Last Updated on April 4, 2022 by Grow with Bovees
There is almost no household in the United States (and many other countries, for that matter) without paper towel rolls. Much like toilet paper rolls, our lives would seemingly come to a standstill without them.
And it is almost impossible to imagine life without paper towels if you have kids or pets.
But, are paper towels compostable?
For those of you who are always looking for greens and browns for your compost pile, paper towels are often in the gray area.
If you are new to the composting process, greens are green waste materials (food waste) or organic materials like fresh leaves, food scraps, coffee grounds, vegetable scraps, grass clippings, tea bags, etc. which have a rich nitrogen content.
If you are wondering “can you compost paper towels”?, the answer is a bit more complicated than a simple yes or no.
What Is Composting?
A composting process is a natural biological process that is used to break down organic matter and makes for excellent soil amendment material. It is also a great way to reduce methane emissions and do waste management efficiently so that not everything lands up in a landfill.
Composting is often done via a compost heap, pile or bin.
The thing about paper towels is that they can be used to clean up a variety of things around the home. The way you use paper towels, may affect the way that the paper towels break down. And that is where the answer to your question lies.
Continue on for the ultimate guide on when it is ok to compost paper towels.
What’s a Paper Towel Made Of?
Paper towels in the kitchen are meant to absorb moisture. They are made of recycled paper (which consists of cellulose paper fibers) which makes it easy for bacteria to break them down.
So, if you do not have cardboard or pieces of paper in your compost bin, you can use kitchen towels to control the moisture in your compost pail.
The only problem is that these paper products can restrict airflow because these small pieces of paper have bits of material that are excellent when it comes to absorbing water.
While kitchen towels can help with controlling moisture, they also get the decomposition started sooner than needed. If you throw larger bits of this paper product into the compost pile, they will absorb all the moisture and could create a problem with the airflow.
They could also end up turning into clumps that create waterlogging in the bin.
So, most kitchen rolls made of cellulose fibers are not a great addition to the compost bin. Check the packaging for recycling details. They also should not be used as a replacement for shredded paper.
But you can recycle the cardboard core of the roll as long as you tear it into tiny pieces. But that is not the end of the story.
Which Ones Definitely Don’t Work?
Paper towels are a generic term and not all of them are qualified for a place at the compost pile.
Most paper towels can be used for composting depending on what you have cleaned with them. The first rule is that towels that have been used for cleaning oil, chemical residue, and grease do not belong in the compost bin.
Oil & Grease
Paper towels covered in oil and grease should not be composted. As you know, they can keep air out of the bin and create room for anaerobic bacteria. These are anaerobic bacteria that do not grow or live when there is oxygen present.
And if there is no oxygen in the bin, your decomposition process will not go as it should. It is necessary to keep your pile properly aerated.
It also creates odors that do not belong in the compost pit. Yeah, bad smells from a compost bin means things are really bad.
Chemicals & Microorganisms
Then there are chemicals such as cleaning products to consider. If your paper towels have come in contact with any kind of microorganisms or that chemicals typically contain, they might harm the good microbes and kill bacteria that make composting possible.
This is also true for towels that were used to clean dog poop or other animal waste which might just have disease-carrying pathogens that can kill essential micro and macro organisms.
There’s also you. If you have been using tissues because you have been sick or have a contagious virus, throwing those in the compost bin is a sure-fire way to harm your compost.
Which Paper Towels Are Compostable?
Now it is time to look at the kind of paper towels that you can toss into the compost bin without a care.
All paper towels that were used to clean up a dry mess or clean surfaces are good to go. Whenever you dry hands after washing them or wipe clean dishes or surfaces that do not have chemicals on them, you can throw the used paper towels away for composting.
It is, however, recommended to use unbleached paper towels. They are friendly towards the environment and as long as they have not been used to wipe up chemicals, the paper towel waste is safe to add to the composting pile.
These paper towels are considered to be brown matter and are rich with carbon. Some professional composters actually add paper towels into a separate bin and use that compost to cover soil in landfills.
This process not only helps reduce paper waste but also improves the fertility levels and the texture of the soil. And when it is commercial, it also creates jobs.
But, even these paper towels are chemical-free. The idea is to make sure that towels that were used as food napkins and have bacteria on them will help with the decomposition.
Usually, schools and airports with a program are well-placed to do this because towels in commercial bathrooms are perfect for composting.
Paper towels, though made from trees, take some time to decompose. As you would expect, the time it takes to break down depends on the thickness of the paper towel.
It can take as long as a month for that to happen, sometimes faster if a compost accelerator is used. But if they are wet and worms are allowed to work their magic on them, you might get the results sooner than that.
The Bottom Line of Paper Towels On a Compost Pile
If you are looking at unused paper towels (for some reason) they are a safe choice for composting. These paper towels are rich in nitrogen and can do a better job here than in a landfill.
Just like with composting or recycling cardboard, paper plates or empty pizza boxes, you must also cut or shred the paper towels into small pieces. This will speed up the process and decompose quickly.
If they are not greasy, covered in fatty substances or have been in contact with chemicals they are good to go. In fact, even the ones you use to blow your nose can go into the compost bin, as long as you are not carrying a contagious disease.
While paper towels are so bright because they have bleach in them. If you knew that and were wondering, don’t worry about it. That goes into the compost bin.
The next time somebody asks you “are paper towels compostable?”, you’ll be able to respond with confidence, knowing for sure that there are compostable paper towels, but it does depend on how they were used prior to throwing them into a compost heap or into a recycling bin.