Can You Compost Paper Towels? Yes! Here’s How!


Paper towels are a standard household waste product, but are they safe to add to compost?

The answer depends on the type of paper towel and what you used them to wipe up. 

To find out which paper towels you can compost and which you should avoid, read this quick guide to composting paper towels. 

Inside you’ll find the pros and cons of paper towel composting, how long they take to break down, and steps to quickly and correctly add them to your composting system so you can reduce household waste and help your garden grow!

Are Paper Towels Compostable?

Yes, you can compost paper towels most of the time. 

Paper towels made from 100% recycled materials are the best to add to your composter, but any type will break down within a properly working composting system as a carbon ingredient.

The bleaching process that makes paper towels white will not hurt your compost pile or the environment in general. 

The chlorine dioxide used to whiten paper towels is also an additive in our water supply to kill viruses. 

Paper towels used to dry hands, blow your nose, or wipe up food spills are ok to add to your composter.

The bacteria and microorganisms within the compost will feed on the carbon in the towel plus any extra food scraps or fluid the towel absorbs, so your pile stays hot. 

When Should You Not Compost Paper Towels?

There are some paper towels that you should avoid adding to your compost pile, as they may contribute chemicals or greasy substances that could upset the balance inside your composter.

Never compost paper towels that have:

  • Disinfectants or fragrance added to the roll as a selling feature
  • Been used with chemical cleaning products
  • Wiped up grease, butter, or fatty substances
  • Picked up animal or human feces or bodily fluid from a transmissible disease

Paper towels with fragrance or antibacterial additives bring harmful chemicals to the compost that upset the good bacteria’s balance and health that work to break down the material.

Chemicals from cleaning products, even those that claim to be all-natural, can kill off important microorganisms a compost pile relies on to function.

Oils, butter, fats, and grease on paper towels are bad for the compost, as these substances block off air within the pile. No air means the bacteria can’t live, the compost quits processing, and it begins to stink!

On the other hand, there’s no need to panic if the occasional greasy paper towel makes its way into the compost. An active pile should process it without issues.

Lastly, human or animal waste on paper towels should not go into your composter as they can pass along harmful pathogens or disease to anyone coming in contact with the compost before it fully processes.

Pros Of Composting Paper Towels

The benefits of composting paper towels include:

  • Reducing household waste going to landfills
  • Works as a carbon (brown) ingredient to balance the nitrogen in the pile
  • Absorbing or releasing moisture so the pile stays in balance
  • Recyling a waste product into a rich garden additive

Cons Of Composting Paper Towels

Paper towel composting isn’t always beneficial. Here are some cons to consider:

  • You must remember to separate “acceptable” paper towel waste from unusable ones before adding to compost
  • Large amounts of paper towels can make the compost too soggy 
  • Chemicals on the towels may upset the delicate balance of the compost microorganisms
  • It’s tedious to tear up paper towels so they mix evenly into the compost

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

The thicker layer of fibrous wood pulp in a paper towel takes microorganisms longer to digest than you would expect. 

An average paper towel can take anywhere from two to six weeks to completely break down in an active compost pile.

Paper towels are not as dissolvable as toilet paper, as they are a replacement for a cleaning cloth and need to be more durable.

Tearing up paper towels into small bits will speed up the breakdown. The more the pieces blend with the other compost ingredients, the more nitrogen elements and oxygen they have exposure to, which increases bacterial action.

How To Compost Paper Towels

Composting your paper towels is a four-step process that should become a part of your kitchen waste disposal routine.

  1. Sort out the paper towels that are safe to compost and place them in your bin with other carbon-based waste such as cardboard.
  2. Shred or tear up paper towels before adding them to your compost.
  3. Add the paper towels along with other carbon or brown ingredients to offset the ratio of nitrogen or green ingredients you add to the compost.
  4. Mix the paper towels well into the compost by rotating the bin or using a garden fork. Turn the compost every 2-3 days to keep it hot and aerated so the microbes can digest the paper towels and other ingredients.

Related | Compost Aerators

In Summary

Composting paper towels is simple when you follow the guide above and should become part of your recycling efforts.

There’s no need to burden landfills with kitchen waste when you can add paper towels along with your vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, and eggshells to your composting system.

Paper towels can enrich your compost and, in turn, beautify your home’s garden and landscaping, so give it a try!

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