If you want to reduce household waste in 2023, take small steps first. Avoiding single-use plastics, choosing low-packaging products, and making eco-conscious consumption choices are great ways to live sustainably. Even if you’re a “bring-your-own-bag” champion and your kitchen cabinet is stocked with beeswax wraps, breaking up with paper towels can seem hard to do.
For over a year now, we’ve been using cotton kitchen towels for everything we used to use a paper towel for. Our family has become a paper towel-free household for over a year now.
We purchased a pack of 15 blue stripe cotton towels, a pack of 12 microfiber cloths, and 4 floor mop pads and haven’t looked back. I’ll preface this by saying that we’re fortunate enough to have a washer/dryer at home. We can also afford to run a dedicated household rags load. However, even if you’re working with a different setup, these tips can also help you reduce paper towel usage.
Read on to learn the answers to some of the most commonly asked questions I get from friends and family when they hear that we stopped using paper towels at home.
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Why did we stop using paper towels?
Two factors influenced our decision, but we built up to them – it wasn’t our first step towards a more sustainable household.
The price of paper towels started to creep upwards during supply chain shortages, and with a young child and three pets, we needed a more cost-effective way to clean up messes.
Around the same time, our backyard composting routine took off, and we were looking for compostable paper towels. Our aha moment was when we realized we could eliminate paper towels altogether if we tried to compost them.
Is it hard to switch from paper towels to reusable towels?
Not really, no. The biggest hurdle was remembering to use them instead of searching for a paper towel. We were into our new routine within a week, and it quickly became second nature.
The key to success here is to have enough towels to use in a week or to get you to your next load of dirty rags. We started with a pack of 20 cotton rags along with the other items listed above), and it was enough to take us a week at a time.
The fact that we have different rags for different spills/messes is key.
Every household is different and will have specific preferences or systems that work for them. Here’s how we do it in ours:
- Blue stripe towels are used for anything kitchen-related: wiping counters, taking care of spills, or drying produce for example.
- Meanwhile, microfiber towels are used for scrubbing or pet-related messes.
- Lastly, we use floor mop pads for food-related messes. We keep one floating around on the floor and reach for it with our foot if we need to soak up something. Our daughter calls them “floor bunnies.”
There are some uses we hadn’t originally thought of but we learned how to adapt quickly. For example, our run-in with bacon grease. Previously, we would reach for a paper towel to dab the excess grease off our freshly cooked bacon. But now that we don’t buy paper towels, we use a blue stripe towel and set it to soak after the fact.
If it’s a question of scrubbing grease from a pan, we filter our grease, compost the bits and bobs, and then keep the grease for cooking later.
How do you clean your towels/rags? Don’t they look gross?
We run these household items in a separate load, so our clothes and bath towels don’t take on whatever we’re washing.
Regular detergent is fine, but once every few months, I’ll use the laundry stripping method to remove some discoloration and any odours. In the summer, I line-dry them and rely on the sun to help bleach them.
When it comes to their overall appearance, they’re bound to look gross. I don’t expect them to look good. I’m happy, as long as the rags don’t smell bad and are still effective.
How long should reusable kitchen towels last?
These are heavy-duty cloths, and they get daily use in many situations. We’ve had our set for a year and would expect to get another two years out of them while maybe losing one or two along the way to holes or rips.
Where do you keep your reusable towels?
Because we’ve opted for towels vs. sheets made to roll up and fit on paper towel holders, we keep ours in a drawer in the kitchen.
Once they’ve been used, they’re placed in a separate laundry basket, so they don’t get washed with our other items. Depending on how often you’re doing laundry, mildew could be an issue if they’re left to sit while wet for too long, so adding bleach or vinegar to the towel load will help negate any mildew concerns.
How can I stop using paper towels and make this work for me?
If you don’t want to buy towels, use old clothes as rags. Items you’ve outgrown or can’t be mended are great places to start – you already have them!
If you can’t wash a dedicated load of rags and towels, you might consider pre-soaking them. Putting dirty towels in a bucket of soapy water until your next washing day is a way to pre-treat them and remove the bulk of what you’d want to keep off your clothing.
What if you don’t want to use cloth towels for some things? For example, bacon grease. That’s totally fine too. Sustainability is not a fixed destination, and reducing your household waste can happen in many small ways.
Living with roommates could make this tricky, but if everyone is on board and sticks to the system you create, you all win. And for those living in smaller spaces without dedicated laundry rooms, a basket under the kitchen sink might be the best place to keep your dirty towels. Ultimately, the system has to work for you!