On not using paper towels

by Kristen on April 23, 2009 · 42 comments

in Green and Frugal

This would probably have been a more appropriate post to write yesterday, seeing as it was Earth Day. But, Wednesday is for baking around here, and I couldn’t really come up with an Earth Day post on baking. So, maybe just pretend it’s Earth Day today?

This is one of those areas where frugality and environmentalism overlap(in my experience, that happens quite often!). I also think that this is probably one of the most painless money saving moves I make.

I’ve poked around for quite a while and I cannot for the life of me find the statistics about how many rolls of paper towels a household uses on average, but let’s assume that you use two rolls a week. Even if you get paper towels for $1 a roll(which is what the cheapie-cheap-cheap ones cost here), that’s $110 a year that you’re spending on something that you just throw away. If you have $2/roll paper towels, that’s $220 a year. Wouldn’t you rather spend that on something more fun?

And of course, it’s not exactly eco-friendly to throw away two rolls of paper each week either.

So, here’s what I use instead.

Washcloths

I have a stack of cheap white washcloths(these are available in many stores…I think mine are from Walmart). I use these for wiping counters, wiping my stove, wiping my sink, and wiping anything else in the kitchen that needs wiping!

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These sort of washcloths can get smelly if you’re not careful, so I change my kitchen washcloth each day, and before I got to bed at night, I always hang the washcloth over my faucet or oven door so that it can dry out overnight(leaving it wadded up in a wet ball behind the sink is not a good idea, just so you know!). The next morning it gets thrown into the laundry pile.

Every so often the washcloths get dirty enough that they need some extra cleaning, so I soak them in a bucket with a bit of bleach, wash them, and they’re good to go.

Even with heavy daily use, mine usually last me for a number of years. Considering that I can get a pack of washcloths for the price of a multi-pack of paper towels, I’m definitely money ahead this way.

I know some people think that using a washcloth all day in the kitchen is unsanitary and unhealthy, but that has not been my experience. Despite the fact that I use these almost exclusively in my kitchen, we’re a very healthy bunch.

Of course, if I use a washcloth to wipe up something that is truly unsanitary(a counter that’s had chicken on it, for example), I don’t use that particular cloth for anything again until it’s been washed.

Rags

For non-kitchen wiping purposes, I usually use my stack of old t-shirt rags. I LOVE these things. They don’t really cost a penny, because I make them from old t-shirts that are ready for the trash, and they work so, so well.

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I don’t do anything fancy to the t-shirts…I just cut them up into what seems like an appropriate rag size, fold them up, and put them in my linen closet. These are a doubly eco-friendly item because they keep you from using a disposable produce and they also keep you from having to throw old shirts away.

I used to use paper towels to clean windows and appliances, and all sorts of other things but once I gave t-shirt rags a try, I never looked back. It took tons of paper towels to get my sliding glass door clean, but I can do the whole thing and then some with a single rag. I also use them to dust my piano, clean the outside of my appliances, and to clean my mirrors.

I promise you, the rags and washcloths do not significantly increase my laundry load. They’re so small and I use so few of them each day, their impact is negligible. Give it a try, and I bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised, especially when you see how long a roll of paper towels can last you. I buy a roll just every few months, because I really only have a need for paper towels when I’m cooking bacon.

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{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Franci April 23, 2009 at 10:11 pm

Wow, I could never use 2 rolls of paper towels in a week! A roll lasts a good 2 months around here – we use it mainly to cover messy food in the microwave or clean up after the dog if someone forgot to let it out. :-) I don’t find that it is a huge expense around here, so I’m sticking to my paper towels! ;-)

I’m totally with you on the rags though – I use them like you do for cleaning etc. Old flannel shirts or pajamas or sheets work really well for this too! I usually over-lock my rags and then they last me for years and don’t fray in the washing machine that way.

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2 Daisy April 23, 2009 at 10:22 pm

We do the same thing. Washclothes for table napkins and paper towels. Rags for messy jobs, cleaning, etc. Paper towels are not cheap and unfortunately when I do have them in the house, the children are prone to overusing them.

