A few months ago I addressed my family's new ongoing eco-challenge: to stop using so many paper towels, if not to eliminate their use all together. I made color-coded napkins for each family member to use at each meal, a couple of each so that when one got dirty the next one could go into use and we could wash the whole batch whenever we need to. (I need to make my daughter about six--she runs through them at an alarming rate.) This system has been working really well, and we've probably cut our paper towel use in half. But then there's the other half...
Whenever there's a little spill on the counter, I grab for a paper towel. When I crack an egg and my hands get that inevitable bit of egg-goop on them, I grab a paper towel. When I want to "clean" the kitchen (in that surface-level cleaning mode that doesn't involve scrubby sponges and things) I grab a couple of paper towels, squirt my green cleaner on the counter, and mop it all up. Silly stuff like that.
So I wanted to stop.
The parameters for our family, as they are with any green endeavor in which I'm trying to involve husband and kids as well, are fairly specific and non-negotiable: the "system" has to be easy enough that my husband doesn't feel put upon or like he has to do a lot of extra work to make it happen. It has to not take up extra space. And the paper towels have to remain there; any attempts to cold turkey us will be detrimental to my marriage. So the system not only has to be easy, it has to be just as easy as using a paper towel would be.
So after seeing somewhere a picture of a sort of "sock" thing used to recycle and dispense those plastic grocery bags I never use any more, I wondered if such a system could be adopted to dispense cloth cleaning rags.
But first things first: I went to the thrift store and examined sheets until I found something that was 100% cotton. It was white and king sized and cost me $1.50. Not a bad deal, considering that a single roll of Bounty disposables costs about $2-$3. I cut it (okay, only part of it--I may make a summer nightgown out of some of it; it's a nice sheet!) up into 12 inch squares, and did a quick-and-dirty zigzag finish on them using my sewing machine's overlock foot. (This, by the way, is a really good way to use up all those random bobbin ends you don't really know what to do with...my kitchen rags have very pretty multicolored edges now.) I could probably have gotten away without edging them, but I don't want them to shred too much in the wash, and it takes literally under a minute to edge one when you don't care what it looks like. (Note: You'll want to have 100% cotton, and wash and dry it on HOT a few times to break down the fibers enough to make it really absorbent.)
Then I took a rectangle of ripstop nylon I had leftover from making sandwich wraps (you could use anything I suppose--I just had some) that was about ten inches wide by 14 inches long. I sewed up the sides, then sewed a channel for elastic in one end. I honestly did not measure the elastic piece I put in there, but it ended up leaving about a 1 inch diameter hole unstretched, and it could open all the way up enough to stick my hand in there. The other end I just left with the selvedge and sewed a loop to hang it from.
You can just stick a pile of rags into it, without folding or anything, and pull one out of the bottom whenever you need to; then you put a laundry bag somewhere else to drop the dirties in, and wash them all when you are running out. These "dispensers" could probably be made in a really cute or decor-conscious kind of way; mine is just basic and utilitarian, but this design could be futzed with a lot and made sort of attractive.
The verdict: after a week, I still find myself reaching for paper towels sometimes, but lots less often than before--my husband too, I see using the rags for things he would once have used paper for. I will edge a few more cloths--my test run only got maybe a dozen, and obviously that's not going to go far--and see if we can make this official.
If anyone else tries this, please let me know how it works for you!
--Jenn the Greenmom
who by the way has not forgotten about the bike commute thing--the bike ended up needing service and was out of my hands for over a week, and we have company in this week and I'm barely going to work at all anyhow...I was going to ride on Wednesday, but I got almost no sleep the night before and it looked like rain anyhow. So tune in in two weeks, and I'll have the scoop on how the commute is going!