Have you ever wondered if you can toss paper towels in the compost, or if they’re going to cause problems once in there? The answer isn’t absolutely straightforward, so it’s no surprise if you’re hesitating with your hand over the compost caddy. After all, they are made of paper, but will they just break down once they hit your compost?
Can you compost paper towels?
The short answer is ‘yes!’ you can. The long answer is that it depends a little bit on what you’ve used the paper towel for, and occasionally, you might want to redirect the paper towel to a landfill bin instead. On the whole, though, paper towels are fine to toss in the compost, so you don’t need to worry about adding them.
What Are The Advantages Of Composting Paper Towels?
The advantages of composting paper towels are numerous, but the most obvious ones are that you will be putting less waste into landfills and getting more compost for your garden. Most households would agree that the more items you can compost, the better!
In some places, paper towels are recyclable, but this is usually only if they have not been contaminated in some way. If you have used your paper towel for anything besides water, it probably has been contaminated, and therefore it is no longer recyclable.
That means your only options are to put it into a landfill bin or to put it into your compost heap. The compost is likely to win every time with most people!
Obviously, the more material you have for your compost piles, the more compost you will end up with. One paper towel won’t make much odds, but if you’re adding paper towels over a period of weeks and months, you might be surprised by how much they can add.
If you’re wondering what kind of compost they count as, they are a “brown,” carbon-rich ingredient. They will help to absorb excess moisture in your compost bin, and they can help to keep the bin balanced and operating healthily.
Can I Compost All Paper Towels?
This depends slightly on how you feel about your compost and how cautious you are, but most people would say that all paper towels are safe to compost. Some people, however, might advise against composting paper towels that are covered in bright inks.
The inks may contain chemicals that are not safe for the environment. If in doubt about this, you could contact the paper towel manufacturer and request information about the inks they use, but on the whole, most people will accept that the amount of ink contamination is minimal.
If you don’t want to be adding chemicals to your compost, you could try and source unbleached natural paper towels as a means of solving the problem.
How Quickly Should Paper Towels Break Down?
Paper towels are all made of cellulose fibers, and should be easy to break down. How fast they will disappear depends a little bit on your compost and the conditions, as well as the thickness of the paper towels.
If they are about as thick as toilet paper, they are likely to break down in about a week, sometimes less if the conditions are right. If they are thicker and heavier, they will probably take a couple of weeks, possibly three. In a hot bin, they can disappear very quickly, as they do not have much structure or substance, and they are very thin.
You shouldn’t see paper towels hanging around in your compost beyond a week or two if the compost is operating healthily. If you find the paper towels aren’t disappearing, you need to investigate. Either the paper towel has a component that cannot be composted (e.g. plastic), or the compost bin is not operating right.
It may need more or less water, or you may need more nitrogen in it. Turning your compost should help to encourage the paper towels to disappear.
Do not compost things like baby wipes and facial wipes; these are not the same as paper towels, and contain plastic fibers that won’t disappear.
What Happens If I Put Too Many Paper Towels In The Compost?
Putting too many paper towels in the compost is rarely going to be a problem. If you just had a streaming cold and you’ve been using them as tissues for a while, you might have quite a lot, but a healthy compost should be able to process even a large amount of paper towels relatively quickly since they break down so readily.
However, one thing that might cause an issue is that paper towels are designed to soak up moisture; they act like sponges. If you throw a lot of paper towels on your compost, you might upset the moisture balance, so this is something to look out for.
If you put lots of dry paper towels on and the weather is already very dry, you may find that your compost heap needs some water adding to it for it to continue functioning well. If the weather is wet, you may find that the paper towels soak up a lot of rainwater and make the whole compost very soggy.
This can result in poor air circulation within the compost heap, as the paper towels will stop up the gaps, and they are likely to all clump together into a sodden mass that the bacteria and worms can’t handle effectively.
To keep this from happening, either keep a lid on your compost bin or disperse the paper towels throughout it when you add them. If you are really worried about adding a large quantity, add them in batches instead. Stir them through the compost, and let them break down before adding the next batch.
If your compost does get clogged up with soggy paper towels, don’t panic. Simply get some other dry materials such as straw, torn-up cardboard, shredded paper, nutshells, eggshells, etc., and add these to the compost heap.
Mix well, and they will soon help to absorb the excess moisture. As long as you are aerating the heap from time to time, it will dry out and should be operating nicely again before long.
What Kind Of Paper Towels Should I Avoid Composting?
There are certain things that you do not want to be adding to your compost pile on a paper towel, and since paper towels are used for a wide variety of jobs, it’s worth covering the things that should make you direct the paper towel into your landfill bin, rather than your compost pile.
Firstly, dog or cat waste. If you’ve used a paper towel to handle carnivore waste, it’s best not to dispose of it in the compost heap – just as you wouldn’t dispose of the waste itself in your compost. While it’s unlikely much contamination could be on the paper towel, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Dog and cat waste can carry parasites and bacteria that could be harmful to humans if the compost is used on food crops. The chance of you getting sick from it is low, but it’s better to toss paper towels that have been used this way into the garbage.
The same goes for human waste. If you have a reason to use a paper towel to clean up feces at any point, it should be disposed of in the landfill bin. Urine, however, is okay to add (and actually beneficial to the compost heap).
If you’ve used your paper towel in conjunction with cleaning chemicals, don’t throw it on your compost heap. Those chemicals will not do any favors to the microorganisms and bacteria living in the heap, and could kill them.
Even if the quantities are low, it’s better not to put this kind of thing in your compost. You can use paper towels to clean if you need to (although a reusable cloth is greener if that’s an option), but don’t put them into the compost afterward.
This goes for any kind of harsh chemical, not just those designed to kill bacteria. Don’t put things like white spirit, paint stripper, paint, etc., in your compost on a paper towel. Those ingredients shouldn’t go in the compost, so put them in the landfill instead, or you could contaminate the whole compost pile.
Oils And Fats
Fats and oils are problematic in compost piles because of their water-repelling properties. You don’t want to be adding them normally, and therefore you don’t want to add them on paper towels. They can make it very difficult for your compost to decompose properly.
To be clear, a small quantity of grease on a paper towel or two is unlikely to cause an issue in a healthy compost heap. You’re fine to add slightly greasy paper towels, but you should avoid ones that have been soaked in oil or fat for any reason. They are likely not to break down very fast, if at all.
Put them in the landfill bin instead.
Composting paper towels is a great way to deal with them and reduce your landfill waste, and almost any can go in – just filter out those that have been in contact with potentially harmful bacteria or strong chemicals that your garden friends won’t appreciate. That rule of thumb aside, get composting!