As she was raising three boys, I doubt my mom went an entire day without yelling “don’t wipe that with your shirt!” In terms of aesthetics and sanitation, she might have had a point. But with regard to environment, score one for the Wigness boys because at least we weren’t using paper towels to wipe Kool-Aid off of the counter.

A distinctly American issue

Paper towels have become a poster-child for America’s throwaway culture. According to an article by The Atlantic, a study by Euromoniter International found that Americans spent $5.7 billion on paper towels for home in 2017. That’s nearly nine times more than the $635 million France, the next top buyer, doled out.

paper towels
Screenshot from The Atlantic article Americans Are Weirdly Obsessed With Paper Towels.

The same study found that Americans spent an average of $17.50 on paper towels per capita. Norway, the next closest per capita spender, spent $11.70 per person.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Tissue paper and towels (not including bathroom tissue) amounted to 3.7 million tons (1.4 percent of total MSW generation) in 2015.” Once soiled, these items can’t be recycled (but can be composted) and often end up in landfills where they release methane as they decompose.

A few “fun” paper towel facts from Creighton University:

  • It takes 17 trees and up to 20,000 gallons of water to make one ton of paper towels.
  • If every U.S. household replaced one roll of virgin fiber paper towels with ones made from 100% recycled content we could save 544,000 trees.

Paper products strain the environment from their production to their end-life. It’s time for Americans to drastically reduce their paper towel consumption and focus on reusable alternatives.

The good, better and best alternatives to paper towels


If you just aren’t ready to ditch paper products yet, focus on keeping them out of landfills. Soiled paper products can be composted at home or thrown in Republic Services yard waste containers. In King County, yard waste is composted by Cedar Grove, one of North America’s largest composting facilities.

This method provides a more sustainable end life solution, but does nothing to discourage the use of virgin materials to produce paper products.


Switch to recycled paper towels, bath tissue and facial tissue, like those made by Seventh Generation. This B-Corporation makes a variety of household products using certified organic ingredients and recycled/recyclable packaging. Certifications include Leaping Bunny, Oregon Tilth Certified Organic (OTCO), Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Rainforest Alliance. PCC, Fred Meyer, QFC, Rite Aid and other Seattle-area retailers carry Seventh Generation products.

Recycled products are a step in the right direction, but still require manufacturing, packaging and responsible disposal.

The best alternatives

paper towels alternative
Dot and Army’s Organic cotton napkins.

Use your shirt!

Just kidding – but that’s actually on the right track. Ditch paper towels and napkins completely by switching to reusable cloth napkins and rags. This could be old cut-up shirts or dish rags, or UNpaper Towels from Marley’s Monsters or cloth napkins from Dot and Army.

A set of 24 UNpaper Towels from Marley’s Monsters costs $54, while a 12 pack of Bounty Double Roll paper towels cost $19.89 on sale. I’m not a math whiz, but even I can see that the Unpaper Towels – which can be washed and reused for many years – become the cheaper option after the third purchase of Bounty paper towels.

As with most products, the eco-friendly version may cost a little more up front, but pays for itself over time and replaces the single-use products that stress our planet.

Need an eco-friendly detergent to wash those Unpaper Towels? Shop for Tru Earth laundry strips in the Emeraldology Store!

Feature photo by Richard Thijeratt on Unsplash.