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Paper Towels: The Down + Dirty

Here’s an unsurprising fact: paper towels are a problem. We use them a lot, and by “we” I mean the collective American society. In fact, the rate at which we consume paper towels is a little bit shocking and a lot concerning, leaving a lot of people asking about eco-friendly alternatives including paper-free towels.

So, let’s talk about paper towels.

First and foremost — Americans love paper towels. Whether it’s simply that their advertising is too effective, or that our homes are truly perpetually riddled with spills — Americans beat out every westernized culture for paper towel consumption by a staggering margin.

In 2017 the global spend on paper towels for European nations was roughly 12 billion, and American’s account for 5.7 billion of that spend. That’s more than every other country in the study combined.

So is our paper towel usage somehow a reflection of American exceptionalism? Should we wear it like a badge of pride and wave our flags in patriotic prowess? Probably not.

Paper towel consumption seems to have a connection to individual wealth and the convenience of “single use” culture. The more money an individual makes, the less inclined they are to be resourceful with their dollars, belongings, and environment. Convenience becomes the king in decision making. And where convenience and discard culture may be a staple of “modern” American living — the downstream negative effects are worth considering.

The Environment

Paper towels generally come from virginal trees. This means that though paper towels can be made from recycled materials — the majority of the leading paper towel manufacturers are still relying on fresh-cut timber to make these products.

Fortunately there are companies that are being resourceful — and manufacturing paper towels from saw dust produced in the manufacturing of other lumber products, yet this does not account for the majority of paper towels made.

More concerning than the lumber used for manufacturing are the additional resources that go into this process. The amount of water — that goes into the production of what most consider to be a single-use, disposable, product — is insane:

  • Typically it takes about 20,000 gallons of water to produce one ton of paper towels.
  • American’s produce about 7.4 billion pounds of waste that go to landfills in paper towels alone.
  • This results in 74 billion gallons of water that go into making paper towels a year.

To put this in tangible terms:

  •  74 billion gallons is roughly 112,000 olympic pools.
  •  You could fill every fuel tank, in every car, in North America over twenty five times*.
  • If you work better with solids — if each gallon  were a sheet of paper stacked up, it would reach the entire length of the Nile river.
  • If you’re not big into rivers — that distance in paper is roughly 70% of the circumference of the moon.
  • If you prefer time, if each gallon were a second into the past that would put us at 2347 years ago.

Point being, it’s a veritable butt load of water.

The Wallet

Stats on individual paper towel use range pretty drastically. We’ve seen numbers of $17.50 average annual spend on paper towels, I’ve seen other numbers closer to $200 annual spend — but we at Kindred think that really any amount spent on paper towels is money that you’re just throwing away, literally.

By looking over a longer timeline, by ditching paper towels the conservative estimates put your savings at around a thousand dollars.  Will saving between twenty and two hundred dollars a year change your life — probably not. But would saving a thousand dollars over time be beneficial? You’d be surprised.

We’d recommend saving that money and putting it towards something better in your life. Some slick shoes, a nice chess set, a swell vacation, a neat home improvement project* — really anything that will make a more permanent effect on your life and pay dividends over time, even if it’s only memories!

The Switch

So you’ve read the stats and my argument has become super compelling — you want to say goodbye to paper towels forever, and join us in the blissful world of a low-impact, low-waste, lifestyle. What to do now?

First and foremost we’re huge advocates of using what you have. So if you have an old t-shirt around that you can’t wear because your partner informs you that the pit stains are offensive — that’s a perfect candidate for some homemade rags.

Cut up your shirts, destroy your old bed linens, make yourself an army of recycled materials worthy of Mordor!*

And, naturally, we offer some awesome alternatives to paper towels. A local mama-owned company, The Caring Home supplies our paper-free towels. They are 100% not paper, and 100% awesome for taking care of household messes — and when they are soiled, you simply wash them.

Sources and Assumptions

* assuming an average tank size of 55 liters, and a 273.6 million cars in North America.

* assuming we only use old-timey words to describe things.

* Mordor is a fictional land in Middle Earth and they were not huge proponents of low-impact and eco-friendly living, that’s why it’s ironic.

* Resources:

https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/12/paper-towels-us-use-consume/577672/

https://www.creighton.edu/fileadmin/user/sustainability/docs/creighton-9.pdf

https://www.statista.com/statistics/183505/number-of-vehicles-in-the-united-states-since-1990

https://www.newscientist.com/lastword/mg24232330-900-whats-better-for-the-environment-using-a-hand-dryer-or-paper-towels

TLDR version: You can reduce/reuse/recycle with homemade rags, or get washable paper-free towels from us courtesy of The Caring Home!

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