Composting Paper Towels: Can I Compost Paper Towels?

Paper towels have become a staple in most households for cleaning up spills, drying hands, and various other daily tasks. But with more people becoming concerned about their environmental impact, many wonder if paper towels can be composted rather than sending them to the landfill. The answer is yes, paper towels can often be composted, but there are some important factors to consider.

Composting Paper Towels

When composted properly, paper towels can break down and become a part of this nutrient-rich final compost product. However, not all paper towels are created equal when it comes to compostability. There are a few factors that determine if paper towels can successfully break down in a compost pile or facility:

  • Bleaching and Dyes: Opt for unbleached paper towels without dyes whenever possible. Bleaching chemicals and dyes may disrupt the biological composting process.
  • Additional Chemicals: Avoid paper towels with extra chemical additives like fragrances, fire retardants, water/grease resistance, etc. Simple is best.
  • Organic Cotton Content: Look for paper towels made with organic cotton as the raw material, rather than wood pulp. Cotton composts more successfully.
  • Degree of Soiling: Clean, unused sheets compost best. Lightly soiled towels are usually fine, but avoid heavily soiled ones.

With some caution, most standard paper towels can be composted either at home or through municipal collection programs. But first, let’s look at some of the factors that determine how easily paper towels will break down.

Factors That Impact the Compostability of Paper Towels

Bleaching and Dyes

Opting for unbleached paper towels is ideal for composting. The chlorine and other chemicals used to bleach paper white can potentially persist through the composting process and contaminate the finished compost.

Paper towels dyed with colors or prints introduce additional chemicals into the compost as well. Though some natural dyes may be less harmful, it’s best to avoid any pigments. Unbleached, undyed brown paper towels are the most compost-friendly option.

Additional Chemical Additives

Many paper towels today also contain extra chemical additives to give them desired properties like softness, strength, grease resistance, etc. These additives may disrupt the biological activity needed for composting.

Watch out for paper towels labeled as “anti-microbial,” “deodorizing,” “fragranced,” or “extra-strong.” Simple, unscented paper towels without any enhanced properties are best for composting.

Fiber Source Material

Paper towels today are made either from virgin wood pulp or recycled paper pulp. However, some eco-friendly options use organic cotton as the raw material instead.

Cotton has a more natural fiber structure than wood pulp, allowing it to compost more successfully. Seek out paper towels made from organic cotton or cotton-blend materials if you want the most compostable option. Just be sure there are no synthetic fiber blends.

Degree of Soiling

Clean, unused paper towels can be composted without issue. Lightly soiled towels are also generally fine to add to your compost pile or bin, including those used for:

  • Drying hands
  • Dusting
  • Light spills
  • Pet messes
  • Wrapping fruits/veggies
  • Napkins

However, avoid heavily soiled paper towels, especially those used for:

  • Cleaning greasy messes
  • Cleaning bathrooms/toilets
  • Cleaning with harsh chemicals
  • Cleaning up animal-based products

The key is keeping contaminants like grease, oils, and chemicals out of the compost. We’ll discuss proper usage and preparation next.

Best Practices for Composting Paper Towels

Follow these tips to successfully compost paper towels at home:

Select the Right Paper Towels

As discussed, choose unbleached, undyed paper towels made from organic cotton or recycled paper pulp. Avoid towels with enhanced properties from chemical additives.

Popular eco-friendly brands of compostable paper towels include Seventh Generation, Reel, No. 14, Who Gives a Crap, and more. Or look for “compostable” labels.

Only Compost Clean or Lightly Soiled Towels

Make sure towels don’t have food, grease, cleaning chemicals, or other contaminants on them before composting. Stick to clean or lightly used towels.

If soiled, give them a quick rinse or shake off any loose particles before adding to the compost pile.

Shred or Tear into Smaller Pieces

The smaller the particle size, the faster composting can occur. Shredding or tearing up paper towels helps break them down.

Aim for roughly 1-2 inch sized pieces as you add them to your compost bin.

Bury in the Center of the Pile

Rather than only putting paper towels on top of the pile, dig down into the middle and bury them completely surrounded by other compost.

This protects them from weather and allows for optimal decomposition conditions.

