Going Paper Towel Free

My post about making cloth napkins generated a crazy amount of emails from readers who wanted to know how we managed to live without paper towels and paper napkins, and why. The short answer to why is that I can bear the idea of spending money on something that will be garbage as soon as you use it. Paper towels aren’t cheap, even when you buy them in bulk at Costco, and they take up a lot of storage space.

And, of course, I was never entirely comfortable with waste of paper pulp that goes into making them, not to mention that the bleach used in the process isn’t so great for the environment.

So when we made the move from Martha’s Vineyard to Virginia last year, I decided to try to give up paper towels. I’m not going to lie; it was harder than I thought it would be in the beginning. I reached for paper towels a dozen times a day in the first couple of weeks. But with in a month, everyone at the farm was completely on-board and, honestly, we don’t miss paper towels at all.

If you’re considering going paper towel free, I suggest buying a couple dozen dish towels to keep in rotation. We use dish towels for big spills, drying dishes and drying hands after washing. For small spills and general clean up, I keep a stack of these non-paper towels in a drawer by the sink and use them exactly as I would paper towels. (I’ve ordered about four dozen of them from this seller and I’ve been really pleased with them.) UPDATED AGAIN 4:47 p.m. 7/9/2010: Athena Creates has the non-paper towels back in stock.

We keep a dedicated laundry basket on top of the washing machine and toss the non-paper towels, dish towels and the cloth napkins we use at meals in as they get soiled. Since washing small loads of dish towels would probably negate all the environmental do-gooding we’re attempting by not using paper towels, I only wash kitchen items when I have a full load. That’s why it’s important to have lots of dish towels and non-paper towels ready to go before you attempt to give up the paper version. If it isn’t convenient you will probably break down and go back to paper.

P.S. I loaded up with peaches and tomatoes at the Farmers Market today for canning. Tune in for the rest of this week for jam and sauce making!

30 Comments

  1. i have used cloth napkins and kitchen towels for years (as was the norm in my house growing up). friends who visit are always amazed. it’s really no big deal. and i love to decorate the table with fun colored cloth napkins. i have even made some of my own.

  2. I bought batches of bar rags from a restaurant supply store years ago, and haven’t used paper towels since. I soak them in borax once a week, then wash them with sheets or towels, and that’s it.

  3. dina (dinaknitsinmd)

    July 6, 2010 at 7:03 pm

    Now that is something I can do! Thanks for the great idea and the resource – her cloths look great!

  4. I switched to cloth napkins (made by me) two years ago and haven’t bought paper ones since, except for some heavy duty ones for cookouts with corn on the cob and b.b.q. ribs. Paper towels have been harder to give up, but your resources may be be just what I needed to go there. BTW….I use small cloths (made from old t-shirts or worn out flannelette p.j.’s) instead of toilet paper for the non-messy wiping. I’m the only one in the household doing so (females are really the only ones who use much) and I’ve been doing that for two years, also. I can’t even begin to imagine how much money I’ve saved–and paper from going down my septic system. This isn’t for everyone…but it works for me. My cloths are soft and clean and they go in with my whites, which mostly get bleached by the sun on the clothesline.

    When I still needed them, I switched to washable cloth for feminine needs, also. They make really nice ones, available online (there are also patterns for making your own.) And there also other alternatives I won’t go into here, but there is something for everyone. Oh, and disposable diapers! Don’t even get me started on what that is doing to the landfills. Thanks, Susan, for doing your part in the non-use of throwaway paper products! Small changes made by lots of people really do help us and our planet a LOT.

  5. I stopped buying paper towels, paper plates, and napkins last year. The kids were easy to convince that this was a good thing. My husband was less convinced. For us it wasn’t spills, we already have rag towels/cloths for that. The big issue for my husband was cooking. He was so used to using paper towel to soak oil off of any fried food (not that we fry a lot, we don’t, but that one time every six weeks that he would, he’d be stuck not knowing what to do. He used to sit the fried food on paper towels on a paper plate). He also refused to clean toilets without papertowels. I managed (rags work, all old clothing/bedding gets turned into rags at our house), but then it meant it was my job only. I’m not a fan of that! I never missed the napkins or paper plates, but again, to my husband these were essential staples. It’s been an interesting year, how differently people react to not having these items.

