NEW YORK — Paper towels have a reputation for not absorbing much water, but a new study suggests they’re actually on the verge of an all-time high.
The paper towel industry, which employs about 13 million people, has been touting the advantages of water-resistant paper towels in recent years, as part of its efforts to reduce the water that comes out of their packaging.
The industry claims the absorbency of paper towels is 99.9 percent, though that’s an underestimate as the amount of water absorbed by a paper towel varies.
The University of Florida in Florida, which led the study, said that the water-resistance ratings of paper towel packaging was based on the amount and type of water contained in the product, rather than actual absorption of the water.
“We found that water-soluble fibers, especially paper fibers, are very absorbent,” said senior author Brian C. Matson, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Miami and a research associate at the university’s Jacobs School of Engineering.
“This is very, very encouraging,” said study co-author Rishi Narayan, a research scientist at the company Nippon Polytechnic Institute in Sapporo, Japan.
“It’s very promising,” Narayan said.
“We have a lot of new products coming out.”
Researchers measured water absorption in paper towels by measuring the water absorbed in a plastic container as it was being washed, then compared it to a water absorption measurement taken before the washing.
They also compared the water absorption measured with water used for washing and to a measurement taken a few days later.
In all, the researchers found that paper towels absorb about 2.5 percent more water than the amount absorbed in the water used to wash them.
It’s about 1.6 percent more than the water released when a towel was placed in a water-repellent container.
In terms of water loss, paper towels had about the same water absorption as paper towels that were placed in an absorbent container, but about 1 percent less than paper towels placed in paper-absorbing containers.
The absorbency numbers varied depending on the type of paper fibers used, but the authors say the water loss in paper towel packages was the most consistent.
“The absorbency in paper was a little bit higher than what was found in paper fibers,” Narayana said.
“So it is possible that paper fibers are more water-efficient, or that paper can be more absorbent than fiber, or maybe it’s just that the fibers have a better surface area to absorb water,” Narrayana said, “or maybe there are some other factors at play.”
The study was published in the journal Science Advances.