How Long Does it Take for Paper Towels to Break Down?

People often wonder how long it takes for paper towels to break down. Our team has researched this and we have the answers. We will share all you need to know about the breakdown of paper towels in this comprehensive article.

How long does it take for paper towels to break down? It takes 2 weeks to 1 month for paper towels to completely break down in the soil. But within a landfill, it could take about 2 to 5 months for paper towels to decompose because the environment lacks light and oxygen. When fully soaked in water, over-saturated paper towels start breaking down within 20 minutes.

How long it takes for paper towels to break down depends on a few environmental factors. What are these factors? Will towel paper break if you flush it down your toilet? As you read on, you will find answers to these questions and many more. 

how long does it take for paper towels to break down
Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

How Long Does ft Take for Paper Towels to Decompose in Soil?

Paper towels will decompose in soil within 2 weeks to one month. But it could take about six weeks if there is not enough light and oxygen in the environment. It could also take a shorter time (just a few days) if there are worms or paper-eating insects in the soil. 

Several factors, especially climatic conditions, affect how fast paper materials decompose in the soil. These factors also affect the breakdown of paper towels. We will briefly explain these factors in the section that follows.

Factors Affecting How Fast Paper Towels Break Down in Soil

Biological Activity

This is the main factor that affects the breakdown of organic matter in the soil. Fungi, bacteria, insects, and worms within the soil feed on paper towels and decompose them. Scientists call this “Biological activity”.

When the soil is healthy and there are plenty of organisms in it, there will be more biological activity. Consequently, paper towels and other organic materials will decompose faster.


The organisms in your soil cannot survive without oxygen. So, if air cannot penetrate the soil, as is the case with landfills and compacted soil, there will be fewer organisms there. This causes low biological activity and makes decomposition slower.


Soil bacteria need heat levels of 70-100 F for optimum biological activity. There is minimal biological activity between 40 and 70 F, but it is not optimal. However, once the heal level falls below 40 F, there will be little to no bacterial activity. This is why paper towels and other organic materials break down quite slowly during the cold winter months.

Moisture Level

Water helps paper materials to break down faster outside of the soil. But water within the soil may slow down the breakdown of paper materials. This is because water will displace air spaces within the soil and deprive the organisms of oxygen. However, excessively dry soil is also not good for paper decomposition either. The organisms need a balance of oxygen and water to decompose matter.

Video – Interesting – How Long Trash Takes to Decompose

In this video, you will see the approximate time it takes different trash materials to decompose. The video will give you an idea of how long paper materials, including paper towels, take to decompose. Other materials shown in the video include diapers, aluminum cans, and glass bottles.

How Long Do Paper Towels Take to Break Down in Landfills

It could take as long as two to five months before paper towels fully decompose in landfills. This is because landfills are sealed and lack adequate oxygen, heat, and biological activity to facilitate quick decomposition. More so, the NSWMA says that landfills are designed to store waste materials, not to break them down.

Many biodegradable products, including paper materials and food wastes, may not decompose in landfills because of low biological activity. In the case of paper towels, they eventually decompose but the decomposition takes a much longer time than it takes in the soil.

It is, therefore, advisable to recycle paper towels to save landfill space, trees, and energy. Another option is to decompose your paper towels at home.

How Long Does it Take Paper Towels to Break Down in a Toilet?

Paper towels may take several months to eventually break down in your toilet. They often clog the toilet halfway through the system and cause plumbing problems. If the paper towel makes it through the toilet system to your soakaway, it will decompose from biological activity there. But most times, they don’t make it there. 

Avoid flushing paper towels down your toilet. Instead, throw them in the trash. As paper towels absorb water, they swell and become bigger. That is why the paper towel often clogs pipes. As it travels through the pipe, it absorbs more water, swells, and blocks the pipe mid-way through the system. 

Once the paper towel clogs your pipe, it stays in place and may not decompose in months. The wood pulp used in making paper towels are of higher quality and can withstand water damage better than that of tissue paper. The water in your toilet system may not be enough to fully saturate the paper towel and help break it down. 

Will One Paper Towel Damage Your Toilet System?

A single paper towel or two will likely flush down your toilet with ease. But if you put more than that, they will clog your plumbing system. You should, however, avoid flushing any paper towel down your toilet. In some cases, just one paper towel can also cause plumbing problems.

Flushing down paper towels can damage your pipes, pumps, filters, and sewer lines. The cost of repairing the damage can be quite overwhelming. So, it is best to avoid flushing even one paper towel down your toilet system. You can also check out this article that discusses why bamboo toilet paper is environment friendly. We have shared tips and information about bamboo toilet paper.

Video – Will It Flush?

This great video demonstrates what happens when you flush common household items down the toilet. One of the common items shown in the video is a paper towel. Watch the video to see what happens to paper towels as it goes down your toilet and household pipes.

Does Paper Break Down in Water?

All types of papers break down and fully disintegrate in water and aqueous solutions in general. But how long this takes to happen depends on the paper type because some paper materials are designed to be more absorbent than others. 

The chemical composition of paper is Sodium Carboxyl-Methyl Cellulose. The cellulose part contains hydrogen bonds which break down when fully saturated with water. So when you add water to paper, it weakens the paper’s hydrogen bonds and starts breaking down the material.

How to Decompose Paper at Home?

To decompose paper at home, first remove any glue, plastic parts, or stickers from it. Then, cut or shred it into tiny pieces before disposing of it in a specially prepared trash bin. Prepare the trash bin by pouring about 2 inches deep dirt layer in it before adding the shredded paper. Add another 2 inches deep dirt layer after adding the shredded paper.

It is best to place the trash bin outdoors to get adequate light and oxygen. Turn the paper and dirt once weekly to make the process faster. You can also introduce worms or paper-eating insects. They will help you break down the paper material faster.

Will Bleach Dissolve Paper Towels in the Toilet?

Bleach will not dissolve paper towels in your toilet because it is not a solvent. So if your toilet is clogged with paper towels, don’t bother to add bleach because it won’t change much. Its effect will not be too different from that of water or any other aqueous solution.

Paper towels are designed to be very absorbent and durable. They also have an almost neutral pH, which requires strong acid solvents to dissolve them completely. One. Such solvent is hydrochloric acid, commonly called muriatic acid on the market. This acid is strong enough to break down paper towels, so you can try using it if paper towels clog your toilet system.


So far, we have explained how long it takes for paper towels to disintegrate in different environments. We talked about the decomposition of paper towels in the soil, landfills, and toilet. This article also explains the different factors affecting the breakdown of paper towels and other organic matter. We hope you found the information helpful and it answered your questions about paper towels.

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