I kicked my paper towel addiction around 10 years ago.
Determined to get that disposable monkey off my back, I went cold turkey, emptying the house of every offending roll. After all, no one quits drinking with a stocked mini fridge on hand, do they? It was no big deal, really: I just slapped on a paper-towel-patch, endured some rehabilitative counseling in which I talked a lot about my unhealthy preoccupation with dual-ply super absorbency, and dabbled in hypnosis, where I explored childhood memories of my parents’ paper towel abuse.
Now, I’m a woman of the cloth. Through and through.
As with any addiction, my recovery has affected my social life—where my paper towel using guests feel threatened by my abstinence, and worse, usually expect to use when they come to my house for dinner parties.
When I offer visitors a cloth napkin, they often object, “I can’t use that!”
Don’t waste that on me!
I’ll ruin it!
Oh, That’s too much trouble.
You’ll have to wash it!
Two themes of resistance prevail. The first: cloth is too luxurious. Second: the energy expended on laundry outweighs the energy saved.
In the matter of luxury, scan a list of ways to be green and you’ll come across a lot of stuff you’re supposed to give up, like electricity and your car. Why object to this one little environmental gesture that asks you to spoil yourself? Go ahead, bury yourself in the luxury of cotton!
As for the laundry: I know what you’re thinking: without paper towel, I must grab for towels at an alarming rate, use them once, then throw them into a colossal mountain of dirty cloth. The washing machine tries to keep up. It chugs and smokes, gallons of water glug, wasted, down the drain as I toil alongside in the steam and heat, supplementing the machine’s efforts by grinding towels over a wash board, my hair frizzy and disheveled, my prairie skirt dragging on the dirty floor. I beat a few towels over the rocks out back for good measure, wipe a clean cloth across my sweaty brow and toss it into the mounting pile.
OK – maybe you weren’t quite thinking all that. I’m just trying to make the point that cloth is reusable. You don’t throw it in the laundry like you throw paper in the trash. More often than not, you can rinse out your cloth and use it again. You can absolutely reuse your napkins.
Whenever we do a load of laundry, I gather whatever napkins, dish towels or dish cloths we have lying around and throw them on top of the load. I don’t think I’ve ever adjusted the cycle from big to super to accommodate those extra towels.
Even if I did, that energy expenditure couldn’t compare to the energy used to:
Produce the plastic packaging for paper towel
Ship the packaging to the paper towel plant
Collect paper for recycling
Treat paper with heat and chemicals to break it down
Ship the recycled paper to the paper towel plant
Produce the paper towels
Package the paper towels
Ship the paper towels all across the country
It just doesn’t add up.
So how do you kick the habit?
Everyone has a different system. I actually think the best thing is to go cold turkey, wing it, and see what system evolves for you. If you agree, you've read far enough, but if you must know the nitty gritty of how we do it, here it is:
Damp dish cloths: for dishes, cleaning up spills, and wiping down counters. Rinse in hot water after each use, replace when necessary. We go through 1-2 per day.
Napkins: Buy color coded or store with unique napkin rings to identify whose is whose. We reuse napkins until we feel we need a clean one. That could be after one particularly messy meal, or it could be after several low impact meals. If someone in the family is sick, they do not reuse their napkin. We keep a nice set of napkins for guests.
Baby wash cloths: for little hands and faces. Rinse immediately and wash as necessary. I would never have used paper for this anyway.
Dishtowels: for drying dishes and other clean things, including our hands. We usually have several hanging around.
Damp rags: for gross stuff and floor spills. We rinse them out immediately and wash before reuse.
We try to be practical and use common sense when it comes to germs. No need to be neurotic.
How to deal with gross stuff in the kitchen like raw meat and milk:
These spills are rare. As a vegetarian, I don’t sling a lot of raw meat juice around my kitchen. I do cook meat for my family, but I’m careful to contain the mess to the sink. When necessary, however, we use a damp kitchen cloth to clean up after meat or milk spills, then we rinse the cloth thoroughly and wash it immediately (it’s a great excuse to throw a load of laundry in). If you let a cloth lie around with milk in it, it will smell so bad you’ll not only need a new cloth, you just might need a new kitchen.
Really gross stuff: pee, poop, vomit
For a while I kept emergency paper towel for these things. I just couldn’t make the leap. However, we’ve become so accustomed to cloth that it actually seems grosser to use paper now. Use a damp rag to scoop up the gross stuff then dump it in the toilet. Use a different damp rag with your preferred disinfectant to scrub the area. Of course it sounds disgusting, but not even paper can take the repulsion factor out of vomit. I'm pretty sure washing before reuse goes without mention here.
Don’t spend a ton of money:
Check out a thrift store for napkins or collect them over time. Have one nice set for guests.
For rags, toddler undershirts are perfect, but you can rip up old t-shirts or undershirts from the bigger people in your house as well. Old hand towels and wash cloths work well for heavy duty cleaning.
Think of paper towel use as a habit, an expensive and wasteful one at that. Like any habit, it’s hard to break at first. With time, I promise, you’ll forget you ever needed it.
So spoil yourself. Come on over to the cloth!
And there you have it, the long awaited, and unfortunately long winded, paper towel post.