In April 1996, consultants Nancy VandenBerg, Susan Kinsella and
Carla Lallatin produced Resourceful Purchasing: A Hands-On Buyers'
Manual with How-To-Do-It Guidance for Source Reduction and Recycled
Products for the Alameda
County Source Reduction and Recycling Board. Nancy VandenBerg,
principal of Markets for Recycled Products, was the project lead.
One of the pioneers of today's U.S. recycling system, with a special
focus on promoting development of recycled products, Nancy has since
retired from work on recycling issues. We dearly miss her careful
and innovative research and reporting.
One section of the manual provided in-depth recycled products examples,
which Nancy researched and wrote. While there have been some technical
innovations since this research report was first published, much
of the information is still highly relevant to major purchasers.
The manual was written for government purchasers, but is applicable
for business, as well. Following is the chapter on paper towels.
by Nancy VandenBerg, Markets for Recycled Products
Governments buy three types of paper towels: bleached (white),
semi-bleached or natural (off-white), and unbleached or kraft (brown).
All paper types can be in roll or in folded form (singlefold, C-fold
People use more folded towels than roll varieties because: they
pull folded towels out of dispensers by the handful, they rarely
unfold towels before using them and they take towels to their desks
to mop up spills. Dispensers control the amount of paper for roll
towels and they are not as wide as folded towels so less paper is
used per "handwipe."
By changing from folded towels to roll towels, you can reduce waste
25% to 35% in toweling alone. There are packaging, cost and labor
savings as well. Roll towels do not have to be replaced as frequently.
Dispensers that hold 800 feet rolls as well as stub rolls (partially
used rolls) are the most cost-effective in maintenance terms. Replacing
the existing folded towel dispensers is the only major drawback
and it is short term.
Recycled content is common in paper towels bought by governments.
Most governments in Alameda County currently specify recycled paper
towels. Some order bleached towels, some order unbleached towels
and some order both. All order far more folded towels than they
do roll towels.
Similar Products or Uses
"Tissue" paper includes towels, toilet tissue, facial tissue, napkins
and industrial wipers. Most tissue manufacturers make all of these
products for "consumer" and "commercial-institutional" markets. Like
towels, toilet tissue can be dispensed in jumbo rolls to reduce
Tissue producers can use a wider range of recovered paper than
printing paper manufacturers because printing paper has such different
performance requirements. Mixed postconsumer office paper is a common
feedstock whether recycled towels are bleached, semi-bleached or
natural. Since pulp from office scrap is grayish, semi-bleaching
improves the color. Some unbleached towels may be dyed brown to
obtain the "natural" color.
Towel paper is made in basis weights. Standard basis weights are
25 lb., 28 lb., and 30 lb. The heavier the paper, the stronger and
more absorbent it is. Thinner grades are produced, down to 21 lb.,
but the wet strength additives used to strengthen light-weight paper
Roll towel production is faster than folded towel manufacture because
cutting, folding and some packaging operations are unnecessary.
Roll towels are rewound on cores to the specified length and slit
to the specified width. They may or may not be wrapped before they
You must replace the dispensers when switching from folded to roll
towels. Caution and a little research can help avoid future problems.
Paper companies often supply "proprietary" dispensers designed to
accept only their own rolls. Special notches in the roll or end
pieces inserted in the core fit special holders in the dispensers.
Proprietary dispensers lock users into future use of towels designed
for the dispenser. This limits competition for all future bids.
"Universal" dispensers are a better choice and all manufacturers
make "universal" rolls to fit universal dispensers.
Universal dispensers for government use should be very durable.
Metal cases with replaceable plastic covers work well because it
is the cover that wears out over time. Transparent plastic covers
allow maintenance personnel to see if a new roll is needed.
Dispensers should be designed to hold 400 feet of toweling at a
minimum although 800 feet rolls are the optimum choice to reduce
maintenance costs. Though costs may be higher, you may want a design
that holds stub rolls (partial rolls that would otherwise be removed
on scheduled maintenance visits.) This saves money over the long
term because dispensers are never empty and partial rolls are not
A mechanism to adjust sheet length is useful too. You can have
shorter sheet lengths in bathrooms where use is controlled. Dispensers
in large public facilities are set to maximum length to help speed
There are two ways to obtain dispensers:
Purchase: When you buy dispensers directly, you can control
the type of dispenser supplied. However, you are responsible for
installation and dispenser maintenance. Warranties tend to be short,
one year, because there is no control over how dispensers will be
treated on site.
Extended Contract or "Leasing": Most companies will provide
dispensers for "free" in three or five year contracts for paper
towels. Dispensers are warranted for the length of the contract.
Installation may be included in the contract price. The buyer owns
the dispensers at contract end.
The cost of the dispensers is amortized over the contract period.
Should the contract be broken, the buyer refunds the non-amortized
amount to the supplier. Since nothing is really free, some companies
add the cost of the dispensers to the cost per case of towels, others
depend on future profits from extended towel contracts. In this
case, long term contracts may have a price escalator to protect
the supplier from rises in paper production costs.
