One of the most wasteful things we spend our money on is paper towels. The typical home goes through two rolls every week (costing around $184 annually), and according to 1800recycling.org, as many as 51,000 trees per day are required to replace the number of paper towels that are discarded every day in the U.S.
Part of the reason paper towel use is so high is not just due to the number of chores that we’ve come to rely on them for, but also how we use them—spinning off a handful of sheets, for example, when a singleton would do the job. Another contributing factor to their prolific use is the prominence of the paper towel roll in the American kitchen. Paper towels are rarely hidden from view, but rather placed out in the open, within arms reach and easily accessible to countertop puddles, sticky fingers and wet hands. For many it’s more of a reflex than a thoughtful decision to reach for a paper towel to handle our kitchen messes.
The reality is, we don’t need paper towels at all. Although we’ll have a hard time giving them up entirely, replacing paper towels to a large degree isn’t difficult in the least. A collection of reusable rags, and a few other materials, can handle most—if not all—jobs frequently assigned to paper towels.
Start a rag bin.
Assembling a set of rags will take minimal time and you can do it on the cheap. Put together a set of at least a dozen rags (more if you have a large household) of different sizes, thicknesses, textures and absorbency so you’ll have a rag for any chore or accident that comes your way.
Your set could look something like this:
- Lightweight terrycloth washcloths for wiping spills and general cleaning. Local thrift stores have an abundant assortment.
- Cut-up, all-cotton T-shirts. Super soft, 100% cotton t-shirts are gentle on little faces and hands as well as good at blotting grease. If you don’t have any old t-shirts ready for the rag bin, pick some up at a thrift store.
- Cotton diapers. These are great for draining greasy foods, buffing streaks off stainless steel and dusting.
Most of the time, rags can be rinsed, air dried and put right back into circulation. When rags are ready for laundering, rotate them into the day’s or week’s laundry. Laundered in this way, there shouldn’t ever be a need to dedicate a load of laundry just to your reusable rags.
Put a lid on it.
If you’re in the habit of covering things in the microwave with paper towels—to stop splatter—reusable silicone lids (or covers) do the job with no waste; and they are dishwasher safe.
Use the dust pan for more than just dust.
For cleaning up really nasty stuff, like vomit for example, a dust pan and a scrap of paperboard—plucked from the recycling bin and used to scoot the mess into the pan— works much better than a wad of paper towels.
Wipe and repeat.
There’s nothing unsanitary about reusing a cloth dish towel over and over as long as we use comon sense and reserve its use for drying things that are clean, such as just-washed dishes, hands or countertops. While that seems intuitive, paper towel producers love to scare the consumer into thinking disposable options are the only safe options. Poppycock.
Finally, if you must use paper towels, use a brand that is made from 100% recycled fibers and is unbleached. According to the Environmental Paper Network, making paper from 100% recycled content fiber instead of 100% virgin forest fibers reduces total energy consumption by 44%, net greenhouse gas emissions by 38%, particulate emissions by 41%, wastewater by 50% and solid waste by 49%. Unbleached towels can go into a compost bin, instead of the trash, as long as they weren’t used for anything hazardous.
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