Are Reusable “Paper” Towels the Next Eco-Conundrum?

This post is part of a blogging series by marketing students at the Presidio Graduate School’s MBA program. You can follow along here.

By Josephine Penaga

Inhabitat has recently launched a “Stop the Paper Towels” campaign through a design contest, teaming up with PeopleTowels. The purpose of the campaign is to encourage consumers to cut their paper towel waste and use an alternative “reusable” personal hand towels, diverting thousands of tons of paper towel from landfills, as well as saving thousands of gallons of water every day. Sound familiar?

But wait, there’s more!  These on-the-go, eco-chic PeopleTowels are made from 100% organic, Fair Trade cotton from central and eastern India, and are printed with earth-friendly dyes. The towels also come with a hang-tag that can be clipped to a backpack or any bag for easy access.

As I was reading about the campaign, I couldn’t help but wonder if these reusable towels will just be another reusable bag. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against reusable bags, in fact I have them in every color. While they have positive environmental impacts, their numbers are becoming a problem. People are drawn to trends and, even moreso, reusable trends.  Such high demand for reusable bags led to an increase in the import of these products. According to United States International Trade Commission, over three billion reusable bags have been imported into the United States since 1999, mainly from China, and chances are a number of underlying environmental attributes in the import and distribution process of these bags have not been accounted for.

What will set these reusable towels apart? What guarantee do we have that they will not end up in landfills especially since  these towels are being promoted as chic and collectible,  encouraging  users to keep buying more? PeopleTowels claims that its reusable towels can save up to 20,000 gallons of water for every ton of paper towels diverted from landfills. Granting that these towels are also made from 100% organic cotton, are the defined set of attributes sufficient to make the reusable towels a better alternative to paper towels?

Let’s take a look at the “water footprint” of cotton. According to Water Footprint Network, while 2.6% of the global water use is utilized for cotton growth and processing, 44% of total cotton production is for foreign consumers. Additionally, water impact differs from country to country with greater impact on dry regions like India. The total water consumption for cotton growth and production in India is about 31,024 Mm3/year. To put it in context, a 75-gram cotton fabric (approximately the size of a reusable towel) utilizes about 214 gallons of water. Assuming that my conversion and my math are correct, a ton of reusable towels utilize about 2.9 million gallons of water. Which is lesser of two evils, the unfavorable landfill impact of paper towels or the negative externalities of cotton production?

Promoting a purchase of a product that is not necessarily more sustainable is not a better alternative to paper towels use. Should promoting a behavior shift to stop paper towels use altogether be a better alternative?  In any case, referencing the 3Rs of waste hierarchy, REDUCE comes first before reuse.