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3 Renee April 23, 2009 at 10:26 pm

I wonder if inside out paper bags or newspaper would work for bacon?? My hubs grandpa does a fish fry every year and that is what he uses as a liner for the trays to soak up the grease.

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4 Jenn February 23, 2010 at 7:28 pm

if you are a coffee drinker you can use a coffee filter to soak up the grease.

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5 Frugal Dreamer April 23, 2009 at 10:35 pm

We do the same thing in our house! We never buy paper towel, instead we have napkins on hand (for bacon or when company comes over!).

I also use newspaper to wash my windows/mirrors, if for some reason I’m out of t-shirt rags, and that works well too! :)

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6 Sabrina April 23, 2009 at 10:48 pm

I’m trying to cut down on our paper towel usage. I recently took the paper towel holder out of our bathroom and put hand towels in. When I did home daycare, we had to provide paper towels in the bathroom (they said hand towels weren’t sanitary enough) and when I stopped doing daycare, it was just a habit. So now I only have a roll in the kitchen.

I’m trying to remember to use old Sunday papers for cleaning my mirrors. And we’ve always used cloth napkins (place mats too). That’s not so much for frugal or environmental purposes though. I just love to set a pretty table every night.

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7 Brandy April 23, 2009 at 10:54 pm

Glad to see this post. I’ve seen this on several other ‘green’ blogs as well and I am always suprised by the comment thread of people who debate rags versus paper towels. I grew up in a house that cut up old sheets etc for cleaning, dusting and kept a stack of cheap washrags for the kitchen so I have a hard time understanding using paper towels for this stuff. I think it’s helpful to just think about your trash occasionally and look for substitutes where practical. One day this led to my permanent switch to cloth napkins, another day it made me get rid of disposable makeup sponges and makeup remover cloths.

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8 mo April 24, 2009 at 4:33 am

I use em too. just suddenly thought that instead of throwing j cloths away I could by an old fashioned dish rag and wash them. I also dyed all mine pink. SO they dont look grey and minging.

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9 Tammy Brackett April 24, 2009 at 8:40 am

Great post! I do the same thing! White washcloths are cleaning cloths, dark blue are for the kitchen, and rags are for everything in between!
I like to keep rags in plastic (recycled) zip lock bags tucked into an out of the way place in every room. I can do a quick dust and put the rag back into the plastic. I don’t use Pledge or dusting spray, so this works great!

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10 Tara April 24, 2009 at 8:41 am

We use T-shirt rags too :) And for draining greasy foods, I save any/all paper bag or paper products that come our way. Occasionaly I will forget to bring my reusable shopping bag and instead of plastic I will choose a paper bag. Then I cut it up and use it for draining greasy items. One bag lasts us months, since we don’t fry all that often.

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11 Battra92 April 24, 2009 at 8:47 am

I’m trying to convert my parents to microfiber cloths. They are better than swiffers and cheaper in the long run. The Protip is to buy them in large quantities in the Automotive section (I think 12 in Target are $8)

I’m no environmentalist and I think Earth Day is a sham (founded by the Unicorn killer no less) but I agree that frugality and environmentalism do overlap a lot.

I won’t totally give up my paper towels (or my tissues, God forbid) but I have given up Swiffers at least.

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12 Kristen April 24, 2009 at 8:58 am

Battra, I feel like that about toilet paper! lol I don’t think I’m ever going to get so frugal that I start using family cloth. I can live without napkins and paper towels, and I can see living without tissues, but I am NOT giving up TP(unless, I suppose, I get a bidet!).

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13 Michelle April 24, 2009 at 9:14 am

Try cloth diapers! They’re more economical (and environmentally friendly) than disposable when you’ve got a baby, and once baby is potty-trained (hooray!), they make fabulous rags. Strong, virtually lint-free, plus you’ve already got tons on hand!

If you don’t have a baby, or you choose not to use cloth diapers, you can sometimes buy worn diapers from diaper services for reasonably cheap. They’re a little frayed around the edges, but you can zip around them with the sewing machine.

Between our diaper-rags and our kitchen wash cloths, we go through a roll of paper towels every few months, which makes me feel justified in buying a more expensive brand (I know, they’re more expensive…but they’re way more absorbant!) than I would if I were buying them for daily use.

