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The challenge with recycling or composting paper towels

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As large global companies drive their zero-waste-to-landfill strategies, waste management companies are under pressure to "recycle everything". One of the "everything" waste streams is paper towels; the one's you find in kitchens and public bathrooms (which are not using air-dryers).

Treehugger had a very useful article on this subject. The challenge comes down to two issues:

  1. The manufacturing process.
  2. The chemicals added to the paper.

The difficulty with recycling these towels is that as the raw materials (including wood, recycled paper and board) get pounded the the fibres which make up the towel get too short. The shortness of the fibres make them unsuitable for recycling.

So what about composting then? Surely that would be a great solution?

In short "no". These towels contain toxic chemicals including bleach (so that they are white), softeners (to make them feel nice) and resin (to make them strong).

Quite simply, as well as potentially contaminating organic compost site with chemicals, they just don't break down very easily. The resin makes them strong and, in our composting machines, just wind around the mixing mechanism.

The other risk is that in the bathroom and kitchen environments, often they are used to dry or wipe up chemicals or hands which are washed with anti-bacterials.

There are compostable alternatives. Which, ironically, are cheaper. These are unbleached and don't contain strengthening resin. One might use more, but in the long run the disposal cost is lower (as is the environmental footprint).

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