Can You Recycle Paper Towels?

paper towel
igorr1 / Getty Images

Sadly, no, paper towels cannot be recycled. There are two main reasons why these products are unfit for the recycle bin: the manufacturing process and contamination of the product itself.

Before the towels get to a store shelf, they are processed in such a way that the makeup of the paper material they started out as changes entirely. Then, once they're in our homes and get put to use in different ways, they get contaminated, soaked, and broken down further. Basically, from beginning to end, paper towels are not created to be recycled.

Why Paper Towels Can't Be Recycled

While the towels do begin as mixtures of wood, cardboard, and paper by-products, they get pounded into a pulp, which weakens and breaks down their natural fibers. This makes it harder to recycle the product at a later time. They also undergo a series of chemical treatments before they get transformed into squares of rolled paper. Toxic additives such as glues, resins, and softeners are often introduced into the paper fibers to help with strength, texture, and absorption, not to mention inks and bleach for coloring. This is why even clean paper towels should be tossed in the compost or trash instead of the recycling bin.

There are "greener" options for paper towels, but even the brown, unbleached types are not suited for recycling. Their specific purpose, to clean or wipe up messes, means the products are always contaminated with residue, food waste, or cleaning chemicals. While that's what makes them such a handy household item, it's also what keeps them from getting recycled.

Paper Towels in Trash Can
jeremyiswild / Getty Images

Although some companies are experimenting with different resin formulas that would improve the recyclability of paper towels and others are implementing recycling initiatives in controlled settings, these are not yet available to the general public.

If you must use paper towels, products made from 100% recycled post-consumer paper are perhaps a more environmentally conscious option. Although these products can't be recycled again, they avoid the practice of cutting trees and using virgin fiber to create disposable paper products. In its report The Issue with Tissue: How Americans are Flushing Forests Down the Toilet, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) assigned grades to different manufacturers according to their recycled content, which can be a useful tool for choosing paper towels that aren't as harmful to the environment.

Don't Forget to Recycle the Cardboard Tube

Every paper towel roll comes on a cardboard tube that can, in fact, be recycled. Once you've finished your roll of paper towels, place the clean tube in the bin with your other recyclable paper products. In general, these are widely accepted for curbside pickup or at any recycling center where paper products are collected.

How to Reduce Paper Towel Waste

Paper towels are a handy, easy household product that works well for cleaning up small spills. However, they are a huge part of landfill waste, since they can’t be recycled. The best option is to reduce or avoid using them at all.

To help reduce, try to get multiple uses out of the same towel and don’t pull off more towels than you really need. If you’re only cleaning up with water or soap, let it dry and use it again. Or cut into smaller pieces and see if you can extend the life of the roll.  If you must, choose the unbleached brown towels that can be composted. As long as they were only used for food, most of the time, they can be tossed into the compost bin. Sometimes, certain non-toxic cleansers and plant-based sprays still allow for composting. The list below offers several options to use in place of paper towels.

Unbleached Compostable Paper Towels

An open brown box of rolls of paper towels
EasyBuy4u / Getty Images

Cotton, linen, or other plant-based materials are always the best choice for towels, but if you must use paper towels, there are ways to go greener. Look for the brown paper towels whenever possible, as they are made from recycled unbleached kraft paper. Although they can’t be recycled, they can be included in the compost bin. Just be sure only environmentally friendly products and compostable organic matter came in contact with the towel.

Cloth Towels or Napkins

If you’re using paper towels at mealtime, consider going the cloth route. There are plenty of options on the market for cloth towels and napkins in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. The best material to look for is sustainably made cotton, hemp, or bamboo. Most of these can be used for many years, through multiple cleanings and rinses, and they dry easily. Though they require the added work of laundering, minimal use of water and non-toxic soap can help reduce consumption and waste.


When it comes to washing glass surfaces and mirrors, many people often turn to paper towels first. They come in endless supply and those convenient squares rip off easily for multiple jobs. However, newspapers can work just as well, if not better, for getting streaks and spots off those surfaces.

Reusable Wax Wraps

Depending on how you use paper towels, chances are there is a replacement material that would work just as well, if not better. From lunchboxes to leftovers, when it comes to storing or transporting food, consider reusable wraps instead. These wraps are typically made from sustainable beeswax and organic cotton, which is an eco-friendly option. They are waterproof, durable, and can be easily cleaned with soapy, warm water.