At nearly every public, school and workplace restroom, I’m used to seeing this:
Some sort of container lined with a plastic bag filled with paper towels, each briefly utilized for the sole purpose of drying hands. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for washing and drying hands after using the bathroom. It just always seems to me these paper towels could have some sort of afterlife.
You can imagine my surprise (and delight) when I saw this on the waste receptacle beneath the paper towel dispenser at our local garden center:
It was like a dream come true.
I realize composting paper towels from bathrooms is not as easy as it may seem. Sometimes there is other bathroom trash that you don’t want in a compost pile, so each bathroom would need to have a regular trash bin too. Inevitably, mistakes will be made. This is always the problem when collecting compostables in public settings: trash finds its way in.
Collecting paper towels for composting won’t have many of the drawbacks of collecting other compostables in public settings. There is no food sitting around perhaps a bit too long creating an odor and looking attractive to fruit flies. These paper towels are clean; after all, people are using them after they wash their hands. Finally, unlike bioplastics, paper towels can be composted anywhere. Since they contribute primarily carbon, they are a great addition to compost piles that contain mostly nitrogen-containing materials such as food scraps.
Having a compost bin in public bathrooms will take some getting used to, but we could start making the shift in some more controlled environments. I’m going to start with my kids’ preschool. I have never seen anything else but paper towels in the bathroom waste bins. Preschoolers just don’t have a lot of other trash. Plus, this population really gets it, and isn’t too stuck in their ways of throwing all their waste in the same bin. Other prime locations might be small workplaces where everyone understands the two-bin (trash and compostables) bathroom waste management system
I figure people probably use, on average, 5 paper towels for drying hands per day. That’s 25 paper towels per week and 1200 paper towels per person per year if you figure in vacations and holidays. For a workplace or a school with 100 people, that’s a decent amount of compostables.
We can do better than trapping a bunch of perfectly-good compostables in a plastic bag and considering them trash. The landfill doesn’t need them; our soils do.