What to Know About Composting Paper Towels

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on December 06, 2022
5 min read

Paper towels are convenient, but they can take a toll on the environment. You can’t recycle paper towels, but one option if you go through a lot of them and want to reduce your environmental impact is composting paper towels.

Paper towels aren’t fantastic for the environment. There are a few problems with paper towels: how much we use, the waste they create, and their potential toxicity. 

The U.S. uses a lot of paper towels. Pre-pandemic, the average was 13 billion pounds of paper towels each year. Since the pandemic, that number is estimated to have increased by 200%. The manufacturing of that many paper towels results in the release of millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide into the environment. It also uses a lot of trees. Just 1 ton of paper towels takes 17 trees and 20,000 gallons of water to produce.

Most used paper towels end up in landfills because they can’t be recycled. While paper products are biodegradable and break down within two to six weeks, there’s just so much of them in our landfills. Paper towels and other single-use products release methane as they break down, and on top of that, the packaging that they come in isn’t recyclable either, creating more waste.

There are some situations in which paper towels are more convenient than cloth ones. To help offset the environmental impact, try composting them.

Composting is a method of breaking down organic materials into fertilizer. While all organic waste breaks down eventually, you can speed up that process by creating an environment where bacteria, fungi, and other organisms like nematodes and worms can thrive. These organisms decompose your waste into a soil you can use.

Decomposition in a compost pile is more ideal than decomposition in a landfill because composting promotes aerobic decomposition. Aerobic decomposition is decomposition by organisms that require oxygen to survive. In landfills, there’s not enough air circulating, so decomposition is anaerobic, meaning it's performed by organisms that don’t require oxygen. Anaerobic decomposition produces biogas as a byproduct, and this biogas is about half methane and half carbon dioxide. Both of these gases are bad for the environment.

Composting has several environmental benefits, including:

  • Reducing waste in landfills by allowing the waste to decompose at home
  • Cutting emissions from landfills by preventing anaerobic respiration, which produces greenhouse gases
  • Reducing food waste by providing an alternative method of disposal
  • Improving soil health by giving the soil vital nutrients like nitrogen and potassium
  • Conserving water and reducing erosion by helping the soil retain water

Composting is a great way to dispose of used paper towels. But not all towels are compostable. Paper towels should not go in the compost pile if they:

  • Are bleached
  • Have a lot of grease on them
  • Have been used with chemicals, such as household cleaners

Compost piles need items that are high in carbon, called “brown” items, and items that are high in nitrogen, called “green” items. High-carbon items provide a food source for the organisms that break down compost, while nitrogen allows them to quickly grow and reproduce. Paper towels on their own are considered brown items, but materials like food particles on the paper towels can be green items. 

Other types of brown items include:

  • Uncoated cardboard, torn into small pieces
  • Dead lawn trimmings and plants
  • Dry leaves and grass
  • Fireplace ashes, so long as they are from natural wood
  • Hay and straw
  • Newspaper, shredded or torn into small pieces
  • Nut and seed shells
  • Uncoated paper, torn or shredded into small pieces
  • Sawdust and wood chips

Common green items include:

  • Coffee grounds
  • Eggshells 
  • Food scraps
  • Fresh grass and yard trimmings
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Fur and hair
  • Tea bags

Some things can’t be composted because they can carry pathogens or harmful substances, cause foul odors, or attract pests like flies and rodents:

  • Black walnut tree leaves, twigs, and trimmings can release substances that are harmful to plants.
  • Coal and charcoal ash can release substances that are harmful to plants.
  • Dairy products and whole eggs can produce foul odors and attract pests.
  • Fats, grease, lard, and oils can produce foul odors and attract pests.
  • Meat or fish bones or scraps can create foul odors, attract pests, and carry pathogens.
  • Pet feces or litter may contain pathogens like bacteria, parasites, and viruses.
  • Plants contaminated with disease or infested with insects can be contagious to other plants.
  • Yard trimmings treated with herbicides or pesticides might be harmful to plants (check the herbicide or pesticide label).

If your paper towels have been soaked in any of these substances, they should not be used for compost.

Paper towel composting is no different from composting any other type of organic matter. 

Your compost pile needs more brown items than green items, which is great if you have a lot of paper towels to get rid of. Generally, you should have a ratio of 25 to 30 parts carbon for every one part nitrogen. That usually means putting two to four parts brown materials in for every one part green materials to keep that ratio.

In addition to green and brown items, your compost pile also needs air and water. You can encourage airflow by layering green and brown items, making sure your items are in small pieces, and turning your pile regularly. Add water if the pile is too dry, and add carbon materials if it’s too wet. Ideally, it should be about the dampness of a wrung-out sponge.

There are a few other things to keep in mind for the most effective paper towel compost:

  • Size. Composting needs heat to work. A pile too big will lose heat, while one too small won’t be able to hold heat. Keep your compost pile between 3 and 5 cubic feet.
  • Temperature. The best temperature for the microorganisms that are feeding on your compost pile is between 130 and 140°F (54.4 and 60°C). If your pile gets too cool, turn it to promote airflow.
  • Location. The best location for your pile is a dry, shady spot. Avoid drainage areas or areas with a lot of sun.

Once your compost is mature — that is, it’s got a crumbly, smooth texture and a dark color, and it smells like rich earth — you can use it as mulch, potting soil, or garden fertilizer.