Many families use paper towels on auto-pilot. For meals, cleaning, snacks, art spills, drying hands and so much more, paper towels are standard in most homes. However, you don't actually NEED paper towels. Not only do paper towels create a major drain on the earth's resources, they're expensive, and not very strong or useful. I get it. Kids are messy, and as a parent, paper towels can be a fast fix. Still, I'm a parent, and I haven't bought paper towels for over six years and my world hasn't exploded, so it can be done. Consider the far-reaching benefits of ditching paper towels:
- You'll save trees.
- You'll reduce pollution.
- You'll conserve water and energy.
- You'll save money.
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How Difficult is this Goal?
This goal’s challenge level depends on how paper towel dependent you are. Some people use paper towels for everything. If this is you, this challenge, no doubt, will be tough at first. Personally, giving up paper towels was a semi-easy challenge for my household, but not without hiccups. I was raised with cloth napkins so I had experience with cloth vs. disposables, but paper towels were present in my household growing up and once I lived on my own, I auto-pilot bought them, just like everyone else I knew. I used them for a lot of stuff, cleaning especially. By the time my son was born I had started seriously upping my green living game, and paper towel use started to seem like a huge problem. I cut back on paper towels or would buy recycled paper towels but I didn’t really give them up right away. This in mind, I can say that giving up paper towels isn’t the easiest green goal I ever achieved, but it wasn’t as traumatic as I thought it would be.
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How to Deal with Missing Paper Towels
At first, when I decided to quit using paper towels, I was slowly trying to wean off them, but that wasn’t working for me. If you have paper towels in your home, it’s simply too easy to grab one when you need one. I suggest you go cold turkey. One day I woke up and said to myself, “You know, what would happen if the store was out of paper towels today?” and that worked for me. I never bought another roll. However, not buying paper towels is one thing, missing them is another. You have to retrain your brain because if you’re always reaching for a paper towel, it’s kind of nerve wracking when they’re not around. I had many moments where something would spill or my son wanted a snack and my brain (and hand) would reach for a paper towel, only to realize, “Hey, I quit buying them.” At times like that, I’d remind myself of all my other options (see the next page) and finally it started to sink in. The most important thing is: don’t cave in and buy paper towels. There comes a day where you won’t even think about them, but that will never happen if you’re still keeping some paper towels on hand for ’emergencies.’
Photo: SKOY reusable towels
Supplies You Need to Accomplish this Goal
If you’re giving up paper towels, you’re going to need an arsenal of other solutions to take their place. If you have nothing to substitute for paper towels, and a mess happens, you’ll get frustrated and you’ll be running to the store for paper. Before you quit buying paper towels, make a list of EVERYTHING you use paper towels for and then stock up on alternative options such as:
- A huge stack of basic cleaning cloths for cleaning up spills and everyday cleaning. Get at least 20-40 cleaning towels and keep some in the kitchen, plus store them somewhere where you don’t have to fold them (folding is a pain) like in a reusable grocery bag or basket. SKOY cloths are a great reusable towel choice by the way.
- Cloth hand towels for the kitchen and bathroom.
- Some little dishes for snacks if you tend to use paper towels when you grab a handful of nuts or crackers.
- Cloth napkins for meals.
- Lids or plates to cover microwave foods with.
- Some lint-free linens for drying produce or a salad spinner.
- Some other lint-free linens for sopping up grease if you make food like bacon or eggrolls that need to be sopped.
- Some throw-away cloths, for extreme messes. Once in a great while with kids or pets, you’ll run into a mess that is just too icky to wash up, so you’ll want a few really old cloths on hand that you can toss vs. wash.
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How Much Does This Goal Cost?
