We contacted our CHOICE.Community to see what they were using their paper towels for. It seems this humble kitchen product has found a myriad of uses around the home:
- Keeping greens and herbs fresh
- Drying flowers
- Cooking bacon in the microwave
- Drying salad leaves
- Wiping up spills
- Dabbing away the moisture from raw meat
- Ad-hoc filter (from coffee to wine)
- Straining grease from a variety of cooked goods
- Cleaning wok
- Re-seasoning cast iron pans
- Cleaning the BBQ
- Drying cats litterbox
- Buffer for shoes
- Folded up to stop tables from tilting
- Camping toilet paper
- Cleaning glass windows and mirrors
- Cooking frozen pies in the microwave as it stops the pastry from getting as soggy
Paper towels generally range from two-ply to four-ply. This simply refers to the number of layers of paper used. Generally the higher the ply count, the thicker, softer, stronger and more absorbent the paper should be.
Paper towels are not recyclable.
Not only do they usually come in contact with food waste and other greases but they are made using chemicals to improve their "wet tear strength", so they can't be recycled like other paper waste. Instead, look for 100% recycled or similar claims on the packaging when buying.
Alternatively, if you have a compost bin, you can add paper towels that have been used with dirt, water or plant-based food. However, if they've been used to wipe up greasy spills or with harsh cleaning products then they're not welcome in the compost.
FSC is an international, non-profit organisation that promotes responsible forest management. It achieves this by setting standards on forest products with a certification process. You'll find the FSC tree-tick logo on many paper towel packs, but if you take a closer look at the fine print you'll notice there are three classifications to the label:
- FSC mix means the product can be a mixture of timber/fibre from an FSC-certified forest, reclaimed timber/fibre, or timber/fibre from other controlled sources. The entire production volume needs to contain at least 70% FSC-certified material, but that doesn't necessarily mean that a particular product line will contain any FSC-certified material at all.
- FSC recycled means all the timber/fibre in the product is recycled material, however 15% can be pre-consumer waste (manufacturing scrap that has been put back into production). Your best bet is to look for products with this logo.
- FSC 100% means all the timber/fibre in the product comes from an FSC-certified forest.
Ultimately, the FSC logo isn't a guarantee that the whole product is from a sustainable source, but it does indicate that the virgin fibres (see virgin vs recycled below) used to make the product came from forests managed to higher environmental and social standards.
The Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) is an international organisation that works to promote sustainable forest management and make sure timber and non-timber forest products are produced with high ecological, social and ethical standards.
It has a third-party classification scheme and you can identify its products by its PEFC-certified label. It has two classifications to the label:
- PEFC Certified means at least 70% of wood comes from PEFC-certified forests and wood from controlled sources.
- PEFC Recycled means at least 70% PEFC-certified material from recycled sources and wood from controlled sources.
- Recycled paper towel is made by re-using a variety of materials.
- Virgin paper towel has no recycled or alternative fibres.
The bottom line – look for recycled products. The process of recycling is less damaging to the environment and keeps waste away from landfill. However, you can only recycle four to six times before the fibres become too short and weak, so there'll always be a need for virgin paper. Only a small amount of the paper towels we've tested use recycled products, so it's important to look for packaging with FSC or PEFC certification.
Paper towels are often bleached to give them their whiteness and you may have noticed the claim "elemental chlorine-free bleaching" used on many products. Elemental chlorine gas produces dioxins which can be harmful not only to the environment but also to our health. ECF doesn't mean the product is chlorine-free but rather that the product has been bleached using chlorine dioxide (instead of elemental chlorine gas) which reduces the potential to form these harmful dioxins.
It's best to look for a product that is "unbleached" or uses alternatives to chlorine (like oxygen or hydrogen peroxide) to achieve whiteness.
Printed, scented, embossed, quilted
These 'features' are all added for decorative and aesthetic appeal. Whether you choose to buy paper towels with these features comes down to personal preference.
If you have a sensitivity to dyes or perfumes then look for a paper towel without them and one that claims to be hypoallergenic.
If you base your decision on price, you can spend anywhere from $1.24 to just under $6.00 per 100 sheets – it might not seem like much when you look at it like this, but over time that's a lot of money to be using in the kitchen. If you purchase in bulk, you're likely to get most (if not all) of these products at a cheaper price per 100 sheets.