Abandoning the Paper Towel

Messy girl

We have little kids. Kids are messy. Our daughter spills milk or juice on almost a nightly basis. Our son, who’s a bit older, doesn’t make messes as often, but when he does, they tend to be even more disastrous, such as a full jar of salsa knocked off the counter and shattered all over the floor.

For years, our solution to this problem has been a big roll of paper towels. It’s simply what we’re familiar with and, like many simple and familiar things in life, it was almost an automatic thing to have on hand. We simply had paper towels in the kitchen.

A few weeks ago, though, after we bought another batch of them at Sam’s Club, I began to really question that purchase. Sure, we had a lot of messes, but did we really need to be dropping $5 or more a month on paper that we wind up throwing into the landfill? Probably not.

One of my usual thought processes when looking for a more cost-efficient way of doing things is to ask myself, “What would my great grandmother do?” She lived through the Depression and always had tons of great ideas for doing little things like this. Her solution would have been obvious – she would have just handed me a cloth towel and given me a look that said, “Come on, Trent, you’re smarter than that!”

Cloth. It’s that simple. Sure, it’s easy to see why people would use paper towels – they don’t require rewashing after each use – but once you have a steady batch of rags to recycle, you never run out. Plus, you can just toss them into pretty much any load of laundry you do – they don’t take up much additional room – and refill your towels in a jiffy.

So, while we finish our (hopefully) last batch of paper towels, we’re giving cloth towels a thorough test run, evaluating the financial costs and time invested as we go through them. Here’s what we’ve learned.

You Gotta Have a Process

The first – and most obvious – question is where will we keep the rags/towels? We don’t have an enormous kitchen and the drawer space is fairly limited. Thankfully, I’ve been slowly paring down our kitchen equipment (since quite a lot of these tools are redundant) and we now have enough space to empty out a drawer that we can devote exclusively to kitchen rags/towels.

So, really, the first step is to have less stuff in your kitchen. If you have a peach de-fuzzer, perhaps it’s time to take it out to the ol’ yard sale and find room for something else.

Now that we have room for the towels, the process is easy. We just grab a towel, attack the mess… and then what? This is supposedly where the convenience factor of paper towels comes into place, since you just toss those into the trash. Our solution is actually pretty similar – we just toss them down the stairs into the basement! Then, the next time we go down there, we snag them and take them to the laundry room with us and toss them straight into the washer. Then, the next time someone does a load of laundry, the towel gets cleaned and eventually returned to the drawer. Usually, I don’t even bother to fold them much – just a quick once-over.

If you consider the fact that paper towels mean you’re taking out the trash more often, I’m not really convinced that cloth towels add much time to your routine. In fact, if you’re like some people that I’m friends with and have a washing machine near your kitchen, you might just be able to toss the cloths straight into the washer after using them, letting them sit until the next load.

Accumulating the Cloths

So, where do you acquire these cloths from? I’ve found several good sources for accumulating them.

The easiest method is to simply buy a big box of them. Sam’s Club, for example, sells a big box of mixed-size cloths for $13, which should be more than adequate for this kind of purpose. Although it’s an investment, it gets you started right.

From there, you can get into cheaper options by looking at bulk cloth (like flannel). It’s easy to cut these into large squares and – if you’re handy with a sewing machine – you can sew up the edges and they’ll last for a long time. At a fabric shop, you can get flannel for $1 per square yard – so if you cut them into six inch squares, there’s thirty six cloths.

You can also hit yard sales for this purpose. Quite often, if someone has re-done their decor, they’ll look to sell off old cloths – washcloths and the like. These can be perfect for a kitchen grab-bag of rags to wipe things up with and can be had for pennies.

Another option – old t-shirts. We often use these for garage rags – tasks like wiping off cars after washing them, washing our hands outside after working in the garden, and so on. However, they work quite well for kitchen cloths. As with bulk cloth, these will last longer if you cut them into big squares or rectangles and sew up the edges.

With cloth like this, staining isn’t really a worry. The big concern (for me) is absorbency. Flannel, terry cloth, and such cloths can absorb a lot of moisture, so they’re the type we prefer.

Does This Actually Save Money?

Previously, we would go through a jumbo pack of paper towels roughly every two months. Each jumbo pack costs about $17 – there are cheaper options for the same amount of paper towels, but we would go through them much faster because the towels were of much lower quality and required many more to clean up a mess.

With an all-cloth option, that cost effectively disappears once the cloth towels are in circulation. There’s no extra laundry – sure, there may be three or four of them already in the machine when I go to run a load of laundry, but it requires no change in the amount of homemade detergent I add to the mix.

The real kicker: does it add more time? In the kitchen itself, a good cloth rag actually cleans up a mess a bit faster than a few paper towels do. If it’s really wet, I have to wring the cloth out first before tossing it down the stairs. Then there’s perhaps an extra second or two spent picking up the cloths later and tossing them in the washer. Later, I do have to stop and put the clean cloths back in the kitchen rag drawer – maybe two or three seconds. Over the course of a month, it might add up to five extra minutes.

