Friday, February 19, 2010

Taking the plunge...and getting rid of paper towels.

A vow to action by a trepidatious suburban Greenmom...

Okay, it's official, and I'm trying it. After taking the past year to methodically and deliberately excise most processed, artificially flavored, and convenience foods from my kitchen (with the exception of pasta and white flour; I can only do so much!), it's time to take the next step.

Paper towels. We use too many of them. It's nuts. We use them as napkins, we use them to mop up the counter, we use them to wipe up spilled milk, we use them to blow our noses, we use them way too much. To our credit, we have cut down to the "select-a-size" ones, and we each only use half of one of those as a dinner napkin, but even that's just dopey beyond belief. You'd totally laugh if you saw our dinner table with these little 5x5 pieces of paper towel.

So today, here, publicly, we are taking step one: table napkins. Napkins are weird things--unless you're a really messy eater, often you can get through an entire meal without touching it, or maybe touching it once or twice...and yet we tend to sort of put them out automatically, without thinking. (For the record, I'm a fairly messy eater.)

When I first came to Chicago I did one of those volunteer service year things--lived in an old convent building with 14 other recent college or grad school graduates, each of us with a job in an underserved neighborhood in the city somewhere, for room and board and something like $100/month. (Even in 1992 that $100 didn't go very far.) We cooked and cleaned on a rotating schedule (some of us who were better cooks got out of some of the cleaning duties...) and ate in this giant dining room with a huge table. And we used cloth napkins every night. The system was actually pretty cool--each of us as sort of a "housewarming" gift got our own distinct and somewhat funky napkin ring. (Mine was a pewter pig. Very cute. I still have it.) We had a napkin in that napkin ring, and that was our napkin for the week or until it got too grimy and we wanted a new one. On taco night most of the napkins got replaced, needless to say...We put dirty ones into the laundry basket and got a new one as needed, but often you could get through a week on one napkin without even trying, and you knew no one's germs but yours were on your napkin. And again, this was in 1992, long before we were paying attention to cutting back on garbage--I think it was primarily a cost saving thing.

So I'm trying a variation on this with my family. Not the napkin rings per se, but individual napkins in specific prints, stolen from my fabric stash. I cut about 20" squares of four different fabrics--butterflies for my daughter, moons and stars for my son, funky sunflower batik for me, and the aztec print for my husband--and hemmed the edges. I'll make four of each (so far I've only done two apiece, but it doesn't take too long once I get going), and we can each use our napkin until such time as it's goopy and needs replacing. We have a few miscellaneous other cloth napkins around, for guests as needed (we seldom have guests anyway), and hopefully this can cut down on the biggest use of the paper things.

The second big area we'll need to deal with: cleaning rags. I am thinking I can cut up and edge-finish some of our old beat up towels for bigger jobs, and/or some of my husband's sub-shredded t-shirts for small ones. Once we find a storage space for these, I figure we can start using them for basic mop-ups, and create a hanging laundry bag in the kitchen somewhere so they can be tossed in there as easily as we currently toss paper towels into the garbage, and periodically washed. If we had to work hard to dispose of the dirty ones, I know no one else in the family will go along with this...

The switch to "real" food took us probably 4 or 5 months to make official and automatic, and the months after that were when it settled in to the point where we don't even really notice that we're doing it. (Except when the kids see the brightly colored "Go-Gurt" packages on our rare trips to the regular supermarket, and of course they beg for them...) I figure it will take us at least as long to make this adjustment...but here and now, I'm starting it. Not all at once, and I won't beat myself or my husband up if it doesn't go easily right off the bat. But we'll do it.

Y'all who've already taken this plunge--does this approach sound sensible? Any other ideas or thoughts, pitfalls, whatever, that might drop added challenges our way?

--Jenn the Greenmom


Sandy said...

I like your thinking. I may just join you. My husband will be a tough sell, though; he has paper towels stashed all over the house. Maybe I'll start in the kitchen/dining area and see if it catches on.

Kristin Craig Lai said...

I've been thinking about doing this too but I can't see myself using rags for cat messes. I think we'll have to keep some around for the various nasties a couple of cats can leave around. Also, if you did cloth diapering with prefolds and you still have them around they are great household cloths for sopping up messes.

2 Green Acres said...

We just recently gave up paper towels (mostly). We have just been using cloth napkins we already had, but I like the idea of different patterns for different family members.

We still use them occasionally - like Kristin said, for cat messes, and for things like wiping bacon grease out of a pan. But we have probably reduced our usage by about 80%. I have been surprised at how easy it has been.