    I think a big part of it is that he grew up having these things, where as my parents were environmentally conscious. My mom always had cloth napkins, and only on rare picnics did we use paper plates. I don’t remember having paper towels either. These aren’t essentials, just so many people are so used to having them, they think they have to. They don’t. We can learn other ways to manage.

    I was glad to see you mention the expense of paper towels. That was my initial reason for not buying them one week (that’s what started my experiment). Then it became more of an environmental concern and so forth. I’m amazed how many people argue with me that they aren’t that expensive. Sure you can buy a cheap roll for a couple bucks, but it adds up and it’s a waste in the end.

    Thanks for posting about your experience.

    Cara

  6. I’m surprised this isn’t more common. I’ve been nearly paper-towel free for years, but it was entirely an economic decision for me. Not environmental in the least, but I do find that the cheap solution is almost always the green solution. (Not that bogus fake green where you have to buy all kinds of crap, but the real green where you just simply use what you need and nothing more.) I use knitted clothes and tea towels for nearly everything- I still use paper towels to clean up chicken or pork in the kitchen. But I’ve had one pack of paper towels for the last four years and haven’t even used half (tells you how often I cook chicken and pork!). I do admire that you can run a farm in a sustainable and green way- that’s much harder than my tiny apartment!

  7. My mother passed that very philosophy on to me. She was often a forward thinker, and a bit ahead of her time. Congratulations on breaking free from paper towels and napk

  8. We’ve been paper towel free for a few yrs now. It’s really just not as hard to do without them as people think. We use painters towels for those jobs you think only a paper towel will do for.

  9. I’ve just decided I’m going to be you when I grow up dammit!!

  10. This is a great idea and one I had not thought about before. I don’t think I could give up paper towels in the bathroom, but in the kitchen it seems doable. I’ll have to work on sewing up a bunch of replacements from my fabric stash.

  11. We always use paper napkins, and I would love to get rid of paper towels, but it’s hard to convince the parents of that.

    (And, um, cleaning up dog vomit when Chappy spits up? I’m sorry, that really has to be paper towels.)

  12. I’ve knit up dishcloths (about 20) for all of our family’s dishwashing. When my guy moved in with me, 4 years ago, he had a hard time giving up kitchen sponges. Not only were those sponges scrubbing off the finish on my dishes, but they were sooo stinky!
    We also have a dedicated basket for our soiled utility cloths.

  13. HilaryGermany

    July 7, 2010 at 6:58 am

    We went paper-towel-free in about 1986. Welcome to the fold. :)

  14. We’ve been completely off paper napkins for ages but paper towels are slower- we’re definitely getting there though.

  15. Thanks for this post! I have been trying to get my husband to lay off of paper towels for a long time. I try to only use them if there’s something really bad to clean up- that really needs everything to get thrown out (usually the result of a pet).

  16. Good for you. I have used cloth only for over 20 years and I love all the different colors I have, now. And weaving my own only makes it that much better!

  17. My mother had us using cloth towels and napkins… gosh, for most of my life. I’ve got an entire drawer full of them both.

    My husband bought one of those multi-packs of paper towels from Costco about… four years ago? We’ve used less than half of them.

  18. Susan in Katonah

    July 7, 2010 at 10:56 am

    We are only about 3/4 paper-towel free. There are just some things that won’t wash out (oil paint, axle grease, that oil you put in toy trains to make smoke …).

    Cloth diapers are the best wiper-uppers ever — very very soft and absorbent. We bought four dozen years ago, and most of them are still around. I occasionally have to reassure guests that they have never been used as diapers, though.

    At big-box hardware/lumber stores we get bundles of contractor rags — white terry or those red bandanna-sized wipe rags you see in auto mechanics’ shops. Not lovely, but functional to the max, and cheaper than I could make them.

    This is not to say I don’t have some actual bespoke dish towels and napkins. And ball-band washcloths.

  19. I really want to try this. Between the two of us I’m definitely more the paper-towel user – Ken doesn’t use disposable anything if he can in any way help it.

    My only caveat is when the dog expels anything of any kind inside the house. I want to use disposable cleanup for biohazard materials, definitely. :)

    We’re 100% planning on cloth diapering, and I’m excited about that. We’re going to get a laundry alternative washer (!) just for the diapers to keep them separate, and since there will be so many.

