel self! But please remember moderation in all things. We still have a planet to look after.