EPA Designation - Minimum Recycled Content Standards
Conservatree Update: The EPA recycled product content standard
in 2009 is 40-100% recovered fiber and 40-60% postconsumer content
for commercial-industrial paper towels.
As postconsumer materials are the targeted feedstock in paper products,
and because most manufacturers will use additional recovered materials
as a matter of course, buyers should use a postconsumer-only standard.
Recommended Postconsumer Recycled Content = 60-100%
Unbleached Paper: The first source reduction opportunity
is with the paper itself. Some paper bleaching processes use forms of chlorine
which can pollute. If you currently use bleached towels, consider
unbleached towels or semi-bleached towels. If you reduce bleaching,
you reduce paper costs.
Roll Towels: Your towel vendors will help you calculate
the potential waste and cost savings when you evaluate switching
to roll towels. Nearly all have calculation models.
The example in Table 15-I shows how savings can be calculated,
but do not count on identical results in your own case. Your own
usage patterns may vary from those in the example and thus will
affect the waste and cost savings. The example uses average values
and a large roll towel. Savings would be less if smaller 400 foot towels
The potential reduced waste, by weight, for paper towels is difficult
to calculate without specific examples. Actual weight of the paper
toweling and any pattern on the toweling affects roll weight. Packaging
waste reduction depends on the types of cases used (weight of corrugated
boxes or stretch film wrap) and the types of individual package
and roll wraps.
Roll towels require less storage space because packaging is more
compact. This additional benefit is hard to quantify but it may
be extremely helpful in jurisdictions where space is at a premium.
There may be hidden barriers to changing to roll towels. Dispensers
are not changed in government facilities unless they are broken
or worn out. If your jurisdiction recently converted from one type
of folded towel to another, you will find resistance to scrapping
reasonably new dispensers. In a few cases, each time a dispenser
is replaced for the first time in many years, the walls may have
to be checked for asbestos contamination. This increases installation
Scott and Wisconsin Tissue provided the calculation factors used
in Table 15-I. Sizes and packaging are from the 1996 Alameda
County and Oakland paper towel specifications. Packaging estimates
are based on 3,600,000 handwipes with folded towels packed 250 per
case with 4,000 towels per case and 800 foot rolls packed 6 rolls
to the case. Although all manufacturers state that cost savings
are substantial, no actual cost quotes could be obtained.
CALCULATING WASTE SAVINGS FOR ROLL TOWELS
9.5" x 10.25
9.5" x 9.25"
8" x 16"
|towels per handwipe
8" x 16"
|square inches per handwipe
|WASTE SAVINGS with rolls
- (comparison standard)
|towels per package/case
|handwipes per case
|handwipes per package
|cases per 3,600 handwipes
|equivalent cases for 3,600,000 handwipes
|PKG WASTE SAVINGS (# cases only)
- (comparison standard)
|labor cost per hour to fill dispensers
|minutes per filling
|cost per filling
|handwipes per filling
|fillings per 3,600,000 handwipes (500 towels/filling,
|filling cost per 3,600,000 handwipes
|LABOR COST SAVINGS
- (comparison standard)
It is easy to put the towel quantities in Table 15-I into perspective.
In busy public restrooms, maintenance staff put 500 folded towels
into each dispenser every day. That is 2,500 towels per 5 day week
or 130,000 towels (32-1/2 cases) per dispenser per year. In our
example, 1,800 cases will serve 55.3 folded towel dispensers each
year or 3,600,000 people who dry their hands once.
If maintenance staff used 800 foot roll towels to serve the same
number of people at the same rate, they would fill dispensers 2.4
times per week and use just under 125 rolls (20.8 cases) per year.
With the factors in our example, one folded towel dispenser serves
65,000 pairs of hands per year while one roll towel dispenser serves
156,000 pairs of hands during the same time.
Recycled paper towels are less expensive or competitively priced
with virgin alternatives. However, a few companies distribute primarily
virgin towels to west coast markets and they may offer virgin towels
at low cost when trying to retain market share.
Bleaching introduces costs in the manufacturing process and may
add to environmental pollution depending on the bleaching process
used. Semi-bleached and natural towels are less expensive than bleached
All manufacturers state that roll towels are less expensive than
folded towels but estimates vary. One estimate compared 500 foot
rolls with multifold towels for 24% cost savings. Another estimate
compared 800 foot rolls with singlefold and multifold towels. Savings
were 39% and 30.5% respectively. Your vendors can provide potential
cost savings based on your usage patterns.
Paper towel specifications include requirements for the paper toweling
itself as well as for the type of dispenser.
Paper: Good paper towel specifications require no objectionable
odor and include the recycled content standard, type of paper (bleached,
semi-bleached or unbleached), basis weight, size, core size for
roll towels and the number of feet per roll or towels per package.
Since towels are ordered by case, many specifications include the
number of towels or rolls per case.
