Friday, May 7, 2010

Getting Rid of Paper Towels, Part II: the rags

Another step in reducing paper waste in the home of a suburban greenmom...

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 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!


knutty knitter said...

Cold turkey didn't work here either but 6 months in and I've not bought paper towels for any of it and hubby only bought one lot in protest and since then has forgotten all about them. (well I said if he wanted them - he could buy them and he never remembers :).

I use old flannels for most things at a rate of about one a day and simply rinse between uses. I use separate ones for the floors though and anything else too icky. Those go straight to the wash.

There's another lot for the bathroom too which are different colours so they don't get mixed up.

Good luck

viv in nz

concretenprimroses said...

I love the dispenser idea. Will definitely try it.
One of the things my mother got from her mother when she moved out/got married was Cleaning rags! Nice that they are being used more again.
I also like your color coded napkin idea. I've had everyday cloth napkins in the past with coded rings, but I like this better.

Tameson said...

We've been doing that for years - and rags are an awesome way to reuse old t-shirts, they don't fray and are as absorbent as paper towels. The only problem we have is what to drain greasy foods on - we don't get newspapers either and typing paper just doesn't do the job. It's probably good it's such a pain to drain greasy foods though otherwise we might eat more of them.

panamamama said...

What an awesome idea. I never used paper towels until kids, then only sometimes. I try not to at all but the kids will go through so many dishrags. I am going to make this today! Have some sheets I was going to give to charity I can use!

Nana Sadie said...

Good idea about edging the rags to stop the fraying. I can see trying out all the different embroidery stitches on my machine while using up the multi-colored threads!

Levinson Axelrod said...

Wonderful, simple, and very efficient idea. Thanks a lot for presenting this idea.

Sandy said...

I like your dispenser idea! I've been keeping mine in an antique wooden box, but counter space is at a premium in my kitchen, and hanging a dispenser sock would make much more sense! I bought a cottom table cloth for most of mine; they're a pretty checked pattern. Also got two separate patterns of already made napkins at the thrift store for about $2 per set; you can't beat it!

Rosa said...

This is awesome! What a great idea!

If you're still looking for a way to slow down the use of paper towels, I've found that just moving them to a high shelf (inaccessible to kids, accessible to me with effort, totally easy for my man) works pretty well. They're not gone, just out of sight a little.

Shona~ LALA dex press said...

I was going to write a post with elements of your post at one point. We actually did the cold turkey switch in November (cloth napkins have been in use for many years). The thing is we did not do it prior because we had a very old cat who had lost a lot of control over bodily functions. I bought a pack of jersey knit shop rags because the deal was they had to look different from our old sock rags so that we knew they would not clean the toilet one day + the kitchen counter another (despite being washed in hydrogen peroxide). It's just me, my boyfriend + our dog (who has no objections over anything) but every few months I chat with my boyfriend about changes that have been made to the household routine: are there any new products/ foods I'm buying that he does not like? is the no paper towel system working? He's actually the one who proposed the "if it's yellow..." adoption (something I grew up doing in So. Cal).

Our very good friends were over + the husband spilled something + went looking for a paper towel. When I told him we don't use them, use a rag located (pointing to rag pile) he called to his wife "now they've stopped using paper towels!"

Condo Blues said...

I switched to cloth rags from paper towels the day I grabbed a clean but grubby kitchen towel from the drawer and lamented over the fact that all I had were worn stained towels. I purged right then and there and realized I did have nicer kitchen towels they were hiding in the bottom of the drawer under the worn ones I grabbed first!

I cut the pile of grubby towels into 4ths so I wouldn't put them back in the drawer by mistake and stashed them under the sinks to use in place of paper towels. I did the same thing when I purged my bath towels and washcloths. I keep mine under the sinks in cardboard 6 pack bottle holders with the center bottle holder bits cut out.

~~Melissa said...

I'm down to using paper towels only for very greasy things and pet messes. Fortunately, I live somewhere where pet waste/cooked food scraps/kleenex (and other stuff I don't want in my home compost) is collected for 'green composting'.

It's definitely good to keep paper towels out of reach, use old clothes (cut-up) as rags, and REUSE paper towels. Often they have a lot of absorbency leftover after one gross pickup. I keep them in the 'gross tub' for later use until they're really used up.

We're down to less than a roll a year.

Sara said...

We haven't used paper towels in almost two years, but I hadn't put together any kind of "user friendly" system like you describe here, and I LOVE the idea of the dispenser for rags. Right now folks have to reach down into a paper bag I keep under my kitchen sink to pull out a rag (all my rags are old socks or cloth diapers).

Daisy said...

Great idea! I don't sew, but my mother and daughter both do. I could convince one of them to make this for our kitchen. Maybe.

A Mom Writing said...

Oh this is a great idea. I've been trying to plan our elimination of paper towels for months. This set up looks promising.

rachel said...

I also use my old burp cloths and baby washcloths. I didn't know what to do with them and was going to give them to the thrift store... until I decided they would be perfect for helping reduce my paper towel dependancy.

Tekeydie said...

That’s genies! My family doesn’t care to be green at all, but I think I could sneak this in, they might even use it. ^-^


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