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.