Compostable Paper Towels (can you really toss this indispensable kitchen staple in your compost)

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Do you ever find yourself in your kitchen, contemplating the environmental impact of every disposed item you toss in the trash? What about those used paper towels? Rejoice because you’re already on the path to reducing your ecological footprint. However, compostable paper towels are a sound strategy for any backyard grower, and this guide aims to make the process easier and more fulfilling.

Most paper towels are compostable if not applied or used with chemicals. Ensure they’re free from inks, dyes, and plastics before adding them to your compost to avoid potential contaminants and promote healthy composting from start to finish.

small pile of white paper towels resting on kitchen countertop indoors

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In this article, I will provide practical advice on distinguishing suitable paper towels for composting and some unusual tips for integrating them into your compost bin effectively.

You will learn to avoid common mistakes when starting or adding to your compost pile while making the most of this simple yet impactful, eco-friendly practice. It’s safe to say that you’ll likely never think the same about the humble paper towel roll!

Humble Highlights

  • Discover the suitable types of paper towels you can compost (and those to avoid) to reduce household waste and provide a steady and necessary carbon source to your backyard compost heap.
  •  Save time with these quick and effective guidelines on composting paper towels so you can keep your pile balanced AND uncover the pros, cons, and safety considerations with this done-for-you informative table.
  •  Save money with these 3 eco-friendly paper towel alternatives to reduce household waste and promote environmental awareness in your home!

Types Of Paper Towels To Compost (And Not Recycle)

Your home compost bin thrives on a balanced mix of browns (carbon) and greens (nitrogen) properly layered or incorporated in your backyard compost. Paper towels and their rolls are considered brown and contribute to the essential carbon component. And while you might be familiar with recycling, composting takes the reuse cycle one step further by transforming organic materials into nutrient-rich soil amendments that you can apply directly into your garden. 

can you compost paper towels

However, not all paper towels are treated equally – especially those bleached and chemically contaminated or altered. Because these chemically modified towels don’t decompose safely, avoiding adding bleach-soaked or heavily soaked paper towels to your compost pile is best. 1

Instead, focus on composting unsoiled (clean and unused paper towels) or organically soiled paper towels, ensuring they’re shredded or torn into smaller pieces for quicker decomposition within your pile.

Below are some organically soiled paper towels used to clean things free from dyes or non-toxic materials.

  • Those used to wipe up food crumbs, spills, or non-toxic kitchen messes
  • Selections used to wipe up pet food spills or clean litter box areas
  • Towels used for wiping down surfaces with natural cleaning agents like vinegar or homemade eco-friendly cleaners
  • Those used for wiping hands or cleaning gardening tools after working in the garden with non-toxic materials
  • Selections used for art or craft projects with non-toxic paints, glues, or dyes, and do not contain harmful chemicals. 2

Now, let’s go into the specifics of the compostability of paper towels.

Bleached Paper Towels

Bleached paper towels have undergone a whitening process using chemicals like chlorine dioxide. While they may appear pristine and white, they often contain harmful residues that can slow down their decomposition and introduce harmful toxins into your compost. 

can i compost paper towels

Humble Tip:
Unbleached paper towels, while less visually striking in their natural color, are a safer choice for your compost pile. They are free from chemical residues and harmful substances that can disrupt the composting process.

Composting Paper Towels: How Are They Compostable

You’ll find that the compostability of paper towels hinges on the materials they’ve absorbed and their overall condition. While unused paper towels are best for composting and can contribute to a balanced compost pile, composting dirty or soiled paper towels can still be done.

can paper towels be recycled

On average, unsoiled or clean paper towels are high in carbon content, a C/N ratio that falls within the range of approximately 170:1 to 500:3. This makes them significantly carbon-rich in comparison to green materials, like kitchen scraps and yard waste, which have lower C/N ratios and are nitrogen-rich. 3

If a paper towel is used, it can still be added to your organic mix since it contains a high carbon content. However, you should not add to your compost when a dirty paper towel is contaminated with oils, chemicals, or non-organic substances.

Here’s a quick reference table for composting paper towels:

Compostable SituationsNon-Compostable Situations
Water or plant-based liquidsGrease or oils
Unbleached, unusedCleaning products
ShreddedMeat or dairy products
Absorbent of organic materialHeavily dyed or perfumed

Paper towels are likely the most commonly used item in millions of homes worldwide. But if you’re a home gardener with a compost pile, you can toss these proper absorption magnets into your pile – as long as they don’t have chemicals. Take a moment to check out the short but informative video below on how you can reduce your household waste while adding this key carbon source to your garden beds!