Jenn the Greenmom said...

Sandy and Kristin, your thinking sounds a lot like mine! I've given up on trying to convert my husband (I did a post about that very topic last month, at ), but making the switch in areas I CAN control is actually a sort of big step. And if I can get everyone trained in the kitchen, hopefully the default can shift in other areas of the house...maybe.

And we gave all our decent prefolds to charity a couple of years ago but kept a few for EXACTLY stuff like pet puke and so forth. (Like the easy identification of personal print napkins, everyone in the household knows that The Cloth Diapers Clean Only Gross Messes, and thus don't conflate them with other cleaning items.) They are invaluable. If I'd known we'd go in the green direction two years later, I never would have let the things go...

Kellie said...

Jen, I think you'll find it a lot easier than you expect. We haven't bought napkins or paper towels in years now and don't miss them a bit!

We have a set of rags that are used solely for cleaning the bathrooms and other yucky jobs, a bunch of wash cloths that the kids use as napkins (and I use them in the kitchen for messes), and cloth napkins for us for meals.

We tried the slow switch, but found ourselves saying "Well a paper towel is really what I need for this mess." When we just bit the bullet and got rid of them it was a lot easier (and necessary) to just make the wash cloths work. Now I can't imagine needing a paper towel for anything really.

Best of luck!

Ivy said...

I haven't tried this yet, but it's on my list. Like a few others have said, I will be keeping a few paper towels on hand for things like cat puke. Yuck. Of course, this gives me an excuse to sew cute napkins and look for funky cute napkin rings, right? I've already started using handkerchiefs instead of tissues, as well.

(Oddly, I remember using napkins for quite some time as a kid. I guess my mom got tired of washing them? I don't remember but I loved having my own bunny napkin ring!)

JessTrev said...

Your mileage may vary, but I wouldn't spend time sewing the edges of your rags (unless it will make you happy when you look at them! in which case, by all means do it). Our rags are old jersey sheets that had holes in them and old infant towels that we'd gotten 2ndhand anyways. We ripped them into squares. And I don't separate out what I use for bathroom cleaning or yucky jobs since I wash them on hot + our washer has a sanitize feature. I do love the idea of different prints for different kids! We went cold turkey for several years but now have a roll of paper towels on hand for bacon grease in particular. :)

Jenn the Greenmom said...

Jess--I figured I might need to edge the towel rags so they won't unravel, but yeah, I guess the t-shirt remnants will hold their edges without extra sewing...we'll see! (Many of my grand plans completely evaporate when I realize how much work is way or the other, I want to make this work!)

Country Girl in the City said...

I agree with Kelli. I think you'll find it easier than you expect.

Every time I pass the empty paper towel holder, I tell myself I need to remember to pick a roll up. I've been doing that for weeks now. The only time I really miss them is when I'm cleaning the popcorn popper. Giving them up wasn't even a conscious decision for me; I ran out one day and kept forgetting them when I went to the shops.

I made the switch to cloth napkins a number of years ago and never looked back. Not only does it save money and reduce my environmental impact, but I think they give any meal a special feel.

Kai said...

We gave up paper towels and wound up making a cute dispenser for our unpaper towels -- it sits where our paper towel roll USED to be. The lightweight cloth towels go straight from the dryer to the dispenser without folding. Yippee! :) And obviously, not using paper towels saves $ too!

You can take a peek at our system at

Shawna Coronado said...

Great post!
Now if someone could come up with some non-paper product to replace toilet paper.
Newspaper does the trick for wiping up bacon grease.
Good Luck Ladies!

Kai said...


LOL! Someone HAS come up with a non-paper toilet paper replacement. I think it is very kindly called "family cloth." Though others absolutely love it, I'm pretty sure we won't be using family cloth at our house. ;)

Eco Yogini said...

yay!! it has been months since we have bought paper towel. the best way to stop using was to simply not have any around for 'emergencies'.

i love your idea for a hanging cloth laundry bag- perfect :)

The Nurturing Pirate said...

We keep a rag bag in the garage (which is just off the kitchen, so it's convenient). These rags are for cleaning or dog pee (which happens alot - sigh...) But after one use, they're done. My dish towels are for drying hands or wiping counters. We also do cloth napkins, which have been a breeze to implement. We tend to grab the nearest one, which may or may not have been used by another family member. But I gave up on the germ thing a while ago. ;-) All of these are tossed in a miniature clothes basket in the garage, ready for the next load that goes into the washer.

