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by Nancy VandenBerg

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 and multifold).

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 maintenance costs.



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 reduce absorbency.

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 are cased.


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 thrown away.

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 people through.

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%

Reduction Opportunities

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 are used.

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 costs.

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.


Table 15-I
8" roll
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
800'/6 rolls
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, 2 towels/handwipe)
filling cost per 3,600,000 handwipes
- (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 towels.

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.

Standard Specifications

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 EPA definitions.

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.

Test Procedures

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.

Adjusting Specifications

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
  • dispensers.

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 specifications are:

  • 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 contracts.


Towels must be adequately absorbent, hold together when wet and have no strange smell. Dispensers must be durable and need little maintenance.


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 supply companies.

(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)


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