It’s hard to argue there is any wood pulp product more handy than the paper towel. Not even the Post-it note. You can’t use a Post-it note as an emergency coffee filter.

But being so useful for so many tasks — including many, many for which paper towels weren’t really intended — has a downside. Paper towels used at home and in public restrooms generate a lot of waste. Rob Gogan, the recycling and waste manager at Harvard University, estimated that paper towels account for 20 to 40 percent of waste by volume from an office building or a dorm, according to The New York Times.

And used paper towels pile up in landfills because — in all but a handful of pilot programs — paper towels are excluded from mainstream recycling programs. Paper towels typically aren’t recycled because paper towels are usually made with a fairly high percentage of recycled paper. The fibers in paper towels are too short to be woven into new paper products.

Paper towelsThere are a few places where sustainability programs are trying to divert used paper towels from the landfill. In one example, paper towels are collected in separate bins in public restrooms of government buildings in the Parliament Hill area of downtown Ottawa, Ontario. The paper towels are composted and spread over the landfill to reduce wind erosion and enrich the soil.

While you may not have the option of recycling your paper towels, you can reduce your use of paper towels and reuse the paper towels you do use. Reduce the number of paper towels you use by grabbing an old-fashioned sponge or dishcloth to mop up kitchen spills. Both can be cleaned and used again and again. Use crumpled newspaper to clean windows instead of a fresh paper towel.

Instead of tossing used paper towels into the garbage can, toss them into the compost bin along with eggshells, coffee grounds and filters and scraps of fruit and vegetables. Composting, after all, is another form of recycling.

Take steps to make the paper towels you do use as eco-friendly as possible. It’s easy to buy paper towels (and other household tissue products) with a high recycled content, including high post-consumer content. Post-consumer fibers are recovered from paper that otherwise have been dumped into a landfill. If every household in the United States replaced just one roll of virgin fiber paper towels with paper towels made of 100 percent recycled paper, we could save 544,000 trees, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The NRDC has a shopper’s guide to home tissue products on its website.

Have other thoughts on how to recycle paper towels? Leave us a note in the comments below.

Photo: edkohler/Flickr