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14 Kristen April 24, 2009 at 9:19 am

Michelle, thankfully we’re past the diaper stage of life(woohoo!). My youngest wears a diaper at night still, but other than that, it’s undies all the way for everyone here.

If I could start my parenting journey over again, though, I’d probably cloth diaper(when I had my first baby, we lived in an apartment with access to a washer only once a week, so I started out with disposables).

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15 Kristin @ klingtocash April 24, 2009 at 9:29 am

I’ve been cutting our paper towel usage for the past few months. I grew up in a paper towel household so it was just habit to use them for everything. Now, I use hand towels in the kitchen and rags. We are probably using one roll a month, which is down from about 1 roll a week. Since I’ve broken the habit, it’s a lot easier.

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16 Clair Schwan of Frugal Living Freedom April 24, 2009 at 10:38 am

For years now I’ve used bar towels instead of paper towels. It’s the only thing that makes sense to me. It seems silly to wipe up a little water with a paper towel and then throw it away, but that’s what many people have been convinced to do.

Those “quicker picker upper” ads on TV have convinced many people that our lives will be easier if we didn’t have to mess with cloth. In the meantime, we’re paying for that convenience, one roll at a time, and using several towels at once because they don’t hold up to scrubbing.

The unspoken value that many see in paper towels is that they are always clean, whereas a stack of cloth towels will be stained from repeated use. Big deal. I’m just fine with clean but stained cloth towels.

Paper towels are well suited for when you’re cleaning up something that you want to throw away – something that you don’t want to get on your cloth towels. Things like puddles of oil, grease, oven cleaner, etc. This make sense because an oil soaked cloth towel can never be made clean – it will always be a little oily.

Cloth towels are superior to paper towels in almost every way. And, it’s easy to get used to doing a small load of cloth towels every couple days so you always have them available for cleaning. Like many other wasteful things, the tried and true of the past have been overtaken by the convenience and hype of the present, but it has it’s price.

I say, let the lumberjack sell somebody else those paper towels. I’m staying with my stack of bar towels that serve me so much more efficiently and effectively.

Clair

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17 dogear6 April 24, 2009 at 10:43 am

I agree with all the comments on using the washclothes / bar towels. I use the towels sold for mechanics to use; they are about 12 or 24 to a pack. I change them when they get too wet or too dirty. About every two weeks I do a full load in the wash machine using bleach and hot water to sterilize them.

I use paper towels though for animal body functions. I know the cloths wash up just fine, but I’d rather not have my kitchen supplies being used to clean up after the animals. That and cleaning the toilet lip are the only things we use paper towels for anymore.

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18 Battra92 April 24, 2009 at 1:40 pm

dogear6, the Automotive stores are always a good place to look for cheaper rags and stuff.

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19 Tracy F April 24, 2009 at 11:20 pm

I gave up paper towels about 2 years ago. It’s great not wasting all that paper. I like to say that I tree does not need to be cut down because I spilled milk. Anyway, I keep an eye open for a good price on those packages of wash cloths and I make rags out of old clothes too. Now, I do miss the paper towels when I need to set fried food, like bacon, on something to soak up oil. I allow myself the occasional paper bag from the store for this or I use junk mail. It’s funny to watch grease soaking into the junk mail.

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20 Gayle@TheGroceryCartChallenge April 26, 2009 at 7:48 pm

Great post! If anyone is squeamish about re-using a washcloth (bacteria and such) most restaurants keep a bucket of bleach water that they throw their washcloths in to kill germs. Might be an option at home too.

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21 Fabulously Broke April 28, 2009 at 4:30 pm

I am LOVING my new napkins (they’re actually kitchen towels) because I love that I don’t use paper napkins or tissue paper any longer!

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22 Ginger April 28, 2009 at 6:36 pm

Great article!

I really shouldn’t be saying this since one of my clients makes paper towels, but I hardly use them!

I always keep rags, washcloths and tea towels for use in the kitchen and around the house. Paper towels are strictly reserved for the dirtier or less savoury tasks.