Going paper towel free will save you tons of money in the long run. Disposable paper towels are very expensive, especially if you’re buying recycled and you use them for meals too. For example, if you go through about 6 rolls of recycled paper towels per month, you’re spending around $140 per year or $700 in five years. That’s a lot of cash considering you can stock up on enough cloth to last you five years for about $20 to $100. Even if you factor in washing your towels (cost of water, energy + eco-friendly soap) you’re still looking at huge savings, about $550 over five years, at minimum. Plus, most families of four I know use a lot more than 6 rolls of paper towels per month. If you don’t have much cloth around, the initial costs of buying cloth can add up if you’re not thrifty though. Here are some tips:
Go thrift: Thrift stores are an excellent place to find cleaning cloths on the cheap. Think outside the box and buy old tablecloths, shirts and other weird cloths then cut them up. Yard sales are another excellent place to buy old cloths.
Go free: I’ve been paper towel free for years and have paid almost nothing for all the cloth we use. I use old cloth diapers, kitchen towels and cloth napkins, plus old clothing for cleaning and buy most other cloths I need dirt cheap at thrift stores.
Go non-organic: I do suggest you buy organic cotton cloth napkins, but if you can’t afford it, don’t buy organic dishcloths and cleaning towels. You’re already making a huge impact by ditching paper towels.
Wash on cold: There’s very little evidence that standard washing machines wash towels hot enough to sanitize them, so don’t bother washing on hot. I usually toss all our cleaning towels and cloth napkins into the cold cycle and they’re clean and bonus, still in good shape. Hot water is a drag on fabric.
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But I Need Paper Towels Because of Germs!
The paper towel industry would LOVE for you to believe that paper towels cut back on germs better than cloth, but it’s not true. Start looking around and you’ll see that there’s no scientific evidence to support this. Sure don’t wipe up food spills with one cloth then use it to clean a window with, but common sense goes a long way here. Even the CDC notes that cloth is perfectly acceptable for cleaning and hand drying so long as everyone in your family is healthy. If you’re concerned because someone is sick, give them a personal hand towel until they get better. In most cases though, everyone in the family can share hand towels and you can also clean very well with cloth. To learn more, check out the following tips:
- How to clean correctly (and not spread germs) with cloth vs. paper towels
- Germ fears are overrated
- Antibacterials are also overrated
- Don’t spread super germs
Photo: PeopleTowels on-the-go
Common Concerns About Going Paper Towel-free
When I tell people I’m paper towel free, I hear the same questions and concerns over and over. Here I’ll address some of them.
You must not have kids, because real parents NEED paper towels: I DO have kids around. I have one son and have lived in households with up to three kids at a time due to roommates. My son is fine with cloth everything and never even mentions paper towels. I’ve experienced zero trouble when it comes to cleaning up kid messes with cloth. Having kids is no excuse for using disposable paper products. In fact it’s a great excuse not to use them, because by using cloth you’re building green habits in your kids.
Paper towels are the only way to get lint-free glass: If you’re dead set on lint-free windows and mirrors, microfiber cloths or recycled newspaper are both lint-free. Honestly though, when was the last time you had company and someone said, “Wow, I just love your lint-free windows!” Has that ever happened?
What about bacon? I don’t eat meat, but if you eat greasy foods like bacon, one, I suggest you cut back and two, a lint-free cheese cloth or tea cloth will soak up bacon (or other) grease and wash clean.
I hate wet lettuce: Me too. I use a simple salad spinner and sometimes a lint-free tea cloth to dry my produce.
Cloth products take up too much time!: Washing cloth towels isn’t that much more work than driving to the store for paper towels. At my house we use cloth everything and really only wash one full load of towels per week. A family of four may need to do two loads per week. To save time, you don’t have to fold everything. My son folds our cloth napkins, but I never fold our cleaning cloths. I just stuff them into a reusable cloth grocery bag that hangs near my eco-cleaning supplies. Honestly, cloth only takes up about an extra 15 minutes of my life per week and that’s a lot faster than driving to the store for paper.
Can I quit using paper towels when I’m out and about?: Use a hand dryer in public restrooms or try PeopleTowels, which are reusable, personal, carry-along hand towels.
Read our previous story: Why Your Family Should Quit Using Paper Towels Immediately
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