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When it comes to paper towels, America is No. 1

December 17, 2018

Here’s a place where America is No. 1 — the United States leads the globe in its paper towel use.

An article this month by Joe Pinsker at theatlantic.com examines our affinity with the disposable towel, under the headline, “Americans are weirdly obsessed with paper towels.”

As he writes, “In an era of waning American exceptionalism, inhabitants can at least pride themselves on an underratedly important, probably shameful distinction: They reside in the paper-towel capital of the world.”

In 2017, Pinsker writes that global spending on paper towels amounted to some $12 billion, with U.S. consumers accounting for $5.7 billion of the whole.

We are first. We are exceptional. We are No. 1.

That holds true for per capita use, as well, with the average American spending about $17.50 on paper towels in 2017. Norway is a distant second at $11.70 per person.

The explanation that the U.S. is wealthy doesn’t quite explain our love for the quick picker-uppers.

Other wealthy countries, such as England or France, don’t mop up spills with paper the way we do. People elsewhere in the world use cloth towels, sponges or mops to clean messes. Latin Americans like scrubbing brushes, evidently.

We prefer disposable options, although some hardy souls do reuse the paper towels several times to produce less waste.

An affinity for using and then tossing could be one explanation of our preference for paper.

We see the mess, want to eradicate and then, perhaps, toss away the proof that it was ever there. With the paper towel tucked away in the trash can, there’s no need to rinse out a rag or wash and dry it later.

Paper towels have other uses, too. They drain grease from bacon or cover dishes in the microwave, and little else works as well.

All of this comes at a cost, of course. The Environmental Protection Agency, Pinsker writes, estimated that the country produced some 7.4 billion pounds of waste made up of paper towels and other tissue-y products (including toilet paper.)

That’s a lot of space in landfills.

The trash component doesn’t factor in the trees and water used to produce the paper and the energy that it takes to run the plants that make paper towels and to distribute them.

They have to be trucked to stores everywhere, after all.

Cities such as San Francisco are moving to compost paper towels and other paper goods, which at least keeps them out of the landfills. For that to work, don’t put greasy or chemically tainted towels in the piles. Individuals, of course, can compost at home. (This takes a while to make a habit; newspapers are recycled regularly now, but that did not happen overnight.)

The bigger question, of course, is whether a one-and-done attitude works in our world today. Maybe in 2019, people can chip away at disposable habits.

Use dishcloths and wipe up spills with cleaning rags. Have cloth napkins handy for meals. If a paper towel is required for the job, try to reuse it. Use fewer.

(For tips on how to break the paper habit, there’s even a TED Talk, “How to use one paper towel” that can help you get started.)

Because we don’t need paper towels — most of the time, anyway — to get the job done. Really.

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