So, over the course of a year, I spend an hour dealing with the cloth rags instead of the paper towels – and I save $102 in the process and don’t toss six jumbo packs worth of paper towels in a landfill for my grandchildren to deal with.

Sounds like a deal to me.

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  1. Molly says:

    We also use old socks. They absorb more than some of the old tshirts.

    We also have a pile of “really gross” rags. Meaning, if we have to clean up cat vomit or glass, we don’t feel bad if they get thrown out afterwards. Cat vomit because it’s about the grossest thing we have to clean up, glass because I don’t want that in the laundry.

  2. Patty says:

    Glad you joined the papertowelless home gang! I’ll admit I do keep a couple of rolls strategically around the house – as a just in case for really gooey messes. The roll in the laundry has been there a year and is only half used.

    I put a stack of my cloths in the kitchen, the garage, and in the laundry.

    Not only do you get to save the $$’s, your green footprint improves, and the landfill will be just fine without your contribution.

    PS she is just sooooo cute! Enjoy!

  3. Laura In Atlanta says:

    Please tell me you at least RINSE the rags prior to tossing them down into the basement! Cleaning up spilled salsa or milk is a MESS. If you just toss that rag down in the basement without rinsing it off . . . YUCK! Plus, the bugs you will get!

    I’m not 100% against papertowels, Im just more choosy where I use them. Most of the time, i use a kitchen tea towel (I have about 20) and use the papertowels sparingly.

    Though, I agree with #1/Molly – cat vomit is ICKY and I use papertowels for that too!

  4. Green Bean says:

    Fantastic post. We stopped using paper towels a couple years ago and went through a similar process – decluttering the kitchen to find space, hitting some yard sales for cloths, and so on. It saves money, you feel better about not tossing things in the landfill and, as you point out, cloths are more effective at cleaning up. They also feel better on messy faces.

  5. mari says:

    Sponges are also good, reusable and washable. We keep a couple sizes under and near the sink. They are easily rinsed out too, easier than towels I would think.

  6. Gabriel says:

    Even more important is the benefit for the environment.

    Adorable little girl!

  7. Thanks for writing this article. It has been something of a stumbling block for me & my gf for a while now. I tried convincing her to let go of the paper towels, and she tried for a while but it didn’t last. Maybe we can revisit the idea again. I’ll be sending this article her way. Thanks Trent!

  8. Eden Jaeger says:

    I’ve been thinking about making this change for a while. I like the compromise solution of keeping a couple rolls of paper towels around for the really bad stuff, but not using them for daily things in the kitchen like I do now. Sometimes I get lazy and just use a paper towel to dry my hands instead of walking over to the kitchen towel on the refrigerator- dumb!

  9. Candi says:

    You think cat vomit is icky, try great dane vomit. No way I am just using and reusing a kitchen rag for that ! I do try to limit what I use paper towles for, alas my husband thinks they unlimited and free, lol.

  10. keri says:

    I made this change a long time ago, although by BIL just moved in with us and he buys paper towels. Now that they’re in the house, I do get tempted to use them.

    Easiest trick for storing the dirty cloths before wash day? I keep a plastic bin under my sink, below my garbage disposal and toss them in there. I let them pile up over the week and then toss them all in the laundry at once with a pre-rinse cycle and some borax. They come out very clean everytime.

  11. Angie says:

    I wouldn’t buy towels to use for this purpose. What we’ve found really useful are old bath towels. They work fairly awesome. Or, old diaper cloths. Diaper rags make great dustcloths also.

  12. Jodi says:

    BUY new rags?!? This seems kind of silly. Old t-shirts, the back parts of underwear cut off the elastic, worn-out sock with the feet cut out, handkerchiefs too thin to use, cloth napkins too stained to use, old cloth diapers…we have huge supplies of rags at all times.

    If you have no worn-out clothes, thrift stores often have lots of ugly old towels that can be cut up and used as rags. Diaper services sometimes unload old diapers that are too threadbare to rent.

    Sponges are a pretty bad idea. They just grow incredibly diverse colonies of bacteria–and they’re just another thing to buy.

    We use about one roll of paper towels a year. Broken glass and cat feces are best cleaned up with something disposable.

  13. Heather says:

    Glad you’re doing this, Trent. We try the same thing but more for the eco-reasons, financial is a benefit as well. We also use cloth napkins instead of paper towels, we don’t have kids so we can use the same one a few times before throwing it in the wash.

    One thing I haven’t found a good replacement for paper towels though – drying raw meat.. any suggestions?

  14. Elizabeth says:

    We do this also. I bought an inexpensive pack of multicolored washcloths from Walmart that are stored in a kitchen drawer, and we use these on the kids. I also have plain white ones, and I use those for cleaning counters, floors, etc. For big messes, we use old towels. I do have paper towels on hand, but they are used rarely — generally for glass cleanups. Terry is so much more absorbent than paper, you’ll never look back!

  15. justin says:

    ShamWow

  16. Lisa says:

    Both of my sons had reflux as babies, so we had tons and tons of burp cloths and baby sized washcloths. That’s what we’re using nowadays.

