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The City of Portland, Oregon

Sustainability at Work

Providing free tools and expertise to achieve your goals

Phone: 503-823-7037


Paper Towels (How to use less.)

Use fewer paper towels  

Note: Paper towels are not compostable or recyclable in Portland; they must go in the trash.

Cutting down on how many paper towels your workplace uses is the most significant way to reduce the environmental impact of paper towels.

Ideally, you want to encourage people to use just one towel each time they dry their hands. 

Shake and Fold

This 4 ½ minute TED Talk says it all – how and why to use just one towel to get your hands dry by using the “shake and fold” method. 4 ½ minutes too long? Here’s the gist:

Joe Smith

  1. Shake: Wash, then shake excess water off your hands, about 10 times.
  2. Fold: Take one paper towel. Fold it in half. Use it to dry both your hands.

This video has been watched over three million times and the speaker, Joe Smith, is from Oregon!

Share this video with your colleagues, show it at staff meetings or include it in a sustainability brown-bag. Then, print signs for the paper towel dispensers.

It works! A note from our intern:

“The shake and fold video completely changed the way I dry my hands! I find myself shaking excess water off my hands and folding my one paper towel in half without even thinking about it. Watch the video and try it out a few times. Before you know it, the shake and fold will be habit.”  

On the spot reminders

Place reminders on paper towel dispensers, so people are reminded in the right place and at the right time.

These Come From Trees stickerShake and Fold signs – print and laminate these signs.

These Come From Trees stickers – these pre-made stickers can be ordered online.

“Three Pushes Please” or the “3 Pump Rule”

  • It only takes 3 pushes/pumps to get the amount of paper needed to dry hands.
  • Depending on the setting for your dispenser, three pushes is comparable to using just 1 paper towel.
  • Make your own signs or stickers with this information.

Aim for positive, concise messages. Add humor if possible. Avoid shaming or negative messaging such as “you’re killing trees”…that won’t be well received.

Our paper towel reduction campaign form can help you engage your coworkers to use fewer paper towels.

Technological fix: shorten the length of paper towel dispensed

automatic paper towel dispenser

You can open up automatic paper towel roll dispensers and change the settings of the length of paper towel being dispensed.

  • The dispenser is opened with a key and there are usually three settings to choose from: short, medium and long. The short is often sufficient, but is never the factory default.
  • If your business notices employees or customers taking twice as many paper towels as before, then it’s best to revert back to the default setting. 

Why using fewer paper towels is the greenest choice

impact per number of paper towels used graph

Using 1 paper towel is much better for the environment than using 2 or 3. 

This graph shows a comparison between impacts based on global warming potential for using 1, 2 or 3 paper towels to dry one pair of hands. The impact from using paper towels goes up with each additional paper towel used [1]. 

Using fewer paper towels is much greener than composting them.

The biggest environmental impact of paper towels is in making them, not in disposing of them.

Life Cycle Impact Paper Towels infographic

This life cycle analysis shows the environmental impact across life cycle stages for paper towels [1].

Most of us focus on recycling and composting, but the biggest environmental impact of paper towels happens before the towels even reach our workplace.

Using fewer paper towels has a much greater positive environmental impact than whether or not they get composted, recycled or trashed.

Why aren’t paper towels recyclable or compostable in Portland?

Paper towels are the “end of the line” for recycled paper; it’s very difficult to recycle them into something else.

Paper towels cause problems for some food waste processing facilities, including the facility that takes most of the food waste from Portland businesses.

How do paper towels compare to other drying systems? Using just one paper towel is better than standard electric dryers and cotton towels across the life cycle. Paper towels can be better than some high-speed hand dryers depending on dry time and energy source [1]. Click here to read more about different hand drying options.  

Another way to green your paper towel use is to buy sustainably made paper towels – learn more here.

Want more information? Get in touch with a sustainability advisor or email us at

Quick Links:


  1. Montalbo, Trisha, Jeremy Gregory, and Randolph Kirchain. Life Cycle Assessment of Hand Drying Systems. Tech. Materials System Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 19 Sept. 2011. Web.