paper towel roll

Reducing Paper Towels

Like many environmental headaches, paper towels are a cultural problem. Paper towels are just so easy. One quick wipe and something is out of sight and out of mind: no crumbs to shake out, no rags to wash, no stains to look at. The U.S. embraces many disposable commodities, and paper towels are no exception.

Trees grow at an incredibly slow rate, yet they are invaluable to producing the world’s oxygen supply and reducing carbon emissions. In fact, trees are more effective at reducing our carbon footprint than any mechanical device humans have invented to date. Why do we create a problem like producing carbon emissions at an unsustainable rate but then also hinder the natural solution?

Even in modern times, other developed countries have gotten along just fine without an incessant need for paper towels. Classic items like rags, mops, and sponges have survived hundreds of years for a reason. If you find the right ones, these reusable cleaning supplies can be just as convenient as paper towels. Plus, you can feel good about being part of a sustainable solution.

Paper towels are also chemically processed. Remember that trees are brown, but household paper towels are usually white. What happens in between? Things like bleach, formaldehyde, etc. that aren’t ideal for skin contact.

I got really excited about paper towel alternatives and experimented with several before figuring out the best use for each one. Over the past several months, I’ve tried various eco-friendly products and made note of their effectiveness and lifespan.  My unofficial criteria included:

  • Effectiveness
  • Re-usability
  • Longevity
  • Availability
  • Sustainability
  • Multi-purpose functions

The winners weren’t very inventive. Below, I list my 3 main paper towel substitutes and how I use them for common cleaning tasks.

  1. Extra thin, perforated cellulose cloths
  2. Thin cellulose sponge cloths
  3. Cotton wash cloths

How to clean:

Windows and mirrors

perforated blue striped cloth

I use extra thin, perforated cellulose cloths and white cleaning vinegar. White vinegar can be substituted for ammonia-based cleaners, which irritate airways. Because the cloths are so thin, they effectively wipe away vinegar for a streak-free shine. I usually cut mine in half before using them, because it reduces consumption.

I only use these for cleaning windows and mirrors, because they are too fragile for heavy-duty cleaning. However, they could also be useful for dusting.

Floors

multi-color cotton dish rag

I have a powerful vacuum that cleans my floors almost to a shine. Therefore, I usually only spot clean my floors for food spills and wet shoes. For this, I use good ol’ cotton washrags and a soapy bucket. I’m flexible enough to squat while I clean, but you could stand using a mop. I’ve also considered attaching a wet rag to the end of my Swiffer.

Dishes

cellulose sponge cloth with decorative owl print

I wash dishes with thin and biodegradable sponge cloths. I prefer cellulose or plant-based ones. They dry quickly, rinse out well, and offer the same absorbing qualities that we all love. Excess water on my kitchen countertop is gone in a jiffy.

I moved away from traditional sponges with dual soft and scouring sides for a few reasons: antimicrobial chemicals, dyes, glue, and their thick size, which increases drying time and encourages bacterial growth.

Tables and countertops

I use either cotton or cellulose cloths. Most often, I use whatever is in my hand from my current cleaning activity. I’ll spray a little white vinegar or a add a drop of biodegradable multi-purpose soap for a extra cleaning power. I then flip the cloth over a few times before periodically rinsing it out.

Fabrics

For spot cleaning furniture, shoes, jackets, or coats, I use cotton wash clothes. These are by far the most durable and can withstand repeated force. It’s amazing how much dirt you can remove with a good spot clean. There’s almost no need to go to the dry cleaners!

Results

By using the cleaning methods above, I’ve reduced my paper towel usage by about 80%. I only need to buy a roll of paper towels twice a year. When I run out, I challenge myself to see how long I can go without them (another blog post about that here). They’re so easy to substitute that I wonder why I used so much before.

So why only an 80% reduction? Why do I still use paper towels for the other 20%? There are two primary reasons: 1) bugs 2) hair.

  1. I’m usually on the catch-and-release plan for many of the insects in my house, but there are a few exceptions to this.
  2. When my long hair gets on sinks or counter tops, it’s nearly impossible to round up and get in the garbage, because wet hair sticks to my fingers like glue. I’ll tear off a couple square inches of paper towel and target my rogue hairs.

If you are trying to wean off paper towels, physically move them out of the way. Put them somewhere inconvenient like across the kitchen or underneath a cabinet. The inconvenience will make you pause to consider if there is something better to use. Habit is powerful, and unless you build mechanisms into your routine to break them, it’ll be too easy to just reach for that paper towel roll like you’ve always done.