  17. SwingCheese says:

    I’m with Jody – we use old clothes that are unwearable as rags. Old sheets also provide a wealth of rags. We wash our rags, with the exception of the cat vomit (or feces) ones. Those go straight into the trash. But we have a never ending supply of clothes to wipe up the counter, clean the sink, etc. Plus I use vinegar to clean most things, so nothing caustic goes into the laundry.

    The sham wow is great for cleaning up spills! I love mine.

    Re: I throw sponges in the dishwasher every so often. When they are too dirty for the kitchen, I move them into the bathroom. Also, they can be microwaved in a pinch as a sanitizing method. On the whole, though, I prefer my rags.

  18. Another Dave says:

    My wife did this to me this summer and I didn’t even notice. It was actually such a seemless transition it was about 2 months before I realzied we didn’t have any paper towels in the house. (only becuase I was trying to clean windows which I use paper towels for)

    She bought the same color packs of wash cloths during the back to college sales. One color for kitchen stuff, the other for bathroom stuff. And put a small basket for clean ones under each sink. And a “dirty” basket near dirty laundry so the wet/used cloths don’t get the rest of the laundry funky. They get washed routinely with regular laundry.
    Even our 2 y.o. daughter knows where they are and can get us one or clean up her own messes, depending on the severity. I don’t think we’ve bought paper towels in months and the incremental laundry is un-noticed.

  19. Hannah says:

    I only buy paper towels to clean windows and mirrors with, because they don’t leave dust or streaks. I would love to hear suggestions for a fabric that works well for this.

    I’m all for eliminating waste, but saying that paper towels are going to be in landfills when our grandchildren are around is a little silly. They are biodegradable, at least.

  20. Ms. Clear says:

    Cat barf and litter box “incidents” are two things that keep me from going sans paper towels. I do make a concerted effort to limit my usage however. We probably go through a single roll per month. Of course, kids are on our horizon, so I can see that usage growing. Hmmmm….

  21. Emily C says:

    My only issue is I love having paper towels around for grease blotting purposes when cooking. I can’t use real towels, because the oil doesn’t wash out and then can cause your cloth to become flammable.

    But if I have paper towels around, I turn to them for everything. Hmm.

    Oh, and I have a nail in the wall next to my refrigerator for damp rags, every night I take the dry ones and toss them in the laundry to keep the smells down.

  22. Joyful Abode says:

    Emily, I also use paper towels for grease-blotting and am not sure what else could be used in place of that… the flammable issue is pretty scary.

    BUT I have been meaning to switch from using paper towels for daily spills/wipes… it just hasn’t happened yet, probably because we don’t have very many “rags”… only nice dish towels, which I’m reluctant to use for “Gross” stuff.

    So maybe I need to just buy some rags to start the transition.

    We made the switch from paper napkins to cloth a while ago and haven’t looked back once. :)

  23. Try cleaning glass with newspaper…everyone has that lying around I think. From my experience, it actually works better than paper towels.

  24. Roberta says:

    Old phone book paper is great for cleaning windows. Also, when my dog has an accident I clean it up with toilet paper and flush it. Don’t have a cat so I don’t know how well that would work with cat vomit which is yuck.

  25. Kathryn says:

    I have made most of the switch. We still keep some paper towels around, but i try to minimize their use. I also pick up cloth napkins from garage sales & thrift stores when i see them.

    I use cut up flour sack towels for most of my “rags” tho i have others. When i first began trying this i cut up an old sheet. I think it was partially synthetic & i can tell you, that didn’t work well at all. Cotton fiber is the best.

  26. Carmen says:

    @ Hannah – newspaper works well for cleaning windows and mirrors. Window cleaners never use paper towel, they use squidgee wipers and some follow with towel/cloth.

    I’m going to do this. We have old towels that we use for some things, but I still use kitchen roll daily. It is my main product for wiping down work surfaces and cleaning bathrooms, along with a diluted eco friendly cleaning solution. But I think I should make the switch so thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  27. Anna says:

    #21 Emily and #22 Joyful Abode:
    Try supermarket brown paper bags for blotting grease. (When asked “paper or plastic” choose paper often enough to keep a little supply on hand.)

  28. Amanda says:

    I made the same decision about paper towels a while back. It has been relatively painless. I have also used paper bags for grease blotting. I occasionally will buy one roll of paper towels–only one! I used it when we were trying to sell our house for quick cleaning and disposal. My mom and mother-in-law just don’t know what to do when they come over and we don’t have paper towels. It’s kind of funny. I have some pretty tea towels with hand embroidery that are my nice towels, but the others are multi-purpose–to clean up WHATEVER. You can sew up rags like you mentioned. But seriously, you can buy a huge pack at Walmart (if you’re inclined to shop there) for $7, and they’ll last you a lot longer than the paper towels. Good post, Trent. Glad to know I’m not the only crazy person without paper towels!!!

  29. Mary W says:

    I’m also cutting way back on paper towel use. Just the gross stuff as others have mentioned. More for ecological than frugal reasons. I’m trying hard to *use up* things rather than throw away or even recycle.