If you’re worried about keeping your dishcloth clean, just get it damp and pop it in the microwave for about 5 minutes– this kills the bacteria and allows you to use it a little longer (with no harsh chemicals) before hitting the laundry pile!

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23 Sarah D February 17, 2011 at 3:34 pm

That’s an awesome tip. Thanks for that. I’ll try it.

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24 Ginger April 28, 2009 at 6:38 pm

Oh yeah, the steam action from the damp cloth will also loosen any cooked-on food you might have in your microwave making it much easier to clean!

Add some lemon juice for a natural fresh scent and more grease-fighting power! ;)

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25 carolyn April 29, 2009 at 12:35 pm

I have a parrot that is the center of our home. When I sit with him in the evening I need a parrot diaper. I find old blue jeans and cut the legs of and then open 1 of the leg seams. Perfect pads for shoulder, chair back or couch. I throw the dirty ones in the wash with hot water and bleach in addition to laundry detergent. He gets to socialize with the family, and I don’t have any parrot oops! on me or my furniture.

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26 Alison May 5, 2009 at 6:40 pm

Sorry to sound dense, but are you saying you use washcloths for napkins at the table? Any particular ones? We always have napkins (aka paper towels used as napkins) when we eat, I guess we are messy people. So that would be washing about 15 a day vs using one of those small pieces of paper towels. Is this really cheaper/more efficient? I just see my laundry pile getting even larger :)

Alison

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27 Kristen May 5, 2009 at 6:51 pm

Alison, I just use the cheap white washcloths from Walmart or Target. :) They’re not very large at all, so they don’t make a lot of laundry. Honestly, it takes a lot of washcloths to make the same amount of laundry that one pair of jeans makes, you know?

However, napkins are not all that expensive(unless you buy really nice ones), so if this is something you don’t want to mess with, I hardly think you are headed for financial doom. lol I mostly avoid napkins for ecological reasons. :)

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28 gulfcoastgal May 7, 2009 at 12:38 am

Try knitting one It is SOOOOOO easy and the knitted kind last for a long time in mercerized cotton worsted or the blends of 80% cotton 20% wool They are thick and thirsty ! Knitted ones also make a good gift and you can find bargains on yarn on ebay and other places There are many many patterns Here is one and it is only 2 stitches

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29 Laura July 27, 2009 at 7:20 pm

What I can not find out is what the total cost difference is between switching from paper towels to rags. Fine … I don’t throw the rags away I can reuse them but I do have to bleach them and wash them which requires water and electricity to dry. Any thoughts from anyone?

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30 Sarah October 27, 2009 at 5:09 am

I think old socks make the best dust rags; with the sock on your hand like a glove you’re able to quickly get into all the corners.

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31 Theora55 January 7, 2010 at 5:30 pm

I use dish towels and wash them frequently. They go in with my regular laundry so there’s no added cost. I use cloth napkins, exclusively. They last a really long time. I can fold a cloth napkin in about 10 seconds. yes it’s an added chore, but a pretty small chore. And, I have less trash to take out. Cloth napkins are so much nicer to use – get all cotton or linen, not polyester.

Newspaper does a great job of absorbing bacon grease. I have a wood stove and newspaper with bacon grease is a great firestarter.

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32 Michelle January 9, 2010 at 5:06 pm

I’m working on using fewer paper towels. I decided to put the roll in the hallway closet. That way, I get used to pick up a rag or towel, since they are closer than the closet. My little trick has worked well. I’ve only used one piece since I put them in the closet. I’m also using cloth napkins as well.

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33 Bankruptcy Ben June 9, 2010 at 11:07 pm

In my town you can get “bags-of-rags” from thrift or charity stores. Basically any clothes that are donated that are stained/in poor condition/ragged get thrown in the rags pile and turned into bags-of-rags. Perfect for cleaning up spills and they like.

In regard to cleaning up after dogs… that’s what news papers for !

