One thing that really confounded me when I began exploring zero waste was the explosion of “but what about paper towels?!?!” questions. This was shocking to me. My husband and I – having lived together for seven years now – have just existed… without paper towels.
It’s not zero waste. It’s just common sense!
I’m not going to sugar-coat this: you don’t need paper towels.* A zero waste lifestyle is more than a plastic bag. Part of that is the idea that low-waste living is not compatible with single-use paper items.
*The big caveat, of course, is in places or situations like the medical field where single-use items are a must. Your home is probably not dealing with that.
1. Use up what you have
As always, the most zero waste option is to use what you already have. If you have a massive stash of paper towels, use them up before moving to a lower-waste swap. It’s important first and foremost to recognize and honor the resources that have gone into the things we’ve already committed to.
Alternatively, you could also consider donating them to an organization that needs cleaning supplies, like a women’s shelter.
2a. Embrace how much destruction paper towels cause
Cost: I took the mid-range option from my local Walmart store – $13.18 for 12 rolls. According to one study, the average US family uses two rolls per week. That comes out to about $114 per year you’re spending on something you literally buy to throw away. Probably not the biggest bit of your budget, but that frees up some extra cash for the local produce you can’t afford.
Deforestation and water use: Almost all conventional paper towels are made from virgin trees, ie. you’re requiring a tree to be cut down for an item you may use for 5-10 seconds. It’s estimated that “it takes 17 trees and more than 20,000 gallons of water to make one ton of paper towels” (source). If we use the estimate that the US collectively uses around 6,500,000 tons of paper towels per year, that means we’re using over 110 MILLION trees and 130 BILLION gallons of water every year just for paper towels.
In the USA alone, we’re using over 110 MILLION trees and 130 BILLION gallons of water every year just for paper towels.
2b. Understand what a paper towel represents
Paper towels – more than tangible waste – are an excellent example of what’s wrong with the system we currently exist in. They show a willingness to avoid tackling discomfort and not do anything “hard”. We’ve been groomed to always want the easy way out, which usually involves buying another product.
That’s why our planet is collapsing – companies are profiting off our inertia and desire to buy our way out of problems rather than be thrifty and creative.
This obviously doesn’t mean “if you use paper towels, you’re a terrible person”! It’s just one of many symptoms that stems from our systemic disregard for the planet.
3. Get cloth replacements
Free and most environmentally friendly: cut up old t-shirts or towels. I have a small container in the kitchen and bathroom where I store them. So easy, so free, so not using up more unnecessary resources for a novelty item.
Learn how to make and fold the easiest, laziest unpaper towels.
If you really can’t control your consumption habits or are perhaps giving a gift to someone you’re trying to ease into the lifestyle… you can purchase a roll of “un-paper towels” which are just bits of cloth with snaps attached to mimic a roll of paper towels. There are also full sets with towel holders available as well.
Tip: get color coordinated. Whether you make or buy, create mental lists of different tasks and have a different color rag for each task. Sure, they all get washed, but it’s nice knowing the blue rags are strictly for the toilet, which the orange ones are for the kitchen!
4. Figure out your washing situation
One of the hardest parts of using rags is figuring out what to do with them before washing. When we first started, we lived in an apartment where it was expensive to use the washer/dryer. Now we just don’t have many items to wash so we do laundry pretty infrequently. Here are a few questions that need to be addressed:
- How will you store them? I’m assuming you want to save resources by not washing each rag individually as it gets dirty. Once the rag is too dirty to keep using, rinse it well and let it dry (preferably a quick dry in strong sun). Then toss it in a “dirty rag container” and seal until it’s time to wash. We have several different containers for the various levels of grossness.
- Will they all get washed together? I save up rags and wash them all together because I like to live on the edge and do wash them in a very small batch of hot water. You may want to separate them out, but be sure you’re not wasting additional resources to do so.
5. Live the rest of your life without regret
That’s literally it! Use that approximately $114 you’ve saved to do something fun, content in the knowledge you’re bringing one less unnecessary item into your home.
And don’t worry… I offer responses to the FMCs (Frequently Made Complaints) that you or others you speak to may have. Check them out below!
FMCs (Frequently Made Complaints)
- “Paper towels are convenient.” Yes. So is driving individual cars powered by fossil fuels, eating factory farmed meat, mindlessly shopping from Amazon, and so many more of our daily habits. This is a singularly simple way for almost anyone to make a concrete reduction of waste in their home and recognize that convenience is literally destroying the planet.
- “I don’t like stains on my cloth towels.” Repeat after me friends: stains don’t mean it’s dirty. We’re so obsessed with a Pinterest-worthy life that it’s hard to accept imperfection. But guess what? Cloths for cleaning will be stained – and it has zero effect on their efficacy. Toss them in a drawer and be done with it!
- “Paper towels are more sanitary.” TL;DR: no one can agree on whether this is true or not. If you want to read about the various studies done, you can read this review of evidence. Most found no significant difference between paper and cloth towels in terms of bacteria on the hands. Basically, it’s not a good enough argument to not switch for the average person who doesn’t require a specialized anti-bacterial regime.
- “I need paper towels for pet messes.” While this is one I tend to let slide because it’s a level of gross most people don’t want to overcome, it’s not totally necessary. We use cloth. Clean, toss mess into compost, rinse cloth, and let it dry before storing away before washing. Wash it with other dirty rags and – boom! – no problem.
- “I need paper towels for greasy stuff.” Damp, fine-weave cloth works great. Rinse out before washing.
Still convinced you need paper towels? FINE! Use as little as possible and then move on to things that are actually important. Capitalism does a good job of making us fixate on small, unimportant things while ignoring the real issues.
Use that free brain space to dismantle the system that’s really catapulting us towards destruction – not pieces of paper. Join a local Extinction Rebellion chapter or start your own. Write or call your politicians to demand your city go carbon neutral. Start a community garden and feed your neighbors.