    I’m also trying to transition away from baggies to using existing plastic reusable containers and from there moving to glass. Using mostly cloth napkins instead of paper.

    As reader of two daily newspapers, I always have plenty of that around. Can be used to clean mirrors and windows, absorb grease, shred into compost/mulch, folded into seedling pots, etc. When the cats cooperate by throwing up in front of me I even try to *catch* it with newspaper.

  30. Stephan F- says:

    We keep the paper towel use to a minimum just by putting it out of the way like behind the dish rack or on top of the frig. I much prefer paper towels for cleaning up vomit.
    Another thing is for general clean up while someone is sick in general so you don’t pass germs around. The towels you dry your hands on are often the most germ infested things in your house even worse then your shoes.

  31. Holly says:

    This is a good idea, but as someone who has just finished battling fruit flies that infested my kitchen, let me give you one tip. Don’t let the wet rags sit around in the open. They do attract pests – so do what people who use cloth diapers do. Keep a bucket with a lid in your laundry room. You can half-fill it with mildly bleachy water if you want to – but either way, just put the rags in there and put the lid back on until laundry day.

  32. Jen says:

    We have been using flannel towels for 2 years now, and it’s been great. We started doing it to reduce waste (to be more eco-friendly), but we noticed how much money we saved by not using paper towels. I made 9″ x 9″ flannel towels–that’s just the right size for my toddler to use as napkins. We also use them to clean kitchen counters and clean up spills. After we clean up our mess, we do a quick rinse by hand in the sink & then we toss the cloth towels into a designated laundry basket in the laudry room. When we wash our clothes, we just toss them with our regular laundry to get a good wash. By the way, we haven’t had to increase the loads of laundry we do because we just add the dirty towels in with our normal laundry to make a complete load.

  33. Noadi says:

    I keep paper towel around like others have said for the really gross stuff that I don’t want to wash the cloths. If there’s a risk of germs being passed around (raw meat, vomit, blood, etc) then I use paper towel. Clothes and sponges get used for everything else.

  34. Jennifer says:

    I can’t wait to hear how this goes. I would love to try this…..I have had issues with the absorbency-factor and never made the switch. I think I will try again:)

  35. Sandy says:

    We have long used rags of one sort of the other for Cleaning, windows,dusting, etc… We have also used cloth napkins for a long time as well. As for the space issue, we also do not have a lot of drawer space. So, I bought a metal shelf on which I put a basket to hold my cloth napkins, and the shelf is right next to our kitchen table, so very handy, and the kids could always help themselves.
    We still use paper for blotting grease, cat barf, and other times it would be really hard to clean up the cloth afterwards.

  36. katie says:

    You can also cut up old or practically destroyed clothes that you’re going to junk anyway and use them on Swiffer mops. You can wet them with soap and water, or use old polartec/fleece material as a dry mop. This helps keep your costs down and lets you repurpose the cloth for quite some time.

    If you need to disinfect a sponge, put some water on it and microwave on high for at least one minute. Just don’t try to microwave steel wool, that will end pretty badly!

  37. Kathy says:

    I’ve cut back on my paper towel use. I use them for blotting grease, cleaning glass and mirrors, and cleaning up anything “chunky”. I use old rags to clean anything else. We also use them for napkins.

  38. Maureen says:

    Unless your paper towels are used to mop up something toxic or flammable, they can be put in the ‘green bin’ for composting. In my city compostables are collected separately from garbage destined to go land fills. Separating out compostables, recyclables and reusables from our waste diverts a large portion of waste from landfill.

    As others have mentioned, I prefer to clean some messes with paper towel. It’s a matter of food handling safety (no sense in spreading that salmonella or e coli around) and health concerns.

  39. anne says:

    i just can’t throw the rags in w/ the laundry

    i wash them separately, but w/ the towels and wash cloths, in hot water, w/ my homemade laundry soap, plus bleach. white socks and undies can go in the load, too.

    otherwise odors don’t come out, and even spread to the other laundry

  40. Rosa Rugosa says:

    I am no more interested in giving up paper towels than I am toilet paper! However, I have scaled back usage somewhat by using microfiber cleaning cloths for a lot of cleaning applications where I formerly used paper towels. They are more effective too.

  41. guinness416 says:

    I’m generally down with at least trying any frugal/green ideas, but this one I just never want to touch for some reason. Not sure why, exactly, my parents always used (and still do) what we in Ireland call “tea towels” to clean up when I was young. Maybe if I ever have kids or pets I’ll develop more of a resilience to filth. This thread is pretty useful actually in discussing some of the things that gross me out about reusing towels. Maybe we’ll give it a shot. Great comments, all.

  42. Courtney says:

    Your daughter is *adorable*!!!

    I grew up without paper towels, and it’s easy to do.

    I never worry about the flammability factor of oil. If the rags are washed thoroughly, the oil should come out. Note that I keep some sawdust or baking soda around to blot up frying grease, which then gets scraped with a spatula into the garbage. After that, there is just not that much oil on the rag.

