Facility executives are grabbing hold of hand towels made of alternative materials or 100-percent recycled products, instead of virgin fibers

As few as five years ago, a majority of the industry seemed to subscribe to the belief that soft paper products, without the presence of at least some virgin fibers, were unacceptable for use. But thanks to a more widespread acceptance of sustainable products, demand in certain market segments and geographic areas for recycled products, and continual innovation in the paper manufacturing industry, there are more sustainable and green paper towel options than ever before.

In fact, whereas brown or off-colored paper towels used to generally be considered undesirable, products that are clearly recycled and are unbleached are now a symbol of sustainability. The color is a differentiator — proof of a recycled or alternative fiber claim. Additionally, manufacturers have found ways to create quality recycled and rapidly renewable products that are comparable in thickness, durability and softness to traditional, virgin-fiber-rich products.

Virgin Fibers Are Out

“Recycled paper has become very mainstream,” says Charles Moody, president of Solutex in Sterling, Virginia. “People are no longer so picky about it being the softest — but there’s not a big difference anymore between the softest and a good quality, 100-percent recycled towel.”

Even in just the past few years, advancements in paper sourcing and manufacturing have created some exciting options for departments.

Not only has there been an influx of unbleached or brown paper towel products into the market, but manufacturers are also finding ways to produce 100-percent recycled towels that are white, with a softer feel and higher quality, says Linda Chipperfield, vice president of marketing and communications at Green Seal, Inc., Washington D.C.

“People used to think of recycled paper as being rough and not performing well, and the manufacturers are solving that problem by coming up with a product that really does perform,” Chipperfield says. “The brown color and perception of inferior performance were the biggest barriers to green paper towel success, so these innovations could mean a sea change for the industry.”

For certification, Green Seal requires 100-percent recovered or recycled material in approved paper products. And encouraging customers to use 100-percent recycled paper towels is a no-brainer, Chipperfield says, because virgin fibers are too valuable to be used in disposable products.

“Paper towels are a one-time use, disposable product that doesn’t get recycled and doesn’t typically get composted,” she says. “Our research and data supports that the product shouldn’t contain any virgin fiber. Instead, the longer fibers should be used in products that can be reused.”

While the most ultra-soft paper is almost always made of virgin fibers, manufacturers are finding ways to spin and fluff the recycled paper fibers so that they are more textured and absorbent.

“Now they can offer a nice, thicker-feeling paper that’s also 100-percent recycled,” Moody says.

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Alternative Paper Fibers And Facilities That Embrace Them