Can you compost paper towels, or do they always end up in landfills?
They are a staple in almost every home, garage, and workshop. No matter where you go, chances are there’s a roll of paper towels nearby. The convenient paper sheets clean up messes, dry hands, and perform countless other small chores.
But have you ever thought about what happens to paper towels after you throw the used sheets away?
You can compost some paper towels, but not all. Here’s everything you need to know about composting paper towels.
Can You Compost Paper Towels?
Around 321 million Americans use paper towels each year and the number is expected to increase. It’s a lot of paper going into the trash or recycling bins, but there is something else you can do with the used sheets.
Most paper towels can also go in a compost pile. It’s an easy and inexpensive way to give your plants the carbon they need to thrive.
Even the process used to make the paper towels look clean and white isn’t going to harm the compost. Manufacturers use the chemical chlorine dioxide to bleach the paper sheets, and it’s the same one added to public water supplies to eliminate bacteria and viruses.
You can even safely compost most used paper towels. Whether the sheet wipes a runny nose, dries wet hands, or cleans up food and drink spills, it can go in the compost.
The microorganisms paper towels pick up benefit the compost by aiding with the decomposition process.
When Shouldn’t You Compost Paper Towels
Not all paper towels can go in your compost. It also may mean the paper sheets can’t go in recycling. Unfortunately, sometimes paper towels end up in landfills.
You never want to put paper towels in compost if,
- The paper towel is used to clean butter, grease, or a similar fatty substance off surfaces.
- A chemical-based cleaning product is sprayed on the paper towel. It also applies if you use a sheet to wipe up the cleaning agent.
- Human or animal feces is on the sheet or other bodily fluids. The bacteria can ruin the compost.
- Paper towels containing fragrances or with added disinfectant properties.
Putting paper towels used to wipe up fatty cooking substances or chemical-based cleaners in a compost pile is never a good idea.
Chemicals from the cleaning products can kill off vital microorganisms that keep the compost pile healthy. Fatty substances can also destroy beneficial bacteria by blocking airflow throughout the pile.
Paper towels with feces or other bodily fluids on them may not hurt the compost, but the pathogens can increase your risk for health issues. They can spread disease until the sheets fully decompose.
If you accidentally toss a greasy or soiled paper towel in your compost pile, you don’t have to grab a shovel. An occasional sheet covered in grease isn’t going to harm a healthy compost heap.
Paper towels with an added disinfectant are convenient to use, but the chemicals are harmful to compost piles. The same also applies to scented paper towels. You do not want to compost the aromatic sheets.
What Paper Towels Should You Compost?
Some paper towels you don’t want to compost for the health of the pile, but others are a great source of beneficial carbon.
You can easily compost paper towels made from recycled materials. Made from recycled paper products are available at most grocery stores. Online shoppers also won’t have any trouble finding these eco-friendly paper towels.
You can compost any paper towel that is free from chemicals and greasy substances. Most printed paper towels are also safe to compost. The ink is usually biodegradable. If you are in doubt, most paper towel manufacturers have websites that will answer the question.
Benefits of Composting Paper Towels
Composting paper towels come with a few benefits that include reducing the amount of waste you send to the landfill.
Paper is a brown composting ingredient. The carbon in paper prevents the compost’s nitrogen level from climbing too high.
Too much nitrogen in compost can damage or kill garden plants. If your compost heat contains a lot of grass clippings and other green materials, you need to add plenty of carbon to get the pile chemically balanced.
How to Put Paper Towels in Compost
Composting paper towels is easy, and it only takes a couple of steps.
1. Hopefully, you are keeping your compostable paper towels separate from the sheets destined for the trash. It means you don’t have to spend time sorting when it’s time to take your carbon-based materials to the compost pile.
2. Tear the paper towels sheets. You don’t want to throw full-size sheets in your compost. It takes a few days for paper towels to decompose, and you want to speed up the process to keep your compost healthy.
3. Add the paper towels to the brown layer. It’s your carbon-based layer containing materials like cardboard, newsprint, wood chips, and sawdust. Before you add any more paper towels, add a green layer. You want to alternate layers to keep the carbon and nitrogen levels balanced.
4. Every time you add a layer, you need to flip the pile using a shovel or garden fork every two or three days. Composting bin users also want to rotate their units to keep the air flowing and internal temperatures hot.
5. Tearing the paper towels into pieces is vital for airflow throughout the compost pile. The same absorbent properties that make paper towels so efficient at cleaning up spills absorb moisture in the compost. It can trigger the decomposition process before the pile is ready.
So, can you compost paper towels? You can compost most paper towels, and it’s a great way to add carbon to your compost, especially if it’s rich in nitrogen-high grass clippings.
Even though paper towels are biodegradable, it takes a while in landfills. When you add other kitchen and plant waste, you have a sustainable way to fertilize your yard and garden.