    Old cotton towels are my favorite, but old cotton jeans make good sturdy rags, as well.

    Synthetic fibers are not generally very absorbent, and so you could have a bad experience with them.

    For fine cleaning, like windows or drying crystal, it’s well worth it to buy a couple/three cotton/linen flour-sack towels, which are very tightly woven and pretty much lint-free.

    Kitchen washcloths are designed to scrub food off dishes just fine. They are different in composition and use from bathroom washcloths. We also have a pile of truly yucky rags to be used on nastiness.

    We use rags for everyday napkins, and have a nice white cotton satin stripe set for company. White is great, because it can be bleached, and then blued again, if necessary.

    Sponges are a no-no in my house. I understand about the microwaving, but you have to get it over 140F on the inside of the sponge, and that often breaks down the fibers that make the sponge handy. Rags work better, IMHO.

    As for “chunky” stuff, do what your grandmother did – wipe it up, shake out the chunks in the garbage, dust a little baking soda over the chunks for smell (assuming you’re not composting the chunks), and throw the rag into a bucket of soapy water, to be washed later.

    If it’s liquidy chunks, keep some sawdust or baking soda around to blot it up, which then gets scraped with a metal scraper into the garbage. After that, there is just not that much nastiness on the rag.

    I do pretty elaborate laundry. Towels, rags, sheets, socks, and cotton undies all get 1/4 cup chlorine bleach, plus Tide in 140F hot wash water and 140F hot rinse water. Then, if it’s not August, I dry them until bone dry in the dryer. No odor problems, no worries about bacteria.

    Note that each rag is used only once, even for drying hands, before it goes back into the dirty pile. Keeps germs down to a minimum.

    And, when there is sickness in the household, I am quite comfortable putting a capful of bleach in the dishwasher, which I always wash in hot (140F) water, with a water-heater booster in the dishwasher, and a hot-hot air-dry cycle.

  43. Sarah says:

    Our family used old, worn-out clothes for “rags” (as we called them) all the time. I would expect with your kids growing like mad, you’ll find you don’t need to buy much cloth new to have a supply!

  44. STL Mom says:

    Emily – put your paper towels in a cupboard or closet, and only pull them out when you have food to degrease. If I have something quite greasy, I might put a couple of paper towels on top of some newspaper. If the cloth is easier to reach than the paper, you’ll grab it first.
    Hannah – microfiber cloths work great for glass.

  45. steve says:

    Boil your sponges once a week in a saucepan with water with a dab of detergent to both clean and disinfect them. Or, if they aren’t really grungy, just get them wet and microwave them for 2 minutes. That will kill any bacteria in them.

    make sure to use tongs to remove them from the microwave or saucepan, then rinse them in cold water and press the hot water out of them with the tongs or you can inadvertently burn your hand if you pick the sponge up and squeeze it afterwards.

  46. steve says:

    as to the microwave destroying the sponges:

    hasn’t happened to me yet.

  47. steve says:

    another thing you can do is put your sponges in with the dishes in the dishwasher. Does a fantastic job of cleaning them.

  48. kristine says:

    we have paper towels, but it takes forever for use to go through them. Instead, we use rags for most messes, and cleaning. Old flannel PJs, and torn up towels, work the best. Friends and family know to give us their old towels if they upgrade.

    Instead of folding the clean rags, we toss them under the sink in a wire waste basket. And we toss the dirties down the stairs to the basement too! But I keep an open hamper on the landing. It’s laundry basketball.

    steve- ditto on the sponges!

  49. Rosa says:

    Congratulations! I don’t think you’ll regret this switch.

    We do keep paper towels around for vomit and other really icky things – and for people who just can’t function without them. We have had babysitters and grandparents say “the cat/child puked/peed on the floor but I couldnt’ find the paper towels so you’ll have to clean it up.” But we hide them in the cupboard so people don’t just casually use them. The nice thing is that we use so few, we can afford to buy the 100% recycled kind.

    It’s totally possible if you wipe up something chunky (like salsa) to shake it into the trash or compost before you put the rag in the laundry.

  50. I have always thought paper towels were a waste, but a couple of years ago my son was doing all the cooking and got hooked on using them. I do like them for wiping out the last bit of grease residue from my cast iron skillets so that grease doesn’t get into the pipes or our septic tank. However, they are expensive! My son was using them at an alarming rate, and finally I let him know he would need to start paying for them. That cured him of his “addiction” real quick. It also helped that I ramped up my supply of kitchen rags. He and his father prefer to use sponges to wash dishes, but I insist on a dishrag.

  51. Rebecca says:

    I haven’t bought paper towels in over a year at this point. I have bags for rags–one dirty, one clean–that I grab, and for anything too nasty/messy to go in the laundry (pet accidents, etc.), I just grab a wad of toilet paper and throw it in the toilet when I’m done. Convenient, easy, and something I’ll always have handy …

  52. Yynatago says:

    Hey Trent, why wait until you run out of paper towels… there are always times where it so much convenient to use a paper towel, so it’ll be handy to have them around anyway.