    I want to find the most absorbent cloths for around the house, though. I’ll definitely look into those mechanic rags. And maybe we’ll find that the cloth diapers are perfect and have a household set and a baby set. Really good idea. :) Susan, what kind of fabric do you use to make your own? Regular calico isn’t very absorbent, right?

  20. Lisa Stockebrand (aka. lasdcm)

    July 7, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    With 2 smallish boys, paper towels are still in my life BUT we use the same system you do! Big laundry basket, lots of dish towels, always cloth napkins and I adore knit washcloths for washing dishes – I knit them just hand size and they don;t get all big and sloppy – fresh towels and dishrag every day! Wash when you have a load and hang them out on the line!

  21. we went paper-napkin free about a year ago. it was painless and i love the fact that we are not literally throwing money away, adding to the landfill and purchasing something that just the production of is so environmentally unfriendly. we use fewer paper towels as well these days. it might just be a little something but at least it’s something!

  22. i can’t remember the last time we bought paper towels or napkins. we bought a bunch of cloths when we moved into our place, and I sewed a bunch of napkins from fat quarters, so we just haven’t needed anything paper. it’s an easy transition and makes a lot of sense. hopefully more people still hooked on paper will realize how wasteful and unnecessary it is. plus the cloth napkins are so much prettier on the dinner table!

  23. I would really like to eliminate paper towels (I already use cloth napkins). But the thing that hangs me up is cat puke. I have two cats, and they do puke a lot (really, they just regurgitate, a perfectly normal feline thing to do). I can’t stand the idea of cleaning up cat puke with a cloth towel. Any suggestions from cat-owning cloth-towel users?

  24. We did this as well. I went to Target and just bought lots of inexpensive cloth napkins for everyday use, and I was lucky enough to be given a week’s worth of large, hand-embroidered flour sack dishtowels that are great for anything. We are still trying to wean the cleaning lady to cloth, but it has been good–much less paper waste than before.

  25. I love these!! I have two orders and run out every week before the wash gets done. And now I find out my DH is stealing them for his golf outings!

  26. As for the cat thing, depending on how often it occurs it really is not that difficult. We use scraps from old sheets and clothing, pretty much just rags. They are not missed when gone, and I do not feel so bad about throwing them in the wooded area where the cat litter (the pine stuff, not actual litter) goes, or even in the trash.

  27. LOL. I found this post from Not Martha – we stopped using paper towels and napkins about 2 years ago and while we’ve done just fine without it drives my folks nuts when they come to our house.

    My dad is usually helping my husband with some kind of project at the house and he always makes a point of how the job would go so much smoother with paper towels. ;)

  28. For truly icky cleanup (dog puke, for example), I use disposable/ nondisposable towels made from chopped up junky old t-shirts (mostly freebies and hand-me-downs). Cut systematically, one shirt makes about a dozen rags, and I have so many that I don’t mind chucking the especially vile ones in the compost.

  29. We’ve been paper towel free for some time and love it. Even with the kids and the baby its been a breeze.

    ~MG

  30. I’m a paper towel addict living through the early weeks of withdrawal. I love using paper towels. At least half a roll evaporates while I’m cooking a meal. I clean while I cook so I’m always taking a few seconds – and a handful of paper towels – here and there to wash and wipe hands, dishes and utensils.

    Paper towels seem completely essential when cleaning the house. My mind tells me they’re ‘more’ clean to start with so my cleaning will be extra-cleaner when I’m finished cleaning. Crazy, huh?

    I especially crave paper towels when I’m attacking the bathroom. I’ll go through another half-a-roll wiping down the toilet and tub. I also like paper towels for polishing the mirrors. I seem to think the paper towels are more lint free than cloth. Am I wrong?

    I’m not exactly a green activist. Giving up paper towels is more about saving money. We’re tightening our house budget and paper towels seem wasteful. But now I have another question. If I’m going greener by using paper towels am I being less green by adding to my laundry?

    If I’m using cloth towels to clean the toilet and pat dry chicken parts (not at the same time) I’m going to want to use bleach in the laundry to make sure all the germs are killed. Is that crazy? Do I need to use chlorine bleach to ensure that the cloth cleaning towels are really clean? And what about the energy consumed by larger loads in the clothes dryer. There’s no room for a clothes line in my apartment building.

    I hope to learn from other’s experience and also get some pats-on-the back f0r going cold turkey on paper towels. Suggestions, resources, links and ideas would be a great help.

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