Wondering if you can compost dirty paper towels? The quick answer is it depends. Read on for more details about how to properly compost paper towels depending on the type of compost system you use and how you used the paper towels.
Paper towels are made of … well … paper, so of course, they’re compostable, right? Paper comes from trees and anything that comes from trees belongs in a compost pile at the end of its life. But typically paper towels are used to clean up a variety of messes that can constitute organic materials and a plethora of inorganic and even toxic materials.
Can You Compost Clean Paper Towels?
Yep! You can definitely compost clean, unused disposable paper towels, though we can’t imagine a reason to do this. If you haven’t used them yet, why throw them away?
If, however, you come upon a circumstance that calls for tossing an unused paper towel, you can definitely put it in any residential, commercial, or industrial compost bin. Whether made from virgin pulp, recycled paper, or bamboo, all clean paper towels are compostable.
Can You Compost Dirty Paper Towels?
It depends. Whether or not and how you can compost dirty paper towels depends largely on how you used them. Composting dirty paper towels is really a question about the materials of the paper towel and the content the towel cleaned.
We’ve already discussed that the paper towel itself is compostable. Thus, whether or not a dirty paper towel is compostable depends on whether or not the material or matter cleaned with the paper towel is also compostable.
Dirty Paper Towels + Organic Messes
Yes. You can compost dirty paper towels that you used to clean up messes of organic materials like food, mud, and even things as gross as vomit. If you can eat it, you can compost it.
All of these dirty paper towels and their respective organic material messes are compostable in home compost bins as well as commercial and industrial composting facilities. Be mindful, however, that some types of organic materials like meat, dairy, and oils may attract pests in cold (or slow add) composting systems (like many traditional, casually-managed home compost bins).
All organic matter can be composted without contaminating the final finished compost. However, food like meat and dairy breaks down rather slowly and emits odors if not well managed.
Consequently, these types of products in a home compost bin are far more likely to cause pest and odor issues, so many resources rightfully discourage home composters from adding these items to their piles.
Meat, dairy, and oily products like cooked vegetables and buttered toast do break down effectively in commercial and industrial composting facilities, so they typically cause no issues in these types of organic recycling facilities.
That being said, you won’t likely have an issue tossing an occasional dirty paper towel with a bit of butter or oil on it into your home compost bin. Just be sure to bury those dirty paper towels under other food scraps, brown matter, soil, or in-process compost matter, and you should experience no issues.
Dirty Paper Towels + Natural Cleaning Products
Yes. You can compost dirty paper towels that you used for simple cleaning of things like countertops and stovetops if you used natural cleaning ingredients like vinegar and baking soda. Vinegar and baking soda are organic materials that will break down in a compost pile just like food.
Even if you’ve infused your cleaning products with citrus, pine, or other natural scents, dirty paper towels used with these DIY cleaning products can go in any home or industrial compost system.
Dirty Paper Towels + Inorganic Messes + Toxic Chemicals
No. We don’t recommend composting dirty paper towels used to clean up messes like paint, toxic chemicals, or those used with harsh cleaning chemicals. Harsh chemicals and inorganic materials will not properly break down and are likely to contaminate the finished compost that you intend to add to your soil.
Furthermore, dirty paper towels covered in materials designed to kill bacteria and other microbes will most likely kill the good bacteria and microorganisms doing the hard work of breaking down and processing organic matter in your compost pile.
Ditch Single-Use Papers For Reusable Paper Towel Alternatives
Disposable paper towels are popular for a reason. They have their place and time. However, there are some really great and affordable reusable paper towel alternatives that we encourage you to consider.
Old t-shirts and sheets make great rags. You can also find all sorts of secondhand textiles at thrift shops if you don’t have any at home already.
If you prefer something prettier, you can sew finished edges on something repurposed or buy new reusable dishcloths that are aesthetically pleasing and functional. There are tons of gorgeous reusable dishcloths and cloth rags on the market.
Swedish dishcloths are also a really popular reusable paper towel alternative. Swedish dishcloths are made of cellulose and can last for up to 9 months when properly cared for. However, you can rinse and reuse Swedish dishcloths easily, because they hang and dry quite quickly. Thus, you do not accumulate lots of dirty dishcloths to wash regularly (as you do with cloth dishrags). Swedish dishcloths are even compostable at the end of their lives.
We took a deep dive into reusable paper towel alternatives, comparing the pros and cons of cloth dish rags and Swedish dishcloths as eco-friendly paper towel options. Check it out and maybe you’ll be a convert and ditch the single-use paper towels once and for all.
Do you use paper towels? Or do you prefer a reusable paper towel alternative like cloth rags or Swedish dishcloths? Let us know in the comments.
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About The Author
Jen Panaro, founder and editor-in-chief of Honestly Modern, is a self-proclaimed composting nerd and an advocate for sustainable living for modern families. In her spare time, she’s a serial library book borrower, a messy gardener, and a mom of two boys who spends a lot of time in hockey rinks and on baseball fields.
You can find more of her work at WasteWell, a company that provides composting resources and local curbside compost collection services, and Raising Global Kidizens, an online space to help parents and caregivers raise the next generation of responsible global citizens.