  53. jan says:

    We left paper towels behind over a year ago! I bought a plastic bag holder and put it where the towel holder used to be and voila! I use old washcloths and cut up cotton clothes and when they get too gross I throw them out. It works for us.

  54. liv says:

    Um…are you talking about “rags” or a new form of napkins because there will be a huge difference. You may actually need to buy a lot because sometimes you don’t do laundry that often and will eventually run out…also, don’t get white unless your detergent is awesome.

    My sister uses clothe ones and I think they look nice, but if they were doing so much laundry already because of their son, I would think that getting cloth napkins are somewhat of a “want” and not a “need.”

  55. deRuiter says:

    The Life Journey Of A Bath Towel: First the bath towel and its colorful comrades are purchased at a store for the purchase price plus sales tax. The towels are hung on the wall as decoration in the designer bathroom, or used occasionally until the family redecorates. The expensive and perfectly good new towels are then sold at a yard sale for a dollar each to me. They’re used in our all white bathroom while they are nice and fluffy, and the cheery colors are fine because they don’t clash with white walls and fixtures. When the towels get thin and worn, they’re demoted to kitchen towels for drying dishes. When they become really worn, they’re cut into dish cloth size and used instead of paper towels. When they become almost threadbare, the ever smaller bits of towels go on a special shelf and are used for cleaning pet vomit, food with broken glass and other nasty stuff, and discarded. The rags are washed along with the heavy work clothes, so once the original dollar is spent, there is no expense. Many times at yard or estate sales I’ve been given bath towels to use as padding for fragile items so there isn’t even the original dollar cost. There’s a roll of plain white paper towels in the kitchen for blotting grease, draining bacon. Those grease soaked paper towels are buried in the compost heap with other kitchen waste where they decompose in a few weeks. If you have all cotton towels (never buy any other kind!) you can even put them in a compost heap which you won’t be turning for a year, and if mixed in with other organic waste, they will eventually become humus.

  56. Denise says:

    This idea works well if you have a washer/dryer on site. I have to lug everything to the laundrymatt and that has kept me from switching over to all cloth. When the kid was younger and I had a washer, I went the all cloth route and it was painless.

  57. Jennifer says:

    This is such a timley post because I just did this last week! We actually just downsized from an house to an apartment, so we were really cramped. Our laundry room is just off the kitchen, so I keep a box on the dryer for clean rags, and a bucket next to the washer for dirty rags. I still have a roll of paper towels, and I am curious to see how long it will last.I did use some last night for drying some fish for frying.

  58. sewingirl says:

    Welcome to the wonderful world of cleaning rags. I use some old clothes and bedding, towels and t-shirts are my favs, but as someone mentioned, anything with polyester won’t absorb very well. I have also bought the cheapo 20 pack of white washcloths at the bigbox store, when I didn’t have anything to cut up. I keep a small bucket by the washer with a little soapy water for really stinky ones, other than that I just toss them in with any load, and i do laundry every day. If I have to clean up something extra nasty, I throw them away, because they are – rags.

  59. AngelSong says:

    We’ve been using cloth for a long time; I can’t remember the last time we bought paper towels. We usually buy a pack of bar towels (the right size for most of our needs) at Sam’s Club. If we need to clean up glass, we use two towels layered, and shake them into the trash bin outside.
    We keep small baskets just for these towels when they are dirty and wash them when there are enough for a load. They dry on a folding clothes rack, in almost no time.

  60. Amanda says:

    I cook so much that using paper towels is a bit necessary, but I use cloth towels for just about everything. A really big help is ordering a box of brown paper towel rolls from an industrial supplier like Betty Mills. If you do this, you can still have your paper towels for cooking & some cleaning items; it is ridiculously cheap.

  61. Hatch says:

    Landfills aren’t so bad. I heard on Penn & Teller’s BS that a 100 x 100 mile landfill, just a dot on the map, would last us 1000 years.

    Many landfills are turned into parks when they are finished. So you are leaving a park for “your grandchildren to deal with.” What’s the problem with that?

  62. Sarah T says:

    I also use a combination of kitchen towels and cheap washcloths to clean up messes and it works well for me. I do keep paper towels around and we use 3-4 rolls per year. I think I’d be pretty annoyed by this if I didn’t have easy access to a washer, at least. I tend to buy white so I don’t mind throwing them in bleach in case of serious yuck or stains — that way I don’t hesitate to grab one when I’m going to mop up tomato juice!

  63. SMG says:

    I am from India and just wanted to comment that in India there is no concept of paper towels in the kitchens. There are clothes/rags for all spills and cleaning activities.

    We have been using this system from ages and see no issues with this at all.

    The good rags/cloths are for cleaning kitchens/countertops, the not so good ones are for the nasty spills…mostly all of them get washed in 1-2 days and there is enough supply of this from old clothers/bedsheets and what not.

    Good to feel that we have been following such “green” practices from so long!

  64. Arthi says:

    When you mop up spilled salsa with a cloth towel and throw it in the laundry, are you not risking staining the other clothes?

    And does it really not need extra detergent?

