Can you recycle paper towels?
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Can You Recycle Paper Towels?

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Simply Plastic Free acknowledges the Traditional Owners of country throughout Australia and recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and culture. We acknowledge that these lands were stolen and sovereignty was never ceded and we join their calls for justice.

Can You Recycle Paper Towels?

No. Paper towels cannot be recycled. The question is why not? And what is is the best way to dispose of paper towel?

Don’t worry, it’s not a silly question. There is a lot of confusion around the recyclability of a lot of products including paper towels. We are used to throwing paper in the mixed recycling bin so why not paper towels? 


Keep reading if you want to learn:

  • Why Can’t You Recycle Paper Towel?
  • What is the best way to dispose of paper towel? 
  • Can paper towel be composted? 
  • What is the environmental impact of paper towels? 
  • Alternatives to paper towels
  • Which bin do paper towels go in?
  • How to compost paper towel
Close-up of a white paper towel roll with detailed texture, set against a soft neutral background

Can you recycle paper towels? 

Paper towels are not recyclable. The fibres in paper towels are too short to be made into new paper products, and they are often contaminated with food, grease, and other substances that make them unsuitable for recycling.

When you recycle paper, you’re recycling the fibres in the paper, which are then used to make new paper products. However, because paper towels have been used to clean up spills, wipe dirty surfaces, and absorb liquids, their fibres are too short to be used in new paper products. Another factor is that contamination from food, grease, and other substances can ruin the entire batch of recycled paper, making it unusable.

What are paper towels made from? 

Paper towels come in various compositions, each having its own environmental impact. Understanding these differences is key to making informed choices.

Virgin Fibre Paper Towels

Virgin fibre paper towels are made from new wood pulp. This means they come directly from trees, typically from managed forests. While they offer superior strength and absorbency, the environmental concern here is deforestation and its impact on biodiversity. 

Partially Recycled Paper Towels

Partially recycled paper towels contain a mix of virgin and recycled fibres. These are a more sustainable option than 100% virgin fibre products as they reduce the need for new wood pulp, thereby conserving trees and reducing energy and water usage in manufacturing. A lot of brands don’t say what percentage is recycled so I would be very sceptical of claims this is an eco-friendly choice. 

Bamboo Paper Towels

Bamboo paper towels are an increasingly popular eco-friendly alternative. Bamboo grows quickly, requires no fertilizers, and regenerates from its own roots. This makes it a highly sustainable resource however making bamboo into paper towel uses energy, chemicals and bleach. They can be more sustainable than virgin wood products but forests are often cleared for bamboo plantations so the impact is the same. Old-growth forests are being destroyed for paper towels even if they are made from bamboo. 

100% Recycled Paper Towels

These are made entirely from recycled paper, which includes post-consumer waste and post-industrial waste. Using 100% recycled paper towels is one of the most sustainable choices, as it reduces the need for virgin pulp, saves trees, and requires less energy and water in production however they still have a negative impact. This is the best option from a bad lot. 

Public restroom interior with three wall-mounted paper towel dispensers above waste bins, featuring dark gray tiled walls.

Understanding FSC Certification

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification is an important aspect to consider. FSC is a global certification system that ensures paper products come from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits. Products with FSC certification are considered more sustainable because of the stringent standards in forest management, including protecting biodiversity, worker rights, and indigenous peoples’ rights.

Is FSC Certification Greenwashing?

While FSC certification is a step in the right direction, it’s crucial to be aware of potential greenwashing. Greenwashing is when companies misleadingly promote their products as environmentally friendly. FSC has faced criticism over certain practices, but it remains one of the most trusted certifications in forest management. As a consumer, looking for FSC certification can be a part of a more sustainable choice, but it’s also important to consider the entire lifecycle and environmental impact of the product.

Understanding: why can’t paper towels be recycled?

Let’s take a look at the different factors that prevent us from being able to recycle paper towels. 

Paper towels are made from wood pulp and other fibres, such as cotton, that are processed into thin sheets. The fibres are bonded together with resins and adhesives to create a strong and absorbent material. However, these additives also make paper towels unsuitable for recycling. The fibres in paper towels are too short and weak to be turned into new paper products, and the resins and adhesives can cause problems during the recycling process.

Another challenge with recycling paper towels is contamination. Because paper towels are often used for cleaning up spills, wiping surfaces, or drying hands, they can become contaminated with food waste, grease, or chemicals. This contamination can make it difficult to separate the paper fibres from the contaminants during the recycling process. As a result, many recycling programs do not accept paper towels for recycling.

Even if paper towels could be recycled, the recycling process has limitations. The fibres in paper towels are too short and weak to be used in the production of new paper products. Additionally, the resins and adhesives used in the manufacturing process can reduce the quality of recycled paper. Therefore, recycling paper towels is not a viable solution for reducing waste.

What is the best way to dispose of paper towel? 


If your paper towels aren’t soiled with grease or chemicals, toss them in your home compost bin or council green bin. The chemical-laden ones, belong in your general waste bin.

Composting Paper Towels

Do not compost paper towels that have come into contact with chemicals or cleaning products.

To compost paper towels, simply tear them into small pieces and add them to your compost pile. Make sure to mix the paper towels with other compostable materials, such as fruit and vegetable scraps, to ensure proper decomposition.

Can paper towel go in a bokashi compost? 

