Going Paper Towel Free

There’s no sugarcoating it. Paper towels are something you pay good money for, and then throw away.
Sure, they’re convenient. Sure, it’s nice to have the “icky” things in life out of sight and out of mind (though they’re certainly not out of existence). Sure, using cloth instead of paper means a small increase in the amount of wash water and soap we consume. But let’s give ourselves that reality check: Paper towels are a monumental waste of resources, materials and energy.

Most paper towels are made from fresh trees, meaning they’re cut down with the sole purpose of getting that disposable roll into your kitchen. But the problem doesn’t end there — most paper towels are bleached and processed with chemicals and dyes that will eventually make their way into your home. Of course, production and packaging happens in factories that spew this pollution into the air and water. Then the rolls make their way onto trucks that travel thousands of miles and use jaw-dropping quantities of fuel. Paper towels are also difficult and potentially hazardous to recycle, so most cities simply won’t.

All this for a mere moment of utility, and then … into the trash.

This simply isn’t the case for cloth. Your rags will be with you for years, through thick and thin … and gross and wet and smelly. They’re easy enough to wash with a spin in the machine, a good deal tougher than paper, and much more comfortable on your face and hands. Can you imagine how much cleaner your toddlers would be if they were given a warm, moist cloth at the dinner table instead of an inadequate paper square? Ditto for cleaning muddy-pawed pets, cooked-on stove messes, mysteriously sticky floors, and just about everything else life throws at you.

Getting started with cloth is easy enough — all you’ll need are enough replacement rags to fill a wash load and have a few leftover. This should help to keep you from relapsing, and lets you wash your icky rags by themselves without wasting water or detergent. Skip the fabric softener to keep your rags’ “suck-up” power intact. A cup of white vinegar in the rinse cycle will boost brightness, strip buildup and help to disinfect. If you’d like to have different kinds of cloth for different purposes, try color-coding them — everyone in the family should be able to keep the system straight. And with attractive baskets on hand for the cleans and the dirties, you won’t have to sacrifice your kitchen’s good looks.

The cloths you choose for the all-important task of replacing your paper towels need not be expensive or fancy. In fact, you could easily make them yourself by purchasing, cutting, and hemming a few 100% cotton bolts from the fabric store. Make them the same size as paper towels and you’ll practically trick yourself into using them. You can also knit dishcloths from scrap fiber — there are plenty of free patterns to be found online. But the best and greenest idea yet is also the simplest: Wrench open those drawers packed with unwanted T-shirts, cut them into squares and voila! You’ve decluttered, recycled and switched over to cloth … for free.

Of course, if you’re not keen on making your own rags or you don’t have stacks of T-shirts clogging your life (lucky), there are plenty of ready-made alternatives. Try vintage dishtowels, auto shammies or cloth diapers that are no longer on, er, active duty. Many women also sell their homemade paper towel replacers in a wide variety of designs, colors, sizes and materials on etsy.com.

If you feel unsure about making the switch from paper towels, do it gradually — but do it. It’s best to start small than not at all. Tell yourself you’ll try it out for a week and see what happens. If fear is what’s holding you back, keep that roll on hand as your security blanket. Just hide it out of sight so it’s not the easy choice. After all, you may believe that NO paper toweling is too much to ask of your household — but FEWER is something that we can all do.

For editorial questions, please contact Clint Hooker at chooker@amuniversal.com.
COPYRIGHT 2011 MaryJane Butters
1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, Mo. 64106; (816) 581-7500

17 thoughts on “Going Paper Towel Free

  1. Bar mops and flour sack towels make great replacements. When they get too stained for kitchen use, I toss them in with the chuckwagon supplies. When they get too stained for the chuckwagon, I use them to start the fire.

  2. what ever happened to Handi Wipes??? I remember my Mother using those before papertowels…

  3. Handi Wipes are still around, but the all-time best thing is old cloth diapers. My youngest is 22 but the cloth diapers are still going strong for dusting, polishing wiping and car-washing.

  4. You can still get a Handi Wipes type of towel if you look around. I got some at the everything’s-a-dollar store in my small town, AND they were made right here in the USA! Still, they only last so long and you throw them away — a much shorter life span than real cloth. I found 25 white wash cloths for $5 at a local discount store, so that’s what we use now.

  5. we haven’t bought paper towels in about 2 years,..and don’t miss them at all…..

  6. I use my old bath towels this way…just cut them in manageable size for hand use…The other thing I found is white shop towels…I buy a bundle of those and they are great! Not the red ones tho…they fade red forever….

  7. I’ve been a die-hard paper towel user all my life, but reading Lehman’s article and all these comments is really making me want to change. If there’s hope for me there’s hope for anyone! :)

  8. We have been paper towel free for about two years now…and that is hard when you use only cast iron pans…I use old cloth napkins to wipe them down and then throw them in the wash…we also use cloth napkins instead of paper. Our old cloth diapers make great spill clean-ups too!

  9. This is an ideas I’ve been toying with for a while…But like any creature of habit, I’m uneasy about making the leap. I had a great source for flour sack type clothes at WalMart for $5, but our sad little store doesn’t have them anymore and I’ll have to look elsewhere. I DO have scrap white linen that I can serge and try…There might just be a cottage industry out there!!

  10. for cleaning out cast iron- I save the net bags fruit comes in sometimes to make a scrubber with and scrub them out first, then use the wash cloth, and dry them on the stove. I ususally find cloth napkins at thrift stores and yard sales cheap- hot water and a little bleach-viola!

  11. I keep paper towels on hand but they are only used for certain things and so it takes a good while to use them up. We mainly use small towels/cloths. Our son has five children and they don’t use toilet paper. They use small cloths that go into a diaper pail and get washed with the cloth diapers (they have a washing machine just for washing diapers).

  12. For your Cast Iron pans, you can use canvas. You can find it at Walmart for like 1.50 a YARD! So what I do is I cut about a 2×2 sq. and use it when I oil the pan. I then throw it in a jar in the fridge, so it doesn’t get rancid. I just pull that piece of canvas out for wiping the pan between pancakes and when I clean my pans. Just a tip. I use canvas when I need something more then a cloth diaper or kitchen towel.

  13. A covering in the microwave is simply flipping over a pie plate or a luncheon plate.

  14. we haven’t used paper towels or any disposable paper product in years. with one exception toilet paper. the toilet paper we use is made from bamboo so no trees lost.
    before i found that we always used recycled paper toilet paper. we use cloth napkins, a permanent coffee filter, (can be found in any grocery store), before i went into menaupause i used cloth menstraul pads. i did manage to wear out my childrens diapers. so when needing more rags i went to the fabric store and bought about four yards of cotton flannel. i just cut them up into good size squares with pinking shears and thats it. we’ve been using them for over 5 years and they still soak up spills fine. about the comment above to throw your rags in the washer with bleach, heavens no. bleach is terrible for the environment. it is destroying our natural water supplies. these are rags, they are going to get stains, that’s o.k. if you can’t stand the stains i suggest you look at lehman’s catalog at the washboards. a little bit of scrubbing with some natural soap and the stains will be gone. but seriously why go to the effort for rags. buy the washboard and get rid of your toxic stain removers. also the comment about using a coffee filter for a paper towel in the microwave…………your still using precious paper. i’ve gotten along without covering food in the microwave since we first owned one. you might need to clean your microwave a bit more, but isn’t that worth a tree. when i do need to cover something such as bread, i’ll wrap it in a clean dish towel. works like a charm.