Sunday, March 4, 2012

in defense of cloth: the paper towel post

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.


  1. Deb, you're an inspiration. We use cloth napkins about half the time and paper the other half... mostly because I don't have enough cloth napkins. And paper is totally an addiction, you're right about that. Going cold turkey scares me... but I may just have to follow your lead and give it a try.

  2. thanks jennifer. i hope it works out! you will see your paradigm shift. paper seems chafing and flimsy to me now! i seriously can't remember what i used it for (but it has been a long time - that didn't happen over night). good luck!

  3. For parents with babies/small children: Shocking as it may seem, one's quest to go "paperless" can even go as far as the diaper changing table. I made a big set of what we call "tushy cloths" by cutting up a bunch of old towels into 8 x 8 inch squares and zig-zag stitching around the edges so they don't totally unravel in the wash. We use these and a spray bottle filled with just water at diaper times. This works just as well as those packs of wipes. Two important things: first, make the cloths all the same if you can, and all different from your other linens. Go to the thrift store and buy a set of "distinctive" towels--ugly is okay here. Everyone in the house needs to know a tushy cloth when she/he sees it. You don't want someone to mistake it for a washcloth or dinner napkin! Second, have a dedicated laundry basket just for these. You don't want to mix them in with your regular laundry, like you do the kitchen towels and napkins. I DO have a pack of disposable baby wipes in our diaper bag, so I don't have to deal with bringing home yucky cloths if I have to change a diaper while we are out. I'm not THAT crazy!

    1. thanks for adding this! i didn't want to mention baby stuff because i didn't do it myself (it seems like one of those things you need to be able to say you've done before you can ask others to do it). When Olivia was close to 2, she got this terrible diaper rash. we couldn't use wipes because they stung too badly, so we used cloth until she was better. during that time i discovered cloth was no harder than wipes. i lamented my years of babywipe use, but it was too late. olivia started potty training soon after so we didn't bother. thanks for sharing your strategies!

  4. Hi Deb. This post really has me thinking. I don't know if I could go all the way paperless, but since reading your post I have changed a few ways. I am very seriously considering going cloth napkins, also. Thank you for the funny, informative, and green post. Oh yea, one thing I do which is a bit green is use those holey gym socks for cleaning the inside of the toilet. They were going to go in the garbage anyway, but before they go, they clean our toilet! It took some time to be able to put my hand in the toilet bowl, but thinking about that nasty toilet brush sitting around motivated me. And the gym socks do a better job at cleaning, also.

  5. hey franny, if you can clean a toilet with a gym sock, trust me, you can handle a cloth napkin at dinner time! :) i've never considered using old socks for anything before - maybe because, by the time my smelly footed children are done with them, they're beyond recovery for anything, (except maybe a toilet!). I will give more credence to the next set of holey socks. great idea!

  6. Another option that works, IMO, is cloth for kleenex. I mean...people were using hankies for years, right? Just find some old flannel receiving blankets or flannel shirts at the thrift store (or buy a yard at the fabric/craft store), slice and dice (you can use a kleenex for a guide) and hem around the edges (or use a pinking shear and then wash a few times and pull off the extra strings for a more rugged look) and then fold and stuff into one of those tissue box holders you can almost always find at a thrift store (a plastic baby wipe container works too, if you have any...though you'll either need to fold differently or cut to fit). The best part is, the more they are washed, the softer they get (and they are already softer than tissue to begin with). You can even put a few drops of eucalyptus and rosemary on a cotton ball and tuck it in there with them during cold season for a better nose-clearing experience...

    1. thanks thalassa! love this. all of this sewing going on--I need to figure out how to use a sewing maching!

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  8. It's so great to see other people who do this! My family went paperless when I was a teenager, and it seems so wrong to use paper towels at someone else's house ^_^
    My mom and I love fabric, so every once in a while we will have napkin-making days--we collect all of our interesting bits of fabric (usually pretty or strange quilting cottons) and spend the afternoon cutting them into squares, ironing and hemming, usually to some loud music and chatter.
    Our cleaning rags come from old dish- and bathtowels, cut into usable pieces.

    1. wow - so great to hear of someone who grew up paperless! i also love to hear how "chores" become bonding time - ironing, sewing, chatting and listening to music with your mom - awesome. i think sometimes when everything gets done for us, we miss out on opportunities to do things together. thanks!

  9. well, you have certainly thought out all the scenarios, so now i don't have to. :)