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Counter Intelligence Featured on Sep 24, 2009
Give up paper towels for one month. Use alternatives, such as dishtowels or sponges.
Eliminating your use of paper towels will reduce CO2 emissions by 5.8 lbs this month, and save you about $8.
1674 people have reduced CO2 emissions by 4.17 tons by completing this challenge so far. That's equal to turning off the electricity of 1 home for about 1 month!
- The United States consumes 30 percent of the world’s paper each year.
- Of the 741 pounds of paper used by the average American each year, close to 55 pounds is tissue paper (which includes paper towels, napkins, facial tissue, and toilet tissue).
- Even with recycling programs, a little more than one-third of the trash going into landfills is paper products. Paper towels are not recycled.
We were out of paper towels. It had been that kind of crazy, back-to-school week and no one had gotten to the grocery to do the usual “mega shop.” So there I was, my kitchen counter covered in cake batter, staring at an empty cardboard tube. The batter oozed toward the edge like the lava in an island movie adventure. Luckily, I have several college degrees and was able to figure out that the kitchen sponge and the dish towel might be of some use somehow. I sopped up the batter, rinsed the sponge, rinsed the dish towel and wrung it out, got out another dish towel and dried the counter. Good as new. Paper towels? I laugh.
This Featured Challenge again comes from our Challenge Workshop. It is based on the excellent suggestions of tinytim, Violet, Max!, foreversmiley412, marge201, and Lemon Head. Keep those ideas coming!
The Carbon Connection
Many people use so many paper towels because they seem convenient. Grab, use, throw away. You might use paper towels to wipe off the kitchen counter, clean the stovetop, or get toothpaste film out of the bathroom sink. You might use several to clean your windows or the glass in your picture frames. You might wash your hands and use a paper towel to dry. All of these uses add up to some people using a lot of paper towels. By some estimates, the average American family uses between 1.5 and 2 rolls of paper towels each week.
In general, our consumption of paper products, including paper towels, comes at a very high cost. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the pulp and paper industry is the third largest industrial producer of global warming pollution. And, with paper consumption on the rise, the carbon dioxide emissions from paper production are projected to double by 2020.
Manufacturing paper of all types, whether it is tissue paper for paper towels, newsprint for newspapers, or bright white paper for a laser printer, requires energy. Energy is required to perform the harvesting, manufacturing, transport, and disposal of paper products. That energy most likely comes from the burning of fossil fuels, which releases carbon dioxide into Earth’s atmosphere. That’s why the more paper you use, the more carbon dioxide that gets produced.
Getting It Done
Need help meeting this Challenge? Here are a few simple suggestions:
- Frugal Girl suggests buying a small supply of cheap white wash cloths or dish towels to have on hand in the kitchen to wipe up messes. If you have a stack on hand, it’s no big deal to just grab another one. Rinse them out at the end of the day, wring them out, and allow them to dry overnight. Then put them in the laundry the next day. The energy and CO2 associated with laundering a few reusable wash cloths each week as part of your normal laundry is minimal compared with the energy and CO2 associated with manufacturing, transporting, and eliminating disposable paper towels.
- Concerned about germs? Paper towels are often thought of as a germ-free alternative to kitchen sponges and towels. There are ways to substitute sponges and towels for paper towels without feeling as if you are breeding billions of germs. For instance, you can wet your kitchen sponge and then stick it into the microwave for two minutes to eliminate germs. (Yes, we know that the microwave oven uses electricity which requires the burning of fossil fuel, etc. However, you can sanitize your sponge every week for three months without creating one pound of CO2, so the trade-off seems worth it.) For more on dealing with kitchen germs, see this article from WebMD .
- Don’t use paper towels to clean or dry your glasses. Your optician told you not to (because the wood fibers in paper towels may be soft, but they’re still hard enough to scratch your plastic lenses) and probably gave you a micro-fiber cloth to use instead. The same thing goes for that new LCD television with the glossy screen. Use the micro-fiber cloth for that, too.
- Use sheets of old newspapers to clean mirrors and windows. They’re just as good as paper towels and they don’t leave any lint behind.
- As for paper towels in company bathrooms, don’t use more than you need. If you only need one towel to dry your hands, just take one. If it’s a roll-type dispenser, just push the lever once, not two or three times.
