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Can You Compost Paper Towels? Are They Biodegradable?

paper towel on the table

Composting is a great way to make organic-based fertilizer and reduce waste. Lots of organic materials we use in our day-to-day lives can be thrown in the compost bin instead of the trash, lightening the load on landfills. It can be tricky to figure out what’s suitable for compost, though. Can paper towels be used in compost, for example?

Yes, you can safely compost most paper towels! That is, unless you use them to clean up certain liquids, chemicals, or greasy compounds. Paper towels used to clean up organic food, water, or dry hands are perfectly safe to compost.

Keep an eye out for paper towels with 100% recycled paper fiber, as these will break down in a compost bin better than competitors.

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Are Paper Towels Biodegradable?

Most paper towels are indeed biodegradable, meaning they break down into organic compounds. Sometimes people claim the bleaching process used to whiten paper towels makes them unsafe to compost, but this isn’t usually true. There’s no bleach in the paper towels themselves, making them fine to throw in the bin.

Composting isn’t very widespread, so a lot of them end up in landfills. They eventually break down, unlike plastic, but lots of people throw paper towels away. It won’t all degrade at the same rate, especially with the large volume of trash thrown away every moment of the day.

In the end, it doesn’t hurt to throw paper towels in the trash unless they have actively toxic compounds on them. They’ll end up breaking down pretty quickly in a landfill, making them among the most harmless things to throw away.

paper towel
Image By: Hans, Pixabay

When To Not Compost Paper Towels

As we mentioned above, sometimes you can’t compost paper towels if you clean up certain things with them. In these cases, you should dispose of them in the trash. There are numerous things that aren’t conducive to optimal composting conditions, and they can actually ruin your compost.

These include:
  • Cooking oil, butter, and other oily/greasy substances
  • Chemical disinfectants
  • Bodily fluids like urine, vomit, feces, etc. This is mainly applicable when the source is ill.
  • Fragrances like perfume, cologne, or additives to make the paper towels smell good

Oily substances block oxygen circulation to your compost, but the occasional bit of greasy paper towel won’t hurt it in the long run. What you should avoid at all costs are chemicals and disease vectors like bodily fluids from a sick person or animal, as these can introduce bacteria to the compost or ruin the delicately decomposing balance within.

cleaning car window with paper towel
Image Credit: Fineart1, Shutterstock

Are Some Paper Towels Better Than Others For Compost?

While most paper towels are compostable in some form, they’re not all created equally. The best compostable paper towels are unbleached and made from 100% recycled fibers. You can identify unbleached paper towels because they’re typically brown.

Another increasingly popular option is bamboo paper towels. These bamboo-derived paper towels are usually reusable before you throw them away or compost them, giving you better value for your money. Look out for rayon on the ingredients of these, though, because that renders the paper towels unsuitable for compost.

How Long Does It Take For Paper Towels To Break Down?

Your average paper towel will break down in a compost bin in as little as 2 to 6 weeks. Shredding them into small pieces will accelerate this by a lot, so make sure you’re breaking the paper into small pieces before adding it to your compost bin.

It helps if you already have a healthy compost bin with lots of other organic matter, as that will encourage the paper to break down faster. New compost will take a few weeks to months before it’s ready.

compost in garden
Image Credit: Piqsels

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Composting is an eco-conscious way to reduce trash and make some pretty awesome fertilizer at the same time, and paper towels are a great addition. Just make sure you buy paper towels that will break down easily, and you’re well on your way to a healthy compost bin.

Related Read: Can You Compost Corn Cobs? What Should You Expect?

Featured Image Credit: Africa Studio, Shutterstock


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