Are paper towels biodegradable? Can they be composted?

  • Date: May 13, 2022

Paper towels are a common household go-to for cleaning messy surfaces and wiping dirty hands. Seen as a more hygienic alternative to hand dryers, they are also used in their millions in public restrooms across the country. They are, undoubtably, a useful item – but the amount of waste they produce is astronomical. And, worst still, they can’t be recycled. What are the other waste disposal alternatives? Are paper towels biodegradable and can they be composted?

Firstly, what are paper towels made of?

When determining if an item is biodegradable, we need to identify what it is made from. Paper towels are, generally, made from pulp derived from wood fibers. Different chemicals are then added – these will vary from brand to brand.

So, are paper towels biodegradable?

A material is classed as biodegradable if it can be broken down naturally by micro-organisms such as bacteria. Items that come from nature, essentially, return to nature. Since paper towels came from trees, they can break down into their component parts and return to the earth.  It can take only a matter of weeks for paper towels to biodegrade.

It should be noted, as with any biodegradable item, it will only biodegrade if conditions are suitable. Often, we think that biodegradable items break down in landfill at the quoted rates. However, they can be there for much longer than that. The conditions in landfill are not optimal – the airflow can be poor and moisture levels not ideal. This is one of the reasons that diverting items from landfill is so important – even ones that are biodegradable.

Are paper towels compostable?

Composting is a win-win. It provides us a great means of reducing our household waste – whilst producing a fertilizer for our garden at the same time. 

As with other paper and cardboard items, it makes a great carbon-rich ‘brown’ ingredient to add to your pile. It is important to ensure you have a suitable mixture of both ‘browns’ and nitrogen-rich ‘greens’, such as food scraps, in your compost pile. You might need to do some experimentation and tweak things as you go, but we find a simple 1:1 ratio pretty effective. Just make sure you keep monitoring it – a shift away from a suitable ratio could lead to a whole host of different composting issues. Too many ‘browns’, in this case, can lead to the mixture becoming a little too dry.

As far as composting goes, paper towels are fairly simple. But if you are new to the composting game, take a look at our article that answers the most frequently asked beginners’ questions.

Some considerations when composting paper towels…

Before you pop the paper towels in the compost bin it is a good idea to rip them into small pieces. Although this is not essential, it makes the process that little bit quicker. It also means that you will be able to distribute the pieces throughout the pile.

It is often suggested that white paper towels are not suitable for composting. The bleach that was used to make them white is claimed to contaminate the pile. We have never found this to be the case – and it breaks down effectively in the environment. You should avoid pouring a bottle of bleach in there (!), of course, but the small amounts in paper towels presents little risk. However, as ever, it is your call – never add something to the compost pile that you don’t feel comfortable with!

What you used the paper towel for should be taken into consideration. If you have used them to dry your hands or wipe up a small spill, they are perfectly suitable. Even if you have used them to blow your nose they can be added – so long as you don’t have any nasty bugs.

Although a small amount will be okay, if your paper towel is saturated with oils or meaty foods you should avoid adding it to the compost pile. Also, if the paper towel has been used to deal with any sort of poop – dog, cat, human or otherwise – it is a definite no-go. As with the virus-filled snot, it will contaminate the pile. The trash is the best place for these paper towels, even if they just have a small amount. It just isn’t worth the risk.  

The bottom line

Composting is a great way to ensure that items don’t end up in landfill. This should always be a priority – even for products made from biodegradable materials. Although there are some caveats, paper towels are generally a useful ingredient for any healthy compost pile. When possible, we always suggest that you opt for a reusable towel. However, composting your used paper towels is the second best option!