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Greenest Paper Towels and Napkins

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Greenest Paper Towels and Napkins

When Arthur Scott came up with the idea of the disposable paper towel back in 1932, not many people had the foresight to envision what a bane toss-away paper products would become. But here we are, nearly 80 years later–paper accounts for one third of all municipal landfill waste, and the number of trees used in the paper industry is nothing short of staggering. So the big question: Is the continued use of disposable paper products sustainable? Is using dishtowels better for the environment than using paper towels? Similarly, are cloth napkins greener than paper napkins? Some argue that the energy used to make and repeatedly wash a dishtowel may exceed that used for the manufacture of a paper towel, and many argue the other way around. In the battle of paper towels and napkins versus cloth, here are the green, greener, and greenest options.

Not-Green: Paper—Virgin Fiber, Chlorine Bleached
Virgin fiber is that which comes straight from a tree. Doesn’t it seem a waste to use a tree for a single-use item? Well how’s this: If every household in the United States replaced one roll of virgin-fiber paper towels with 100 percent recycled paper towels, we could save 1.4 million trees. If every household in the United States replaced just one package of virgin fiber napkins with 100 percent recycled ones, we could save 1 million trees. With those numbers in mind, using virgin fiber for single use items seems simply outrageous.

Next up, bleach. Gleaming, bright white paper towels and napkins don’t get that way naturally. There are several methods of bleaching paper products, some far better than others. The one to avoid is Elemental Chlorine (chlorine gas). This is the worst of the bunch, and is responsible for the release of chlorinated compounds like dioxins and furans, which are powerful carcinogens and mutagens. These chemicals can adversely affect immune systems and reproductive systems and are dreadful for aquatic life and wildlife. Bad, bad, bad. Elemental Chlorine Free (ECF) process may be okay—this method employs a chlorine derivative such as chlorine dioxide rather than chlorine gas, and is not the best choice, but is a cleaner process than the use of elemental chlorine.

Greenish: Paper—Partially Recycled, Alternative Bleaching
If you can’t find paper products that are made of 100 percent recycled paper, look for ones with at least some recycled content. Also, steer away from products bleached with elemental chlorine and instead chose ones that use alternative bleaching. Process Chlorine Free (PCF) is a great choice, this process does not use not bleach with chlorine or its derivatives. Totally Chlorine Free (TCF) is the best choice—this is pulp that has never been bleached with chlorine or its derivatives.

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Read more: Home, Green Home Decor, Green Kitchen Tips, Household Hints, Reduce, Recycle & Reuse, , ,

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Melissa Breyer

Melissa Breyer is a writer and editor with a background in sustainable living, specializing in food, science and design. She is the co-author of True Food (National Geographic) and has edited and written for regional and international books and periodicals, including The New York Times Magazine. Melissa lives in Brooklyn, NY.


+ add your own
1:31PM PDT on Jun 28, 2015

Thanks Melissa.

11:11PM PST on Nov 11, 2013

can't believe i haven't thought of hemp napkins

12:05PM PDT on Jun 10, 2013

Thank heaven ... I have been doing this for all of my life although I have to admit I did not always do it for ecological reason but I just did not like paper napkins at the table. One exception being when my children were small and not yet able to properly handle foods.

10:55PM PDT on Jun 9, 2013

Thanks for sharing

10:51PM PDT on Jun 9, 2013

A lot about paper towels that I wasn't aware of. Thanks for the info!

5:27AM PDT on Mar 20, 2013


5:27AM PDT on Mar 20, 2013


8:57AM PST on Jan 21, 2012

Liked the tips. Thanks.

1:12PM PDT on May 23, 2011


2:03AM PDT on Mar 23, 2011

I like the info about the cost of using the washer/dryer vs. all the prelimary costs of getting the paper products home.

That is good information to share and convince friends and neighbors to "go green"or to just explain why you do! Thanks!

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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