Are recycled paper towels disappearing from store shelves?

April 12th, 2010

I’d love to think that I have a hard time finding recycled paper towels in stores because we’re all going so green we’re doing without them. However, I know that can’t be the case.

All I see in stores like Target (around me anyhow) is a vast spread of virgin-fiber paper towels that require the cutting of trees. And I know that these virgin paper towels must be selling quite well. Why else would there be such an abundance of them, and not a single recycled paper towel option at too many stores?


The reality is that consumers won’t make the green choice if they don’t have the option at stores where they shop.

According to Marcal Brand Ambassador Lindsay Jacob, the paper tissue industry makes 98% of their products from trees. That means only 2% of tissue products on shelves come from recycled paper. Marcal, celebrating their 60th anniversary this year, makes recycled paper products without chlorine bleach, dyes or fragrances. Their products are available in 50% of grocery stores in the US.

(Note: I contacted Marcal on my own for this story. No free products or compensation were involved. I would have spoken with Seventh Generation as well, but they didn’t respond to my request.)

Marcal’s website,, will relaunch near Earth Day on April 22 with new content, coupons and a product request form. If you’d like to see their 100% recycled paper towels in your store, fill out their online form later this month and take it with you to Target, or wherever you buy tissue products. By the way, when I spoke with Lindsay, I was surprised to learn that you can purchase Marcal recycled paper towels at Staples and Office Depot (online and in stores).

The recycled paper towel argument

A few green folks consider recycled paper towels to be a bit on the greenwash side. After all, it’s possible to keep a clean house without paper towels. Many people go on with their lives just fine without a paper towel in sight. Yet, most people don’t want to do that. So, I believe it’s important to have recycled paper towels on store shelves everywhere, not just at retailers like Whole Foods.

Whether you think paper towels are necessary or not, it seems clear that recycled paper towels can save trees. For many people, giving up paper towels altogether is too big of a change. Using recycled paper towels is a good small step toward saving trees for those people who want to keep paper towels handy.

I won’t buy paper towels that aren’t recycled. I feel like that sends the message that I’m fine with trees being used to soak up bacon grease or clean up a lemonade spill. And worse, I believe that buying virgin paper towels says I don’t care if recycled paper towels stay on shelves as an option.

Can I live without paper towels? Yes. I’ve already drastically reduced paper towel usage in recent years, and I use cloth napkins. Despite what commercials want you to believe, cloth dish towels or cleaning rags can handle many messes. However, there are times when paper towels come in handy. I place one on a plate to soak up grease from certain foods. And they’re great for cleaning up after pet accidents. Some things you just don’t want to rinse out…. But I also understand the advice that it’s better to avoid paper towels altogether because if you have them around, you’ll use them.

It’s a tricky issue, but I know I want recycled paper towels to be offered on the same level as virgin paper towels. I also want them offered at stores like Target. In fact, I want them to take up more store shelf space than their evil, non-identical twins, the tree-killing, chlorine-bleached virgin paper towel.

If you use paper towels, please speak with your dollar and pick recycled. If your favorite store doesn’t carry 100% recycled paper towels like Marcal or Seventh Generation, speak up and make a commitment to not give in and buy virgin paper towels when recycled ones aren’t available.

(image via sxc)

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