ASTM Standard, D4431 Standard Specification for Paper Towels
for Industrial and Institutional Use: This consensus standard
is recycled content neutral [in 1996], but it has more defined performance
parameters than most buyers need. Make sure any future updates do
not include ASTM recycled paper definitions which may undermine
Dispensers: Usually the dispenser capacity determines folded
towel package size and roll diameters. Many dispensers hold 2-1/2
packages of 250 folded towels so maintenance staff can replenish
towels easily even though dispensers are not empty when they are
serviced. Roll towel dispenser specifications are based on roll
towel length in feet. You should specify 800 foot capacity.
American Disabilities Act (ADA): This 1991 federal law requires
access for handicapped people that affects towel dispensers. Required
installation height and placement do not affect dispenser design.
However, the control that activates towel release must be operable
with one hand without tight grasping, pinching or twisting and the
force to operate controls must not exceed 5 pounds.
Most crank and lever roll towel dispensers do not meet ADA requirements.
Automatic, pull-down activators do meet ADA but some designs may
be more expensive. To save money, you can install one special dispenser
close to the handicap-access sink in large facilities and use standard
universal dispensers elsewhere.
Paper towel and dispenser companies have extensive performance
tests for their products but you do not need their test data unless
there are problems. Simple tests in use will serve you well. If
you want to change from a bleached to a semi-bleached or unbleached
towel, or to evaluate roll towel dispensers, test them in the bathrooms
used by your department and monitor responses from your co-workers.
If you need to test source reduction when switching from folded
to roll towels, install roll dispensers in a bathroom where you
can monitor how frequently the maintenance staff must service the
dispenser compared with folded towel dispensers used elsewhere in
the same building. This is a good way to engage maintenance supervisors
in source reduction strategies.
Ownership Costs: You may want to estimate long term savings
by evaluating ownership costs. Include costs for: dispensers, installation,
labor for dispenser maintenance and towel replacement, storage requirements,
towel supplies and disposal.
Experts say the least expensive option is purchasing dispensers
outright. However, it may take a year or two to amortize the initial
costs and you may lose warranties on the dispensers.
In "lease" arrangements, contracts are long term, generally three
to five years. Suppliers warranty the dispensers for the length
of the contract and generally provide maintenance and/or parts.
If you want to evaluate your suppliers' costs for dispensers and
installation for the overall contract, you can break the bid down
into parts. If you have adequate maintenance staff and want to install
dispensers yourselves, seek an "installation allowance." You can
determine during research whether this will affect warranties. Ask
your bidders to supply separate prices for:
- paper towels only
- dispensers only
- dispenser installation
- "installation allowance"
If you want to consider a long contract with dispenser "lease"
arrangements that include installation and dispenser warranties,
ask for the contract term and these separate prices:
- paper towels only
Towels: Include the recycled content standard in paper towel
bids. Good specifications for roll towels also include:
- paper: unbleached (brown) or semi-bleached (white)
- basis weight: 25 lb. (sub 25)
- core size: 1-1/2 inches
- feet per roll: 400-800 feet with 800 feet the most cost-effective
- odor: no objectionable odor, wet or dry
Dispensers: When switching from folded towels to roll towels,
you can specify the type of dispensers you want. Avoid accepting
proprietary dispensers even if you are offered a great price. This
will lock you into one type of towel for many years. Optimum dispenser
- type: universal
- capacity: up to 800 feet roll with a 3.5 foot stub roll
- width: accepts standard 7-7/8 to 8-1/2 inch wide roll
- core holder: accepts standard 1-1/2 inch core
- activator: automatic by pulling towel for ADA sites, or lever
or crank with adjustable settings
- material: metal case with transparent, high impact plastic cover
- maintenance: easily replaced covers and other parts and emergency
feed knob so users can reactivate towel delivery
- warranty: as long as you can get
Service Contracts: Maintenance service contractors will
favor changing to roll towels because their long term towel and
maintenance costs would be lower. They will want to cover their
costs to change the dispensers though. It is a good idea to specify
sturdy dispensers to save future replacement costs. You should expect
higher costs the year that dispensers are installed.
All departments use paper towels. They may be purchased through
central contracts by the General Services agency or through maintenance
USAGE ISSUES FOR PAPER TOWELS
Towels must be adequately absorbent, hold together when wet and
have no strange smell. Dispensers must be durable and need little
SOURCES FOR PAPER TOWELS AND DISPENSERS
All recycled product directories have listings for recycled paper
towels. Paper towels manufacturers and distributors offer dispensers
and may provide contacts to you. At least one company has its own
dispenser manufacturing division. Thomas Register lists towel dispenser
sources which include many paper companies as well as dispenser
manufacturers. Some dispenser companies avoid selling directly to
users. Instead, they sell through paper companies and janitorial
(Originally published in Resourceful Purchasing: A Hands-On
Buyers' Manual with How-To-Do-It Guidance for Source Reduction and
Recycled Products, Alameda
County Source Reduction and Recycling Board, 1996)