Q: Is it possible to recycle used paper towels? If so, why aren't there recycling containers for them in public restrooms (like at airports or business offices)? If there is some barrier to recycling them, what would it take to overcome it—be it a process to make them recyclable, or a viable system to collect and recycle them?

Asked by Andy Grubb, '05, Oceanside, Calif.


Composting

Composting is a process that uses natural biological activity to break down organic matter, such as yard and food waste, into a nutrient-rich soil amendment. Composting systems are increasingly being installed as a waste management alternative to landfills, thus reducing the amount of methane emitted. When organic materials are broken down by bacteria without the presence of oxygen in landfills, it produces not just carbon dioxide, but the much more powerful greenhouse gasses methane and nitrous oxide as well. In a well-maintained composting system, bacteria break down organic materials in the presence of oxygen. The end products are mainly carbon dioxide and water, as well as the rich, useful compost itself. Another benefit is that the compost displaces synthetic chemical fertilizers, which require intensive energy to produce and can have serious impacts on human and environmental health.

In Ontario, a group called Partners for a Green Hill manages a program to compost paper towel waste from bathrooms in government buildings around Ottawa's Parliament Hill. Paper towels go into a special collection bin to be composted and used as daily cover soil, which is spread over landfills. The benefits of this program include reducing paper waste from landfills, improving texture and fertility of soil, and creating new jobs in recycling facilities.

Paper towels free of chemicals can be composted, and the bacteria or food on them will break down during the composting process. If an airport, public building or school already has a composting program, it should not be too much trouble to place collecting bins in restrooms. But many places don't have an existing composting program.

In 2008, Stanford reused or composted 5,872 tons of organic material. Stanford is currently seeking to build on these efforts by creating an office-based composting program (Stanford Recycling). I hope this means that paper towels on our campus will soon be disposed in a composting facility instead of a landfill.

For home use, it's worth remembering that many waste-disposal companies will accept paper towels as part of yard waste, as it will break down similarly in the environment. Check with your local waste-disposal provider to see if they offer this option. Alternatively, you can incorporate paper waste into your own home compost system. Many websites offer relevant composting advice, but the Garden Organic site is a good place to start.

Landfills

The modern sanitary landfill is a far cry from the open-pit trash dumps of old. Today, landfill construction must follow specific requirements in terms of location, design, operation and monitoring to protect the environment from contaminants—and neighbors from offensive odors. Plastic and clay materials are used for the bottom and sides of the landfill to avoid the nasty liquid drain into groundwater and the underlying soil. Several inches of soil are frequently used to cover the waste, reducing odor, insects and rodents and protecting public health. Increasingly, venting systems are being installed to tap and harvest pockets of "landfill gas"—the noxious mix of methane and other flammable gasses produced in the oxygen-starved environment—which can be burned to generate heat or electricity.

In highly urban areas, land suitable for landfills is often very limited and must be used carefully. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), about a third of all the trash we generate before subtracting what's recycled consists of paper products. 

Paper recycling in the U.S.

According to the EPA, people in the United States consumed about 663 pounds of paper per person in. From the American Forest & Paper Association, about half of the paper products we use are recovered for recycling and more than one-third (37 percent) of the material fiber U.S. papermakers use comes from recovered paper. There is big potential for increasing those numbers because about 81 percent of paper discarded in a given year could be recycled. In Germany in 2005, the paper-recycling rate was ) 74 percent.

Even though paper towels can't be made into new paper products, we can choose to purchase paper towels made from recycled paper, which encourages responsible environmental practices. This environmental rating of paper products can help you find paper towels ) made of recycled paper.

Cost critics

Under certain conditions, recycling and composting can cost municipalities more than it would to discard paper materials as trash. The cost depends on a number of variables such as the cost of collecting, transporting and processing, and the various fees associated with using a landfill. Critics argue that the costs and energy used in trucks and equipment to process the materials detract from the costs and energy saved by recycling.

While recycling in many situations can make sound financial sense, it is important to remember that there's a more important reason to do it. Recycling is an easy way to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions as well as to save valuable land and increasingly scarce resources.

What we can do

Even though paper towels can't be recycled, there are a few things we can still do to help reduce their environmental impact. We can use cloths made of cotton, linen or hemp for house cleaning, which can be washed and reused many times over. We can join an organic composting program near our homes or workplaces. If there are no such programs near you, maybe you can initiate one. And at work, you might want to suggest high-efficiency air dryers or at least mechanized controlled-use paper towel dispensers instead of the easily accessible—and easily over-used—folded paper towels. Just that small change can help reduce 25 to 30 percent of total paper towel use.


Jingshi Wu is a PhD candidate in the department of geological and environmental sciences.