Americans Are Weirdly Obsessed With Paper Towels
Other countries swear by brooms, mops, and sponges. The U.S. prefers something more disposable.
Every day, as Americans dry their hands, soak up their spills, and wipe their counters, they are—whether they know it or not—contributing to their country’s dominance. 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.
This status is unquestioned. According to data shared with me by the market-research firm Euromonitor International, global spending on paper towels for use at home (but not in office or public bathrooms) added up to about $12 billion in 2017, and Americans accounted for about $5.7 billion of that total. In other words, the U.S. spends nearly as much on paper towels as every other country in the world combined.
No other nation even comes close: France, the runner-up in nationwide spending, only purchased about $635 million worth of paper towels last year, and the U.K., Germany, and Italy rounded out the top five paper-towel-buying countries.
The Top Five Countries by Overall Spending on Paper Towels
Total U.S. dollars spent on paper towels in 2017, in billions
Of course, the U.S. has the largest population on that list, but it stands apart on a per capita basis as well. In 2017, the average American spent $17.50 on paper towels. The closest competition on this measure comes from Western and northern Europe, led by Norway at $11.70 per person.
The Top Five Countries by Per Capita Spending on Paper Towels
Average U.S. dollars spent on paper towels in 2017, per resident
While Euromonitor doesn’t have data on exactly how many paper towels Americans go through each year, Svetlana Uduslivaia, the company’s head of research, did tell me that Americans lead the world in the usage of “tissue products,” the umbrella category that covers paper towels.
In explaining the U.S.’s enormous appetite for paper towels, Uduslivaia pointed to America’s relatively wealthy and large population. “A strong economy can support more spending on nonessentials like paper towels and purchases of higher-quality products,” she told me.
But given that other comparably wealthy countries don’t consume nearly as much on a per capita basis, the appeal must go beyond just what people can afford. When I asked Laurie Jennings, the director of the Good Housekeeping Institute, the consumer-testing arm of the Hearst-owned media brand, what she thought of paper towels, she praised them and said they were a standby in her own home. “They are convenient, they are absorbent, they are especially helpful in cleaning messes where something like cross-contamination could be an issue,” she says.
Perhaps the paper towel satisfies some deeper, uniquely American desire to be immediately rid of a problem, whatever the cost. “I definitely think they in many ways represent how Americans think in that people are obsessed with instant gratification,” Jennings told me.
The rest of the world gets by just fine without paper towels. In 2016, Nielsen, another market-research firm, released a report that looked at household-cleaning regimens in more than 60 countries, and it found that the most commonly used tools were brooms, mops, and rags. “Cleaning tools of the trade are as diverse as the regions themselves,” the report concluded, noting the popularity of scrubbing brushes in Latin America, cloth towels in the Middle East, and sponges in Europe.
The report also captures the hold paper towels have on the American household. Observe how much of an outlier North Americans are when Nielsen asked if they use paper towels “regularly,” compared with people from other regions (and consider that no other North American country appeared in Euromonitor’s top five paper-towel-consuming countries):
Percentage of Respondents Who Say They Use Paper Towels “Regularly,” by Region
Nielsen suggests there’s a financial story behind these numbers. “Homes with lower relative incomes show greater reliance on reusable tools such as rags and cloths,” the report reads. “Meanwhile, homes with higher relative incomes rely more heavily on disposable options like paper towels.” Basically, Americans use so many paper towels because they can afford to.
They’re not just using them—they’re throwing them away, too. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2015 the country generated about 7.4 billion pounds of waste consisting of paper towels and other “tissue” materials, like toilet paper. “Generally speaking … anything disposable isn’t good for the environment, especially something that is used on a large societal scale,” says Seung-Jin Lee, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan at Flint who has studied the environmental impacts of paper towels. He says that in addition to the water and trees that go into making paper products and the fossil fuels it takes to produce and distribute them, it’s “a significant problem,” environmentally speaking, that so much paper ends up in landfills. (The American Forest & Paper Association, which represents makers of tissue products and other paper manufacturers, did not respond to requests for an interview.)
When I asked Jennings about these environmental impacts, she noted her preferred way to go through fewer paper towels: reuse them. “We’re very much in the mentality of use-and-toss,” she says. “But if you use them once, and you rinse them, they can be used again. They don’t have to be as disposable or as single-use as some people may think they are." She says it’ll be apparent when the paper towel has done all it can, “because the fibers start to break apart from each other.”
While the data I found didn’t cover spending on paper towels in public or office bathrooms, I did come across evidence that they’re worse for the environment than using hand dryers. One study was delightfully robotic in communicating this finding: “Per functional unit, which is to achieve a pair of dried hands, the dispenser product system has a greater life cycle impact than the dryer product system across three of four endpoint impact categories.”
Despite these environmental concerns, many Americans at the end of the day just want to achieve a clean counter, and paper towels will likely remain their go-to: Uduslivaia, of Euromonitor, forecasts that the volume of paper towels Americans consume will stay “more or less steady” in the next several years. (Overall spending might decline a little, though, because of discount stores’ cut-rate pricing and the proliferation of buy-in-bulk warehouse stores such as Costco, which have lower per-roll prices.)
Global spending on paper towels, though, is expected to rise by about 4 percent by the end of 2022. “Growth in developing markets is supported by improved income levels, urbanization, and improving hygiene standards,” Uduslivaia explained. The rest of the world, it seems, is catching up.