Guidelines And Tips For Composting Paper Towels At Home

Composting your used paper towels is a simple way to contribute to a more sustainable household waste management system. To ensure you’re fostering a healthy compost, follow these guidelines and tips:

  • Ensure your paper towels are biodegradable; unpaper (cotton or bamboo-made) towels are fine to compost. 4
  • Avoid adding those contaminated with chemicals, oil, or meat remnants.
  • Keep your compost pile balanced with green and brown materials. Rememeber, paper towels fall into the brown category.
  • Regularly turn the pile every few days or once weekly to help digest the paper towels and encourage your heap to decompose faster.
  • Bury those dirty paper towels deep within the pile to avoid attracting pests like rodents, insects, and scavenging animals like crows and raccoons. Additionally, the internal heat of the pile generated by the microorganisms will help break down your rolls faster.
are paper towels recyclable or compostable

Incorporate Reusable Paper Towel With Green And Brown Materials

Here’s how to do it effectively:

  1. Start by shredding or cutting them into smaller pieces. This process only takes seconds and aids in faster decomposition.
  2. Collect kitchen scraps like fruit and vegetable peels, coffee grounds, and eggshells. These are considered “green” materials and rich in nitrogen, essential for composting.
  3. Mix the ingredients in a compost bin.
  4. Gather brown materials like dried leaves, straw, or cardboard. These valuable and easily accessible sources are high in carbon and help balance the compost pile. 5
  5. Layer these materials on top of the green and paper towel mixture. This layering helps create the proper carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, promoting efficient decomposition.
can you compost white paper towels

Pros And Cons Of Compostable Paper Towels

Since paper towels are made of paper, they are indeed compostable and a suitable option, especially considering that many paper towels used in your home are not recyclable. Although composting can significantly reduce your environmental footprint, knowing its advantages and potential challenges is essential.

Pros of composting paper towelsCons of composting paper towelsSafety Considerations
Reduces landfill wasteRequires regular maintenanceDon’t compost your paper towels with chemicals
Cuts greenhouse gas emissionsPotential for odor or pestsUse unbleached paper towels for safety
Improves soil healthNeed to balance compost ingredientsShred paper towels into small pieces
Conserves waterTime-consuming decomposition processCompost wet paper towels more quickly
Reduces erosionCan’t recycle paper towelsTurn the compost every 3-7 days

Humble Tip:
For successful paper towel composting, shred towels into small pieces and turn the pile every 3-7 days or about once weekly. These simple steps can make your composting efforts more efficient and rewarding and allow you to use your mature compost (humus) quickly within your garden. 6

By recycling your paper towel rolls, you’ll reduce kitchen waste and contribute to keeping your garden soil healthy, promoting optimal growth and flourishing for your plants.

Disposable Paper Towel Alternatives

Disposable paper towels are standard in many places, but their environmental impact is undeniable. Fortunately, there are practical alternatives that help us use fewer single-use paper towels and make more eco-friendly decisions.

are paper towels green or brown compost

Here’s a list of alternatives that can help you transition and reduce your paper towel usage:

Bamboo Unpaper Towels

Durable and washable, these sustainable towels can replace single-use paper towels. They can endure over 100 washes without losing their effectiveness. When these towels are no longer usable, you can add them to your compost bin.

As they decompose, paper towels add organic matter to the mix. This organic matter, rich in carbon, nitrogen, and other essential nutrients, improves the overall quality of your compost mix. 7

Swedish Dishcloths

Swedish dishcloths are typically made from a unique combination of natural materials, including cellulose and cotton. This composition makes them highly absorbent and durable, unlike the ordinary dishcloths. These dishcloths can be composted when they wear out, returning nutrients to the soil.

can you compost paper towels at home

Cellulose is a natural, plant-based material derived from wood pulp, while cotton is a renewable resource. Combining these materials results in a highly absorbent and durable cleaning cloth. As these materials decompose, they not only support the decomposition of other organic matter in the pile but also help maintain the proper carbon-to-nitrogen (C:N) ratio.

Handmade Cotton Cloths

Eco-friendly alternatives to paper towels, handmade cotton cloths from recycled paper, or organic cotton enrich the soil with cotton fibers. These fibers break down relatively fast, making handmade cotton cloths a great alternative to paper towels among many gardeners.


Compostable paper towels are convenient and can be a brilliant addition to your compost pile, serving as a valuable carbon source. However, when adding them to your compost, it’s vital to ensure they’re free from inks, dyes, or chemicals that could disrupt the composting process.

By incorporating them into your compost, you’re actively participating in waste reduction and supporting the creation of nutrient-rich soil. Once added, properly maintain your heap by turning the compost every 2-3 days (depending on other organic materials incorporated) for proper aeration since paper towels are absorbent materials.

You’ll want to wait to apply your compost in the garden until all the materials decompose entirely. Observe how effectively your paper towels manage your kitchen or yard waste. By composting your paper towels, your conscious choices today will contribute to a healthier, more sustainable environment for future generations.

Do you currently toss your used paper towels in the compost instead of the waste bin? We’d love to know how long you’ve been doing this eco-friendly practice and how much this simple practice has reduced your household waste. Take a minute and drop us a line in the comments below!


  1. University Of Michigan – Pilot: Paper Towel Composting
  2. National Library Of Medicine, National Center For Biotechnology Information – The Effect Of Organic Solid Waste Compost On Soil Properties, Growth, And Yield Of Swiss Chard Crop (Beta vulgaris L.)
  3. Stanford Magazine – Taking Paper Towels To The Compost Pile: Nitty-Gritty
  4. North Carolina State University – What Can Be Composted?
  5. Cornell University Cooperative Extension, Warren County – Composting
  6. MDPI – Waste Management Through Composting: Challenges And Potentials
  7. Wikipedia – Bamboo Textile

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