Cleaning Without Paper Towels

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Oh paper towels. So convenient, yet so inefficient.

Why are we trying to avoid paper towel use? In my mind, it comes down to efficiency. Maybe it’s because my father is an engineer, but efficiency is really important to me. He was always the one to remind us to close the refrigerator door, turn up or down the thermostat a few degrees (depending on the season), turn the lights off when we leave a room, or keep the front door closed. It’s not even about saving the planet, it just feels like such a waste to… well… waste energy and resources unnecessarily.

If we take a look at nature’s processes, everything has a purpose and use. When trees’ leaves fall, they take needed nutrients to the ground and create the perfect growing environment for other plants and fungi, which feed tiny critters. Nothing goes to waste.

It’s how most kitchens used to be, and what the idea of reducing waste is bringing us back to. Vegetable scraps can be used for making stock, citrus peels soaked in vinegar make good cleaning solution, etc.

So, back to paper towels. Deforestation, water, and energy goes into manufacturing paper towels, yet after their 2-minute lifespan, into the trash they go. The solution for avoiding them is actually simple, and fairly obvious. But actually making the change is less so.

Cloth

Just about everything a paper towel can do, a cloth can do too. Sounds like song lyrics… but in reality, cloths/rags clean so much better than paper. They don’t disintegrate when trying to get off a particularly stuck-on bit of food, and the more textured cloth gives you a deeper clean. I’ve found that I particularly like how I can wipe the table, the counters, and the stove after dinner with a single cloth and a few rinses between surfaces.

Brushes

For bathroom or floor cleaning, bristle brushes work well on just about every surface, followed by a rinse with a wet cloth.

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Slimy-Rag-Phobia (we all have it)

Now, let’s talk about that slimy-rag-phobia. After using cloth for six months, I still hate getting my hands wet when wiping down the counters. Rinsing a rag in HOT water before using it and washing my hands after has helped me get over that somewhat. It’s a bit of a personal thing, and you have to find out where your pain points lie.

But, bacteria is a real concern. Bacteria grows well in moist environments. Simply allowing your rags to dry between uses kills most bacteria. When choosing which cloths to buy, choose ones that dry quickly. Replace used cloths with clean ones often, wash them in hot water, and dry on high heat. (Take a look at this interesting article for more on bacteria.)

I typically use a cloth for one function (i.e. wiping counters for the day), or build up from cleanest to dirtiest surface in one big cleaning blitz (i.e. wipe down table, clean counters, wipe down stove-top) and then relegate the cloth into the dirty rag bin. Regardless of the use, I never use the same cloth for more than a day.

Convenience

Part of the convenience of paper towels is being able to grab-and-go. Finding a solution for your cloths that is similarly convenient is important, or the habit will never stick. My solution is a large glass jar that I pile my clean rags into and keep under the sink. There’s always one ready, and (for me) it’s actually more convenient because I only need one hand to grab a rag, instead of the two it takes to tear off a paper towel. I’ve also seen some “unpaper towel” tutorials floating around the web, which are, essentially, cloths wrapped around a paper towel holder to make them easier to get to. Find something that works for you and your kitchen. It doesn’t have to be complicated, it just needs to work.

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Switching to cloth has reduced our paper towel usage by about 60% so far. And it would be more, but my husband still uses paper to warm his occasional breakfast sandwiches in the morning, and I have yet to completely abandon it in the bathroom. (My plan is to get bathroom-specific cloths and keep them completely separate from the kitchen ones.) I’m still working through a few kinks in our switch, and that’s okay. Hopefully this encourages you to look at your own habits, but also to give yourself some space to explore and find what works for you.

What other solutions have you come up with for replacing paper towels?