Yes, paper towels can go in a bokashi compost system, especially if they’re not heavily soiled with oil or chemicals. Bokashi composting can handle a variety of organic waste, including paper towels.

Disposing of paper towels in landfill

If paper towels cannot be composted, the only remaining option is to send them to landfill. In landfill settings, paper towels contribute to environmental challenges. As they decompose anaerobically (without oxygen), they produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas. While paper towels are biodegradable, the slow rate of decomposition in the densely packed, oxygen-starved environment of landfills exacerbates this issue. Methane emissions from landfills are a significant contributor to climate change. Additionally, given the high volume of paper towel waste, their presence in landfills can be substantial, further straining these waste management systems. This situation highlights the importance of exploring compostable options wherever possible to mitigate the environmental impact.

Environmental Impact

When it comes to paper towels, the environmental impact is significant. The production process for paper towels involves cutting down trees, which contributes to deforestation and habitat loss. Additionally, the manufacturing process requires large amounts of energy and water, which can have negative impacts on the environment.

Sustainable Practices

When it comes to sustainable practices, it’s important to consider the entire lifecycle of a product. Paper towels are unsustainable across all stages of their lifecycle. From the production process to end-of-life, paper towels have a negative impact on the environment.

To reduce your environmental impact, consider using paper towels made from 100% recycled post-consumer paper. This is the best option if you HAVE TO use paper towel but we recommend eliminating this wasteful product from your cleaning routine entirely.

Alternatives To Paper Towel 

So we have learnt that paper towel products are terrible for the environment. Here are some eco-friendly options:

Unpaper Towels

Unpaper towels are a fantastic reusable alternative. Made from absorbent materials like cotton, they can be used just like traditional paper towels but have the advantage of being washable and reusable. An example is the Earths Tribe Unpaper Towels, which are durable, stylish, and an excellent addition to a sustainable kitchen.

Unpaper towel roll in 4 colours - yellow, pink, green & blue. Alternative to paper towel.
A stack of eco-friendly 'Unpaper Towels' from Planet Revive, featuring a floral pattern on a white background, Australian made for sustainable living

Cellulose Sponges

Cellulose sponges are another great option. Compostable and highly absorbent, they are perfect for cleaning up spills and wiping surfaces. The Earth’s Tribe Cellulose Sponge, available here, is a sustainable choice, as it’s made from plant-based materials and can be composted after use.

A two-pack of Earths Tribe cellulose sponge cloths with a bee and honeycomb design, eco-friendly and compostable, for sustainable cleaning.
Pack of five green 'If You Care' sponge cloths made from cellulose, certified compostable, with packaging highlighting their environmental benefits and reusability.
Pack of two purple cellulose sponge cloths with eco-friendly packaging labeled 'RetroKitchen', promoting sustainability and compostability.

Homemade Rags

Don’t overlook the simplest solution: making rags from old fabric. Old T-shirts, towels, or sheets can be repurposed into cleaning cloths, offering a cost-effective and waste-reducing solution. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Are paper towels suitable for recycling or should they be composted?

Paper towels are not suitable for recycling and should not be placed in your recycling bin. In most cases, paper towels are contaminated with food waste, cleaning chemicals or other substances that make them unsuitable for recycling. Instead, paper towels should be composted or disposed of in the garbage bin.

Why can’t paper towel be recycled?

Paper towels are made from low-quality fibres that are not suitable for recycling. Paper towels are often contaminated with food waste, cleaning chemicals or other substances that make them unsuitable for recycling. When paper towels are recycled, they can contaminate other materials in the recycling stream, making it difficult to recycle other materials.

What happens to paper towel in landfill?

When paper towels are disposed of in the garbage bin, they are sent to a landfill. In the landfill, paper towels break down slowly and release methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Additionally, paper towels can take up valuable space in the landfill, reducing the lifespan of the landfill.

Is it possible to recycle napkins, or do they require alternative disposal methods?

Like paper towels, napkins are not suitable for recycling and should not be placed in your recycling bin. Instead, napkins should be composted or disposed of in the landfill bin.

Why are paper towels generally excluded from the recycling process?

Paper towels are excluded from the recycling process because they are made from low-quality fibers that are not suitable for recycling. Additionally, paper towels are often contaminated with food waste, cleaning chemicals or other substances that make them unsuitable for recycling. When paper towels are recycled, they can contaminate other materials in the recycling stream, making it difficult to recycle other materials.

How do you dispose of paper towels?

If composting isn’t an option, the best way to dispose of paper towels is to throw them in the general waste bin.

Why are paper towels not recyclable?

Paper towels are not recyclable due to their short fibre length and potential contamination with food, grease, or chemicals.

Can paper towel go in compost in Australia?

Yes, uncontaminated paper towels can be composted in Australia, either in a home compost system or a green waste bin if your council permits.

Which paper towels are not compostable?

Paper towels that are heavily soiled with oil, grease, chemicals, or cleaning agents should not be composted as they can contaminate the compost pile.

Is it better to use paper towels or hand dryers?

Eco-friendly hand dryers like low energy jet dryers are the best for the environment as they use less carbon emissions than paper and don’t create as much waste.

Concluding: Can You Recycle Paper Towel?

So to sum it up – paper towels can’t be recycled and are best composted. They are a wasteful product that we can easily swap for more eco-friendly alternatives.

To learn how to make sustainable choices read our top 54 easy eco swaps.

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