- Admittedly, there may be times when a paper towel is the best option (think spilled oil, blood, whatever the dog leaves when she’s upset you left her home alone). For those times, we hope you’ll have a seldom-used roll of green, alternative paper towels hidden away. You should be able to find inexpensive paper towels that contain pulp from recycled paper, often referred to as post-consumer or recycled content. Try to find paper towels that use 100% recycled fiber and that also either use totally chlorine-free (TCF) or processed chlorine-free (PCF) bleaching in their manufacture. (Bleaching paper pulp to make it whiter often leads to the release of harmful chemicals into the air and water.) For suggestions on green paper products, see the NRDC Shopping Guide for household tissue-paper goods (also includes recommendations for facial tissue and toilet tissue) and the paper towel reviews linked in the Learn More section below.
Have you already cut back on your use of paper towels? What are you using instead and what impact has that had on your household? Help your fellow Rallyers mop up their mess by sharing your stories in the Challenge Discussion section below.
Rules of the Challenge
This Challenge asks you to completely eliminate your use of paper towels in your house for one month. By using 4 fewer rolls of paper towels, you will reduce your CO2 emissions by 5.8 lbs for the month. This Challenge lasts for one month and is repeatable.
See the Math
Here are our known or estimated numbers and assumptions for this Challenge:
- Paper that has no post-consumer fiber (100% virgin paper) is responsible for 3.2 pounds of CO2 being released for every pound of paper produced. Paper towels such as Bounty and Viva fall into that category. Paper with 100% post-consumer fiber equals 1.8 pounds of CO2 released per pound of paper. “Green” paper towels fall into this category. We are going to split the difference and use an average of 2.5 pounds CO2 per pound of paper in our calculations. source
- Rolls of paper towels (including the inner cardboard core) weigh anywhere from 7.1 to 13.8 ounces. The average roll of paper towels weighs about 8 ounces.
- At 2.5 lbs of CO2 per pound of paper produced, the production of one 8 oz roll of paper towels is responsible for 1.25 lbs of CO2.
- Next the paper towels have to get from the production plant to your local grocery. Let’s assume that they are transported 500 miles by a large, diesel-burning truck. If the truck gets 8 miles per gallon, it needs 62.5 gallons of diesel to go 500 miles. At 22.2 lbs CO2 released per gallon of diesel burned, that 500 mile trip would release 1387.5 lbs CO2. However, that CO2 is for a truck full of paper towels. If the truck can carry 24 pallets, fully-loaded with 360 rolls of paper towels per pallet, then the 1387.5 lbs CO2 is divided by 8640 rolls of paper towels to get a transportation cost of 0.2 lbs CO2 per roll. source source
- For simplicity’s sake, we will not calculate CO2 generated by the transportation of the paper towels from a local distribution warehouse to your supermarket, for the utilities of the supermarket, or for your transportation of the paper towels home from market. We will also not calculate the CO2 associated with the removal of the paper towels from your home as waste (i.e., transportation from your house to a landfill, processing of waste at the landfill, or methane created and released at the landfill by buried used paper towels). We are also not calculating the CO2 associated with whatever it is you use to replace the paper towels. Some of you will already have rags, sponges, and dish towels. For those who need to buy a set of cheap dish towels or wash cloths, rest assured that giving up paper towels will offset the CO2 associated with those new purchase within 4 months of giving the paper towels the ol’ heave-ho.
- How many rolls of paper towels does the average household use in one month? We have seen estimates ranging from 1.5 to 2 rolls of paper towels used per week, which would be as much as 8 or 9 rolls per month. However, that seems excessive, so we’re going to use an estimate of 4 rolls of paper towels used per month.
- By not using 4 rolls of paper towels this month, you will be saving 5.8 lbs of CO2 (4 rolls per month X 1.45 lbs CO2 per roll) and about $8 at the grocery checkout. Over the course of a year, this Challenge can save you $100 or more.
Remember, you can’t recycle a paper towel. Once it is used and thrown away, that paper towel is off to the landfill. Even if the paper towel is made from recycled paper fibers, once you use it, those fibers are never going to be used again. Rallyers, that’s such a waste! Let’s wipe it out and stop using paper towels, once and for all.
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