  65. Evita says:

    All our old flannel pajamas, tee-shirts and sweats are converted to cloth rags. I have a sewing machine but never bother to sew up the sides and they hold up quite well.

    But I would not just toss them down the stairs until someone goes and pick them up. Gross… and unsanitary for pets and kiddies to find…… I keep the soiled ones in the cabinet under the sink until laundry time. Easy!

  66. Wendybird74 says:

    @deRuiter – If you are a camper… save the lint you get from your dryer when you dry the towels (cotton only of course!) This lint makes an excellent fire starter for camp fires and gleans yet another use from your $1 investment!
    I always do my towels, washcloths, and rags as a seperate load, and I have a glass canning jar on the top of my dryer to save the lint in. Of course I can only save this lint in the winter because my towels are drying outside on the clothsline in the summer. :)

  67. partgypsy says:

    Yay good for you! Maybe a couple years ago? we switched to cloth napkins, and around the same time stopped buying paper towels as well. Again except for a few circumstances it’s been a remarkably smooth ride. The majority of what we use are old towels cut into tea towel size, and cloth napkins and face clothes that have stains on them. Save the real nasty rags for the “bad spills”. I use tp or swiped paper napkins from takeout for blotting bacon, and microfiber clothes for mirrors/windows.
    Tip for pretty but cheap cloth napkins:bandanas.

  68. Arthi says:

    In place of paper towels:

    Newspaper works well for cleaning windows, and for draining oil or fat from food. You just need to layer a few newspapers and put a single paper towel on top for draining fat.

  69. Dave says:

    You should dry your car with a microfiber towel

  70. Todd says:

    This reminded me of my grandma. Wherever she went, she carried a slightly damp washcloth in a ziploc bag in her purse (BTW she always washed and reused ziploc bags) and you wouldn’t believe how many situations arose–especially with little grandkids around–when she pulled out that damp washcloth.

    My mother OTOH always bought those little Wet Ones towlette packs at the checkout counter for a dollar a piece. She probably spent hundreds of dollars (at least) over the course of our childhoods, and we always hated the alcohol smell of those things, whereas we loved Grandma’s washcloths.

  71. We have been a virtually all cloth family for years because it’s much easier to use hand towels than paper towels. We live in a small space and started using the hand towels when the kids were young. One day we stopped buying paper towels and haven’t missed them since. Cloth towels are more absorbant, take up less space, and obviously provide a little ‘green’ to boot.

  72. Treva says:

    We keep paper towels for cat messes mostly and use cloth as much as possible. For $5 you can buy a hefty stack of washcloths and those work great as everyday napkins for use at the dining room table. If you get darker colored ones minor stains won’t show so you can still use them for guests with casual get-togethers.

  73. Michele says:

    We gave up on paper towels years ago. I use kitchen towels for everything and when they aren’t pretty enough to hang up in the kitchen anymore, they get marked with a permenant marker with a big X and they turn into cleaning rags. Same with holey tube socks, heel-less winter socks, or t-shirts that are beyond wearing. I keep them in a pretty basket on the kitchen counter.
    We also use cloth napkins for all meals and we no longer use paper napkins at all. They are always in the ‘free’ box at garage sales along with old towels, so I’ve never had to buy any. I have a really nice collection of matched sets that I use even when company comes! I can seat 12 people for Thanksgiving and still have cloth matching napkins for everyone. I just toss them in the right color laundry. Never had a problem with grease and I do use kitchen towels or cloth napkins for blotting and wiping my cast iron pots and pans. Now dog barf or runny poo does go directly in the garbage. Glad I have a lot of old towels socks or t shirts:)

  74. cv says:

    I noticed the other day that we’ve been working on the same 12-roll-pack of paper towels for months now and still have over half of it left. We use them when we go camping, for wiping up gross messes, etc., but it’s at a slow enough rate that I don’t worry too much about it.

    My real paper towel problem is at work. Several of us bring our lunches and we often provide food at breakfast or lunch meetings, so the kitchen gets a fair amount of use. I feel bad about drying my hands on paper towels every time I wash a plate and fork, but I can’t see cloth towels working without a lot of hassle about who would take them home to wash them and how often.

    I also wish there were a better solution to paper towels in the bathroom at work. I use air dryers when they’re available, but we don’t have one here.

  75. cv says:

    Oh, and to the person who pointed out that paper towels are biodegradable, that’s certainly true, but garbage in landfills doesn’t really decompose. It doesn’t get the oxygen it needs to break down, so researchers regularly uncover things like whole heads of lettuce that are 20 years old.

    If you’ve got a compost bin, though, the biodegradability is a plus.

  76. Claudia says:

    My sister’s MIL uses her old undies for dish cloths–even washed in hot water and bleach, that is just gross!

