It’s surprising to visit a home or business that does not have paper towels. Paper towels are often the first thing someone thinks of to soak up a spill or wipe down a countertop. They can be used for cooking, cleaning and keeping those fancy cast-iron skillets rust free. These paper squares seem like such a convenient tool that any homeowner or office should obviously have in stock. However, this common item has consequences that go overlooked and are definitely not a necessity. Paper towels are not sustainable and can easily be replaced with alternatives less harmful to the environment.

My mom never had paper towels at home, and I remember some of my friends being shocked when they asked for one and I responded with a shake of my head. According to data collected by Statista based on the U.S. Census data and the Simmons National Consumer Survey, 321.87 million Americans used paper towels in 2020. According to data from the market-research firm Euromonitor International, Americans accounted for about $5.7 billion of the global spending on paper towels for use at home of about $12 billion total spending in 2017. Paper towels satisfy the desire to immediately get rid of a problem, providing a sense of instant gratification.

Paper towels have a negative environmental impact that has been ignored for generations. They are generally made from virgin wood pulps and/or recycled materials, and the wood pulp industry is a contributor to deforestation. The Union of Concerned Scientists states that wood products, which include paper towels, are one of the four commodities that drive the majority of tropical deforestation. For example, “in the past 20 years, Canada lost 28 million acres of forests to the wood pulp industry,” according to an article published by Impactful Ninja. This pulp must then be manufactured to paper, a process which emits large amounts of greenhouse gases and uses significant amounts of water.

People do not commonly use this absorbent paper more than once. A paper towel is reached for when a spill is made, then immediately thrown away. According to The Paperless Project, globally,paper towels result in 254 million tons of trash yearly and if every house in the U.S. used three less rolls per year, $4.1 million would be saved in landfill dumping fees. It is not recommended to recycle these items as they are often contaminated with oils, grease and other solvents. They can be composted, but only if they are not bleached and not soiled with grease.

As with many things, it is easy to just keep on using paper towels and forget about everything explained above. There is no sufficient excuse for this as many sustainable alternatives exist. These include cloth towels that are reusable and long-lasting, cotton napkins, microfiber cloths, sponges and air dryers. Recycled paper towels seem like a good option, but their production has almost equivalent environmental impacts as virgin pulp towels, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  If you really just cannot part with your precious paper towels, at least try to reuse them. They can be dried out and used again after the initial use, decreasing  waste.

Paper towels are so common and convenient, making it difficult to notice how unsustainable they really are. They are made out of paper, not plastic, and are therefore not immediately thought of as being detrimental to the health of our planet. It is about more than just the product, though. The sourcing of the materials, manufacturing, usage and disposal all contribute to whether or not an item is sustainable. Paper towels are not necessary and can easily be replaced with alternatives. Today, sustainability should be prioritized over convenience in almost all scenarios.