We all know reducing single-waste items is good for our health and the environment. But actually switching to reusable is sometimes easier said than done.
Reducing paper towel waste may seem like a small thing, but consistent small changes are what matter in the long run.
Here are several strategies to reduce paper towel usage and, potentially-eventually, stop using paper towels altogether.
Small Changes Add Up!
It's not that I'll completely stop using paper towels. They have their place in certain situations. However, I will use a lot less of them.
As Zero Waste Chef said, we need lots of people doing the best we can rather than a few doing zero waste perfectly.
This post was inspired by a friend who came over for dinner and noticed I was using the same paper towel roll from a year prior. We'd used this roll on a camping trip and brought it home. It was the only roll we'd used since, and nearly half the roll remained.
And that's on purpose! Why use a single-use item when you can use a reusable item?
He was flabbergasted at how few paper towels we use so I figured I'd share my tricks! Perhaps they'll help you use fewer paper towels, too!
For those wondering how he recognized them, the paper towels had a colorful design on them, which is unlike me. He was trying to call me out for using harmful artificial dyes in paper towels, especially since I'm always harping against that kind of thing. Little did he know I hadn't purchased them, I just salvaged them from the trip!
Here are 5 Ways to Use Fewer Paper Towels
Switch to Reusable Paper Towels (and napkins and rags)
Three types of replacements
There are three main purposes for paper towels that each need a slightly different cloth replacement. For each, we'll talk which replacement I recommend and how to manage logistics like washing and storing.
Cleaning = rags
For cleaning use cheap washcloths or rags. We keep a stack of cheap washcloths on hand to be our kitchen rags and they are very affordable and clean well.
If you tend to have nasty spills, like pet accidents, keep a different set of washcloths for those types of accidents. You can do the same to distinguish between rags used for indoor cleaning, outdoor cleaning, small kitchen clean-ups, if you wish. Different colored rags are a great way to easily identify the difference!
Or you can just trust the sanitation cycle on your washer machine 🙂
Cooking = dish towels
Most commonly when cooking I need paper towels to dry off herbs and vegetables. A large linen napkin or a dish towel works well for this purpose.
The other common use is to collect grease, such as bacon grease. Instead of paper towels, try draining the grease into a container to harden. Then you can store that grease for later cooking (waste not, want not!) or spoon the hardened grease into the trash or compost.
Eating = napkins
Often at dinner people will pull off 2, 3, or even 4 sheets of paper towels to use as their napkins. Sometimes they get used, sometimes they don't. Either way, they migrate to the trash.
Cloth napkins are beautiful, inexpensive, and reusable.
A fun way to acquire cloth napkins is to pick them up as souvenirs on your travels. Otherwise, you can buy them on amazon like these beautiful gray napkins.
How should you store your new cloth paper towels, napkins, and rags? The below section focuses primarily on my favorite strategies for the kitchen.
For heavier cleaning jobs like pet accidents and outdoor tables, we have a similar system but in the laundry room. That translates to both a box of folded clean rags and a separate trash bin for dirty rags waiting to be washed.
Clean napkins and rags = Clean linens drawer in the kitchen
A drawer in our kitchen holds clean napkins, dishcloths, and rags. They are stacked in different containers so we can easily grab whatever we need at the moment.
This makes it very easy and convenient to choose cloth over paper.
Alternatively, many brands sell specifically designed cloth napkins and towels that are meant to roll up like paper towels. I didn't go with this method because it means you have to wash all the towels and roll them at some point. You'll either have a period of time with no towels or some towels that will be washed separately and not rolled.
My strategy allows for a constant flow of linens with less chance of a laundry backlog or paper towel outage.
Dirty napkins and rags = Dirty linens basket in the pantry
We store the dry dirty linens in a wicker basket lined with cloth. Feel free to mix all your rags, dishtowels, and napkins in the same dirty bin. Then when this bin is full, you can take it to the laundry room to wash.
We chose this bin for maximum airflow, which keeps the towels dry.
- Make sure to wash large amounts of food, drink or dirt off the towels immediately after using. You can do this by simply wringing the towels out in the sink.
- If there's a really wet dishrag, let it dry on the counter before adding it to the bin. Wet towels will lead to stinky towels, and we don't want that!
- We usually separately store and wash soiled linens used for pet accidents.
Buy our dirty linens setup here.
Whenever you run low on napkins and rags, wash the dirty linens. We recommend using the sanitize cycle if your washer has one. Otherwise, high heat will do.
This is the only time we use liquid detergent as our earth-friendly laundry soaps don't do well at high heat. Check your soap to see what temperature it can handle.
Then you can fold your napkins and return them to the clean napkin and rag drawer.
How often do you have to clean reusable paper towels?
On average we wash the soiled towels once a quarter, which I think is totally manageable.
When it's just my husband and me, we reuse our napkins because they don't really get that dirty. I also rinse and reuse our kithen dishrags for a while. This helps reduce laundry.
The amount of time it takes to fill your dirty bin and your laundry timeline will obviously depend on how often you eat at home, how many napkins and rags you use, and how many cloth napkins and rags you own.
However often you launder, this system can make it easy to reduce paper towels and climate impact.
As a reminder, water is used every time paper towels are produced, so you don't need to worry too much about the water used to launder your new reusables.
Use rags for cleaning up spills!
Perhaps the most common use for paper towels is to clean up spills. But they don't work very well or absorb much liquid.
Every time a paper towel is used to clean the kitchen, it is a single-use act. However, you can clean several spills with a dishrag or washcloth and then wash and reuse that rag.
After a few days or weeks, depending on your propensity to spills, you can put the dried dirty rag in the same bin as the dirty cloth napkins for future washing.
Buy Select-a-Size and Only Use One Sheet
Supposedly, the paper towel industry initially resisted select-a-size options because they thought it would reduce sales. That is until they did market testing.
What they found was people ended up using MORE paper towels with select-a-size because they didn't feel like one was enough.
I cannot confirm this story, but rest assured one sheet is probably enough. Use sparingly.
Rip Off a Small Piece If That's All You Need
I'm not talking about the select-a-size paper towels that offer smaller sheets, though I do recommend that.
I'm saying if you only need an inch of paper towel, then rip off one inch and use it.
No law says you have to use a whole sheet at a time. And it won't look that bad to have a little piece missing from your paper towel.
I most commonly use a tiny piece of paper towel when cleaning an unwanted drip on a plate while I'm styling food. I tear off an inch, wipe the drip of sauce I don't want to be in the picture, and move on. This also works for containers with little drips of food that need to be wiped off before storing.
There's no need to tear off the whole sheet since the liquid I'm cleaning will only absorb into a dime size of the paper.
For Large Spills, Reuse One Sheet by Ringing It Out and Using It Again
Have you ever had a spill and just dumped individual sheets of paper towels on top of it until they stopped absorbing liquid? Well this strategy is all about those scenarios.
Just like you would with a regular cloth towel, you can instead use only a couple of sheets, ring them out and reuse the same paper towels when soaking up large amounts of liquids.
This trick could easily save half a roll on its own when dealing with large volumes of liquid, but then again, so could going reusable.