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34 Sarah D February 17, 2011 at 3:18 pm

I use rags pretty often too, but I do have a weakness for paper towels in the kitchen. If they’re there, I use them. So maybe I should just hide them. Ha ha!!! Anyway, another one of my go-to cleaning products are those disinfecting wipes we often use for toilet wipe-downs. We have 3 boys, ages ranging from 9 down to 3—need I say more. I usually have the wipes sitting on top of each of our three toilets. But it adds up–the money and the garbage. Your post inspired me to get thinking about an alternative. I came up with something I’m trying it in our master bath for now. I have a bunch of baby washcloths that I don’t use anymore. They’re really thin and pretty small, so they fold up really compact in a small pile on top of my toilet tank, and don’t add much to the laundry. I use my homemade all purpose cleaning spray (2 T ammonia, 2 T laundry detergent, 1 quart water mixed in a spray bottle), spray it around the rim and seat, etc and then wipe down with the little baby washcloths, which then gets tossed into the laundry. So far so good. Thanks for the nudge.

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35 zamipoo April 8, 2011 at 7:19 pm

I have a roommate that has to wipe dishes dry with papertowel, dry his hands with paper towel wipe the counters with paper towel. Every time I catch him I tell him how wasteful it is and explain again what the tea towel is for as well as the washcloths in the sink. Then the very next morning I get up and there is a huge wad of like 10 paper towels in the trash can – NOT the green bin!

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36 Jo December 12, 2011 at 10:19 pm

I’ve been using cut up receiving blankets-the thin flannel ones as a replacement for paper towels.You can usually cut 5 or 6 good sized cloths from one baby blanket,and they work great and dry out fast.It’s best to use pinking shears to cut,that way they don’t fray in the wash.They work great.

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37 Lisa January 26, 2012 at 7:10 pm

O.K., I need to confess…I use to be 100% addicted to only using paper towels. As a child, I remember having my face washed with a disgusting dirty, smelly dish rag! I hated it!!! However, I have evolved :) I have cut up my old towels. In the morning, I fill a small bowl of hot water & dish soap. I dip my rag in there to wipe up & clean. I don’t allow it to get disgusting!! I, too, hang the towels to dry before they make it to the washer. I clean out the bowl & start over. Please be patient with others who are working through chilhood issues. :) You never know why people do the things they do. ( I have a 85 year old friend who uses the same paper towel to dry her hands all day. She hangs in on her dish rack to dry.)

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38 Broke in Ohio and Loving it.I've never felt so free! January 26, 2012 at 10:09 pm

Now that’s a good idea! also,you can buy nice tea towels at thrift stores for fifty cents or a dollar-they are usually new! they are nice to have around,you can use those for alot of things…napkins,cleanup,dish towels and they dry pretty fast.I’ve had more since I’ve been broke than when I was working.

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39 Lilia April 12, 2012 at 10:00 am

I didn’t read every comment so forgive me if I repeat – but I agree with the post about microfiber clothes. I bought a stack of 12 from TJ Maxx for maybe $7 and have used them for everything from kitchen rag to dust cloth. I must admit they are just as good, if not better than a swiffer on dust & are nice and soft on electronics that seem to be dust magnets. I also do not use paper towels (except on the rare occassion something really nasty is involved) and stick to kitchen towels and t-shirt rags. Our wash clothes are reserved for bathroom personal use. And I have switched to family cloth and LOVE it … but only for #1. #2′s still get the good ole TP. I do have my limits.

:) Great post!

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40 Lilia April 12, 2012 at 10:00 am

I didn’t read every comment so forgive me if I repeat – but I agree with the post about microfiber clothes. I bought a stack of 12 from TJ Maxx for maybe $7 and have used them for everything from kitchen rag to dust cloth. I must admit they are just as good, if not better than a swiffer on dust & are nice and soft on electronics that seem to be dust magnets. I also do not use paper towels (except on the rare occassion something really nasty is involved) and stick to kitchen towels and t-shirt rags. Our wash clothes are reserved for bathroom personal use. And I have switched to family cloth and LOVE it … but only for #1. #2′s still get the good ole TP. I do have my limits.

:) Great post!

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41 suzanne August 21, 2012 at 7:29 pm

Ok, I am the MOST frugal person I know. I use cloth EVERYWHERE. But I simply cannot use rags to clean up hair! YICK! I have to get it with a paper towel before I clean it! Why dont I ever hear about that?! I mean, people and animals shed like CRAZY!!

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