Maintain Proper Conditions

Turning and aerating the compost pile helps paper towels decompose properly. The center should maintain a temperature of approximately 140-160°F.

Maintaining proper moisture is also key – the pile should feel damp but not soaked. Paper can mat down and resist breaking down if too wet.

With the right conditions, paper towels should compost successfully in 4-6 weeks. Monitor your pile carefully.

Large-Scale Composting of Paper Towels

Many municipal composting programs also accept paper towels in curbside collection bins or drop-off centers. The key factors:

Confirm Acceptance Guidelines

Check with your local waste management department to see if paper towels are on the accepted materials list for your municipal compost program. Guidelines can vary by region.

If accepted, follow any special instructions provided, such as keeping towels unsoiled or shredding before adding to the centralized compost bins.

Utilize High-Heat Systems

Large-scale composters use specialized equipment to maintain consistent high temperatures needed to break down paper products quickly.

Look for facilities using aerated static pile composting, anaerobic digesters, or similar high-heat, high-volume methods. Avoid small-scale open windrow operations.

With the right high-heat system and oversight, even soiled paper towels can decompose successfully without contaminating the end product. Municipal composters have the ideal conditions.

Allow Adequate Decomposition Time

At a high-heat industrial facility, paper towels require 30-90 days on average to fully decompose, depending on the system.

Less time may be needed for smaller shredded pieces. Facilities monitor conditions and allow enough retention time before screening the finished compost.

When processed thoroughly, paper towel compost makes an excellent nutrient-rich amendment for gardens and agricultural use.

Drawbacks of Composting Paper Towels

While paper towels can often be successfully composted, there are some environmental drawbacks to consider:

  • Producing paper towels, even eco-friendly kinds, requires significant water, energy, and resources compared to reusable cloth towels.
  • It takes time for even compostable paper towels to break down, and landfill conditions are typically too anaerobic and cool for successful decomposition.
  • Compost contamination is possible if towels contain food, grease, chemicals, or other impurities. This can undermine the whole pile or batch.
  • Certain municipalities don’t allow composting of paper towels, so they end up in the landfill regardless.
  • Transportation of paper towels to composting facilities has it’s own environmental impacts.

For these reasons, reducing paper towel usage overall is recommended whenever possible. Choosing reusable cloth towels or sponges helps eliminate waste entirely. But when using paper towels can’t be avoided, proper composting is the next best option.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I compost paper towels in my backyard compost bin?

Yes, as long as you use unbleached/undyed paper towels and follow the proper preparation methods of shredding and burying them in the hot center of the pile. Maintaining the right moisture and turning the pile frequently will help them decompose.

What if my paper towels have food, grease, or chemicals on them?

Avoid composting any paper towels soiled with greasy, oily, or chemical-laden messes. These can disrupt backyard composting. Lightly soiled towels may be ok if given a quick rinse first. For anything heavily soiled, it’s safest to send to municipal composters instead of backyard piles.

Do I need a special compost bin to compost paper towels?

No, you can add paper towels to any standard enclosed compost bin or pile system. More frequent aeration may be needed to maintain aerobic activity and heat. Vermicomposting worms may have difficulty breaking down large paper pieces, so shred first.

How long does it take for paper towels to decompose in a compost pile?

With proper conditions, paper towels should fully compost in 4-6 weeks in a maintained backyard pile. High-heat municipal systems can break them down more quickly, sometimes in as little as 30 days. Monitor your compost carefully as paper can persist if conditions are off.

Can all paper products be composted?

No, some paper products like magazines, cardboard, and office paper often have plastic coatings, synthetic fibers, or heavy inks that make them unsuitable for most compost piles at home. Check guidelines for municipal composters. Unbleached paper napkins and tissues can be composted like paper towels in most cases.

The Bottom Line

Composting paper towels is possible with the right preparations and composting conditions. Selecting eco-friendly, unbleached paper towels, shredding them, and burying in an active compost pile can allow them to decompose in 4-6 weeks. For heavily soiled towels, utilize municipal composting programs whenever possible. But reducing paper towel usage overall remains the most environmentally friendly option. With some care taken, composting paper towels can help divert waste from landfills and produce a useful soil amendment.