How To Kick The Paper Towel Habit: Three Less-Wasteful Substitutions

paper towel roll

Yes, paper towels are just a habit. I grew up in a home where the paper towel roll was installed above the counter, highly visible and often used, like any of our kitchen appliances. With one simple rip, I could quickly clean up my messes, dry a just-rinsed apple, substitute a coffee filter, or even jot down an urgent note when a pad of paper seemed too far away (Paper waster: Guilty as charged). But I have since begun to wage war on the wastefulness of one-time-use items. If I can kick the paper towel habit, then so can you.

In a recent article about the new Global Paper Vision, we learned that the paper industry can be a real drain on our earth’s resources. But what’s worse is that after all of the energy and resources that are put into making paper, with just one swipe across the kitchen counter a paper towel is then considered “used” enough to be thrown away!

Surprisingly (or perhaps not!), 27% of municipal solid waste is made up of paper (Source). How much of that could be avoided? Ideally, all of it! Most people already recycle paper products such as documents, paper bags and cardboard, so today we’re focusing solely on one culprit that nearly always ends up in the trash: paper towels.

Three Easy Substitutions for the Paper Towel

1. Rags – I truly believe this is the best solution for a sustainable home. At my house, we make our own rags simply by cutting up old T-shirts that are no longer suitable to be worn. This free method for creating cleaning materials is also a great way to repurpose old clothing, and rags like this can be used for the really dirty jobs without a second thought. Even if you do have to throw a used rag away (for example, one used to clean up spilled oil in the garage), chances are it’s already been utilized multiple times. Comparatively, it won’t make as much of an impact as a one-time-use paper towel.

2. Hand towels – For anyone who uses paper towels to dry their hands after washing, or to dry fruit after rinsing, hand towels are a much greener option.

3. Unpaper Towels – Many people might want to switch from paper towels to rags if it weren’t for their somewhat unsightly appearance. In this case, I offer the Unpaper Towel solution. These countertop-ready cloths are rolled up and linked together with snaps to form a roll very similar to that of paper towels. The big difference, though, is that they can be washed and reused for years to come, offering you the convenience and clean look of a paper towel without contributing so much waste.

All of these cleaning options can be easily disinfected and washed with your regular laundry. Plus, they’ll last for years! But what about the odd jobs for which paper towels come to the rescue? These scrappy little supplies do come in handy for some very unpredictable situations such as impromptu coffee filters, window washing or collecting grease from your Sunday morning bacon.

One thing that we can all agree on is that humans are resourceful. When facing a challenge, we find a solution. My advice, then, would be to find reusable coffee filters or choose a coffee maker that doesn’t need any filters (like a French press!) and you’ll eliminate a step, save money and reduce waste all at the same time. For nearly everything else, cloth options will do!

Like so many other environmental solutions, making the switch from paper towels is also about changing your mindset. We could all benefit from the realization that nothing is really that gross. We have become a disposable society in which we like to limit our contact with anything “dirty,” so it’s easy to forget that until about the 1960s even reusable cloth diapers were the norm!

Living conscientiously by limiting your reliance on disposable items, like paper towels, will enrich your life. You’ll notice more money in your wallet, less dependence on manufactured solutions and a greater pride in your ability to make do with what you have. Have you kicked the habit? We’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below!

Julia Marchand writes for eBay about sustainability, upcycling and living a greener lifestyle. Follow Julia on Google+.

  1. Becky Striepe

    Hurrah for ditching paper towels! The one thing we do still use paper towels for is cleaning the cat box. I know you can put rags in the wash, but I feel like that cat pee stench never fully comes out.

  2. Michael Lewis

    Fifteen years ago, someone, I can’t remember who, gave me a paper towel roll (brought it to a picnic or something). That paper towel roll is still under the kitchen sink, not only unused, but actually bigger, from the accreting paper napkins I bring home from the pub.

    No, no, no paper towels!

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