Generally speaking, people really shouldn't use paper towels. Americans use 13 billion pounds of paper towels every year, and it's difficult to overstate how wasteful this is when a cloth alternative is both more cost-effective and easy to obtain. However, it's also virtually impossible to avoid using paper towels entirely. After all, you can't control what the owner of a public building chooses to use in his bathrooms, and sometimes the substance that you're cleaning is something you don't want to get on your cloth towels at home.
Having said that, there are ways to use paper towels so as to minimize your impact on the environment:
- Follow the instructions that Joe Smith, a former District Attorney in Oregon, provided during a Tedx lecture, which you can view on YouTube by clicking here. To summarize, you don't need to pull four or five sheets out of a paper towel dispenser. Instead, shake any excess moisture off your hands (Smith recommends shaking your hands 12 times), then fold your paper towel so that it is thicker and thus more absorbent, and wipe away any remaining moisture.
- Whenever possible, use recycled paper towels rather than new ones. Although recycled paper can't itself be recycled, you're at least ensuring that another tree has not been cut down.
Smith points out that by following his directions and cutting paper towel usage by one sheet a day per person, Americans can save over 571 million pounds of paper every year – and that's by simply reducing your usage by one sheet! Imagine how much paper would be saved if you relied almost exclusively on cloth towels instead!