  77. Diana says:

    I have lots and lots of old washcloths and hair salon towels that I use for almost everything…including yucky stuff. My daughter periodically has to replace the towels in her beauty shop when they get stained from all the hair coloring, so I have a ready supply. They’re the perfect size for larger cleanups and for drying off the cleaned area afterwards. For the smaller jobs, I just use old washcloths. Both the towels and washcloths are always white so they can be bleached. I buy them in bulk and use them for removing my makeup. No reason I can think of to buy any kind of cleaning cloths in my house. I need a lot of rags because in addition to the usual cleanups, I also have a steamer that I use all the time, and the rags need to be changed often. I keep the clean “washcloth” rags in one grocery bag; the “towel” rags in another, hanging from hooks in my laundry room. I toss all the wet rags in a small plastic basket on top of my washer and just add them to the white loads when I’m using bleach. Yucky isn’t any more yucky in my book if you use a cloth rag instead of a paper towel. You can put a lot more muscle behind a rag than a paper towel when the situation calls for it, too. I just throw on a pair of surgical gloves for those and it doesn’t bother me to deal with the mess. I can rewash and dry the gloves many times before they fall apart. Since my steamer came with a floor attachment, I also use the towel size rags for that instead of buying premade covers. Works just as well. My pets are dried off with old bath towels that have seen better days, and I use the washcloth rags for face and ear cleaning. The truth is, I never felt that any convenience of using paper towels could be justified by the price of them. It’s not a tough transition at all; just a different way of thinking. Oh yes…must mention that I stopped using fabric softener of loads of laundry containing the rags. With the steamer, especially, it causes streaking. Trent’s vinegar alternative for fabric softener sounds like a better option in that case.

  78. Jessica says:

    wow, where are you finding flannel for only $1 per yard? here in Ohio it is $5.99 regular price and 2.99 on sale!

  79. My parents and grandparents used mostly cloth towels. We tend to use both now. When the kids were little though, paper towels were indispensible!

    Kids can make enormous messes, and make them frequently, so I don’t know if we could have had enough cloths handy if we went that route. Also, some messes are too messy to justify washing the towels, and you might be tempted to throw them out anyway. Paper towels were just too convenient, even if they did cost a bit more.

    The other thing that may be more important–with small kids, you have plenty of laundry. Going with cloth towels will only add to the pile. There’s enough to do without adding to the pile!

    This is one of those areas where a suggestion is outside my comfort zone!!!

  80. Georgia says:

    I, too, am trying to go paper towel less. So far, it is going well. And since no cost rags are so prevalent, I just pitch them a lot of the time. The towels I cut up to wash dishes will be used over and over. Great article Trent.

  81. Rosa says:

    Kevin – you’re forgetting a few benefits of cloth with little kids.

    One is we can let our toddler have free access to the cloth towels, so he cleans up a lot of his own messes. If we did that with paper towels we’d run out of them *all the time* – if he puts unused rags in the laundry, i can pull them out or launder them, whatever.

    The other is that paper is *rough* and paper napkins are flimsy. I wouldn’t want my face wiped with a paper towel five times a day, and if you have (for example) chicken grease or caramel on your fingers, paper napkins just stuck to them instead of making your hands clean.

    I do about one extra load of laundry every other week for all our cloth napkins, tablecloths, cleaning rags, and swiffer rags.

  82. We do it too! says:

    So we do this as well. We just use theold terry cloth bibs my daughter has outgrown. They are quite soft too, which my daughter appreciates. Nothing to buy to get us started. And we use at least one at every meal. This has been very effective for us.

    We do still use paper towels for bacon grease and blotting bacon after cooking. That’s about it, though!

  83. KimC says:

    We made the switch from paper towels to cloth rags recently too – I’m guessing we save even more than you since we have 9 children!
    I love the old t-shirt idea. A lot of our rags are made of this. T-shirt material doesn’t unravel so the edges don’t have to be sewn and it doesn’t leave lint all over the rest of the laundry.

  84. Daniel says:

    Trent-
    I grew-up not knowing what a paper-towel was until I was about eight- or nine-years old. My Mother used cotton diapers on me and all of my siblings until my little brother b.1974.
    One suggestion about where to keep your “rags” is to use a large paper/plastic shopping bag w/ wire or string handles and hang it just inside of your stairway to the basement. That way whenever the need arises a person can just open the door and reach and grab however many rags are needed.
    check it out
    later,
    Daniel

  85. Donna Watkins says:

    I love that you’re writing on this topic. It’s one of my pet peeves since I’m a treehugger and also have a great concern about all the landfill stuff for our future generations.

    Although there’s only two of us (hubby and me) right now, we still have not run out of rags that we get from cutting up old clothes. Socks are one of my favorite since it’s easy to use them with hand inside. Great for cleaning sinks.

    It’s incredible to think of how many hundreds of dollars we’ve saved over the years by using rags. We don’t bother to fold them or make them especially fancy when we cut them up. It’s a rag .. doesn’t matter to me .. it will just get shoved in the rag drawer.

  86. Bargain Babe says:

    Welcome to the ranks of the paperless! I gave up sponges along with paper towels years ago when I started using Trader Joe’s quick drying re-usable cloths. I bought two for $4 and they work great as a sponge or mess-picker-upper. They don’t stink like sponges do, I can wash them whenever I want with laundry, they are cheaper than paper, and definitely more green! Plus, they dry out quickly. Check ‘em out!

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