My newest venture: cloth hankies! It's actually one of my changes for the One Small Step challenge.

As for converting family members, I used my buying power: if I don't buy it, they can't use it! :-) Thus, we have been paper towel and paper napkin free for months.

Daisy said...

We made the switch to cloth napkins about 18 months ago; I was surprised at how easy it was. Cleaning rags are a little tougher. Start with a set of cheap washcloths for wiping up spills; then expand to rags for deeper cleaning. I still keep paper towels around; we just don't use them as often.

Anonymous said...

We recently made the switch to cloth napkins, finally. We'd been intending to do so for about a year. We have a roll of paper towels but we rarely use it - one roll lasts us about a year or more. Mostly I've just knitted or bought cheap dishcloths that we keep a drawer full. Spill on the floor? Pull out a dishcloth. Then a bucket with some baking soda for deodorizer sits under the sink to toss them in when finished so that a dishcloth used on the floor doesn't get used for dishes.

suzannah @ so much shouting/laughter said...

once you do it, you'll wonder why you didn't do it sooner! cloth wipes faces, hands, and counters so much better than paper. my toddler loves cloth napkins.

i have a drawer in the kitchen for washcloths, bibs, and chamois, and another one for dish towels. i have a rag bag in the bathroom (that's where old towels and tee shirts go to die--no sewing required), and that is what i use to dust or do bathrooms. and cloth napkins are in the dining room. everything goes in a bin on the dryer when they're dirty. i usually just throw them in with the regular laundry.

hekatesgal said...

Haven't used paper towels or napkins in at least 20 years. As to cat yak - its no different than baby poop really. Its body fluids, treat accordingly. We keep the cloth napkins in a drawer with the table cloths. We got the napkins for FREE because people get them and don't use them. For pete's sake, go on Freecycle or ask your mom or something first.
BTW: 2 kids, 4 cats, 1 parakeet and 6 chickens. And no paper. :) You can do it, totally easy. I just wash the napkins and rags in with the towels using my homemade laundry soap. Its all good.

Robbie said...

Hi Jenn,
I'll save you a step on finding a laundry bag, etc.: I'm sure you have an old unusued tote bag around!
Also, we just toss our dirty rags into the washing machine as soon as they are used. Even my 2 year old does it.
Hope that helps!

Kate said...

We gave up paper towels as one of the first major changes in our lives. Napkins were easy. However, I might be a little on the "Type A" side and have designated rags for every room that needed paper towels. Old plain t-shirts for the kitchen to wipe down the counters and clean the sink, textured rags for the bathrooms. I just simply don't like the idea that we might wipe down the counter with a rag that was used to clean the toilet - despite it's washing in between.
We do keep a roll of paper towels on hand for things like patting raw chicken dry. Again, I just can't stomach the idea of reusing a rag that has touched raw chicken. I think it's just the residual fear from scare tactics but still.....

PureMothers said...

Sensible? Heck ya! We use rags for all cleaning and save them up in a pail (sort of like cloth diapers) and then wash them once or twice each week with some borax. And, we sue cloth napkins at every meal. I had some, and my mother-in-law gave us her excess and mis-matched stash. I throw them in with the regular laundry and hang dry. It's SO EASy and you save trees & $$ on unnecessary disposable paper towels. Once you start doing it, you will be on board. Good for you!

Cheri said...

I switched to cloth napkins a few months ago and love it. It took some adjustment. I found flannel fabrid worked and I sewed small napkins, like you did. Mine are about 7 x 7. Those fancy cloth napkins are always so big! I have clean ones in a basket on the dinner table and we keep ones out we are using until they need washing.
Then for cleaning, I got a huge bulk package of these wonderful clothes (they are made for cleaning cars), I think they are called microfiber? They have a bit of sticky feeling to them. They are yellow so they stand out. A friend and I split a pack that we bought at a wherehouse store: Costco. They are wonderful for dusting! I also use these for cleaning with my Seventh Generation cleaners and wash when needed. I use rags (old t-shirts and towels) for real messy stuff. The yellow cloths work great wash after wash!
Finally, I use a Skoy cloth in the kitchen to wipe up spills. If I get the cloth wet and ring it first, it is amazing for soaking up large amounts of spilled milk. I bought a 4 pack, but so far my first one is lasting for months.
I have about 1/2 roll of Seventh Generation paper towels which I now rarely use!!!!
I love thinking about the trees we have been saving.
You are doing a great job switching, keep it up!!!


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