Ask Eartha: Replace paper towels with your old T-shirts
August 16, 2018
I understand we cannot put paper towels in the compost up here because it is food scraps only, so I was wondering which kind of cleaning cloth (or towel) is most environmentally friendly. Can you help? – Daryl, Blue River
What a great reminder that something as small as a cleaning cloth can still have environmental impacts, Daryl. Here are some of the pros and cons of the most common cleaning wipes, cloths and towels.
Paper towels might not be your best option when it comes to environmental impact. According to the Energy Co-op, a nonprofit energy supplier, 13 billion pounds of paper towels are used — and tossed — each year in the U.S. alone. That is equivalent to 80 rolls per person per year. To gain perspective, if every American reduced the number of paper towels they use by just one per day, we could divert 570 million pounds of paper waste each year.
Producing paper towels utilizes a tremendous amount of resources each year as well, including 110 million trees and 130 billion gallons of water.
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Some people think that throwing paper towels in the recycling bin is a solution to eliminating the waste. Unfortunately, this does more harm than good because paper towels are not recyclable. Consisting of small paper fibers, paper towels absorb most liquids. While this is beneficial for cleaning, it can pose contamination issues for recycling plants. Substances like grease or oil cannot be removed from the paper fibers, so when these dirty fibers are mixed with cleaner fibers for recycling, the whole batch can be tainted with grease spots. This makes the recycled fibers unusable for future products. That said, paper towels can be composted in some areas (but not Summit County), which makes using them a bit less wasteful. If you have a paper towels-or-bust attitude, look for brands that make unbleached and recycled products or that are certified by the Rainforest Alliance, Green Seal or the Forest Stewardship Council.
Like paper towels, airlaid cloths are very popular in the home-cleaning world. Most people are probably not familiar with them, but these cleaning wipes are made the same way as wet baby wipes or hand wipes; they don't feel like paper, but they also don't feel or look like fabric. Airlaid paper is primarily made from cellulose fibers (which come from trees), but unlike regular paper which uses water to mesh the fibers together, it uses air. Airlaid cloths are also treated with latex or plastic for extra bonding. These reinforcing chemicals will not break down in a compost pile and certainly cannot be recycled, making this type of cleaning cloth trash.
Many have come to love the microfiber cloth — the way it picks up little specs of dirt that the eye can barely see — oh, the wonder! While these miracle cloths have some positive aspects about them, there are also some negatives that we might not take into consideration. Let's start with the positives. For one, studies have found that cleaning with microfiber requires less use of chemical cleaners or other antibacterial sprays because it's much more effective at removing viruses and bacteria on its own. Microfiber mops have also been found to use 20 times less water than the standard household mop. On the flip side, microfiber is a petroleum-based product. Even more alarming, scientists are now finding small bits of synthetic fabrics in the oceans and are tracing it back to our washing machines and — you guessed it — to microfiber material. The digestion of these tiny scraps is harmful to marine life and marine health in general.
Re-using and upcycling materials is a great way to help keep waste out of our landfills. We all have old clothes and towels lying around the house, and while you should donate the items that are still in good condition, why not get a few extra years out of those that would end up in the trash anyway? Most upcycled rags are perfect for cleaning — they save you money and take a bit of stress off the environment by extending the product's life span. So, the next time you're looking to do a green-clean, break out that old, stained T-shirt from the 1980s, go forth and conquer.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at email@example.com.