What You Don’t Know: Paper Towels And Waste

  • October 21, 2011 10:33 am
Try this experiment: how many paper towels did you use today? I’m not just talking about what you used at home. What did you use at work? In the bathroom at work? At a restaurant at lunch? In that restroom? And anywhere else along the way?
I gave up paper towels at home (except for the very worst case scenarios…let’s just say I have a cat that pukes not infrequently) a while back. Still, I did this experiment recently and realized I was still using them on the go — often without thinking — and even though I always carry a cloth napkin in my bag! I always using my cloth napkin for lunches and food on the go but forgot to consider for when drying my hands in public rest rooms. Amazing how ingrained some of this behavior is.
Here’s a little tidbit about paper towels and waste from a PracticallyGreen.com action I recently edited:

“Let’s say the average American works 240 days a year and washes their hands at least three times a day while at the office. If only one paper towel is used (some people use more), that adds up to 720 a year. This doesn’t even include the number of paper towels and napkins being used in restaurants, retail stores, stadiums, and libraries. Mind boggling.

A little perspective: the NRDC estimates that if every household in the United States used one less roll of paper towels, we could save 544,000 trees.

According to the EPA, paper accounts for 28 percent of municipal waste contributing 26 million tons to landfills. Though paper towels are great for compost, sorting waste in public bathrooms is a challenge to say the least. These sorting issues plus fiber quality means paper towels used in public spaces are rarely recycled and often end up in landfills.”

So: If you haven’t already switched from paper towels to dishrags and cloth napkins, give it a whirl. And tuck a cloth napkin in your purse or computer bag, too, to use when you’re at your office or on the go. I tuck mine inside a cloth produce bag to protect it from all of the other stuff clogging what I now refer to as my mom bag: pretzel dust, odd arts and craft projects, reusable coffee mug and water bottle, receipts, marbles, hand cream, a reusable fork and spoon, and so on. You know the drill.
FYI, while you’re washing your hands don’t forget that regular old soap and water are all you need. Avoid soaps with synthetic fragrance and antibacterial pesticides like triclosan. It’s just not necessary. The American Medical Association has come out against it, saying it may encourage bacterial resistance to antibiotics. And an FDA advisory committee found it–and other antibacterial hand soap agents–has no benefits over plain soap and water.  There are environmental issues with it, too, but I’ll spare you the details–for now.

Q&A: Picnic Waste

  • June 28, 2011 5:03 pm


Dear Alexandra,

This summer I’ve been finding myself hosting multiple picnics and BBQs, all of which have been attended by lots of family, friends, and children.  Of course, on July 4th we’ll be having a massive backyard party.  These events are great, but I’ve been guilt ridden by the amount of waste we’re producing.  Napkins, plates, utensils!  I’ve tried to find recyclable options, but some cost a fortune.  What do you suggest to minimize my waste, and my cost?




Hi Susan, thank you so much for the great and timely question. The amount of waste from eating a meal outdoors can be immense, but there are some easy (and cheap) ways to reduce the amount of your garbage and your guilt.  In The Conscious Kitchen I discuss entertaining for a crowd (see below). My favorite way to minimize waste and cost at a party is to ask people to BYO plates, cups, cloth napkins, and utensils. Have items on hand for guests who choose not to. You might be pleasantly surprised at how many do bring their own items, though. And the zany mix and matching this creates is festive. This goes for July 4th and beyond — it’s how I host my daughter’s winter waste-free  birthday parties, too.

From The Conscious Kitchen:

One of the many pleasures of cooking is inviting your family and friends to share meals with you.  Depending on the size of your crowd, short cuts become tempting.  Resist the urge to serve on paper plates.  A far better option is to use your real plates, glasses, silverware, and cloth napkins.  If you won’t, use only unbleached paper or compostable plates, plus unbleached paper or compostable paper cups and recycled-paper napkins.  If using plastic cutlery, go for items made of #2, #4, or #5 (see below), especially if they can be reused and eventually recycled.  If using corn or sugar plastic, make sure you can compost or recycle it where you live.

#2 (HDPE or high-density polyethylene), a hard plastic used for everything from milk jugs to cleaning product containers, is presently being used as one of the replacements for bisphenol-A containing polycarbonate (#7) in baby and reusable water bottles.

#4 (LDPE or low-density polyethylene), a soft plastic widely used for food storage bags, plastic shopping bags, and squeezable bottles.

#5 (PP or polypropylene), a versatile plastic that is used for bottle tops, yogurt and food storage containers, plus baby bottles.

#7 (other, catch-all), this classification is for any and all plastics that don’t fall under #1 to #6, and can include polycarbonate, the hard plastic used mainly for bottles (water and baby) that contains bisphenol-A.

The confusing and frustrating part is that even if you do buy compostable items, usually they are made from GM plants, which require lots of fertilizer and plenty of chemicals to stabilize them.  These materials are considered biodegradable, but will only biodegrade under strict conditions–they need to have access to air, water, light, microbes, and enzymes.  Since most people don’t recycle these items, they end up in landfills, buried and unable to break down–just like regular plastic.  If you use “compostable” plates, make sure you can compost or recycle these items close to where you live (some municipalities don’t recycle the corn based plastics).  Best case scenario: start composting in your own home!  Go to the EPA’s site for more information on how you can get started with your own personal compost.

Happy 4th of July! What’s better than celebrating with family, friends, and great food?