Paper towels may be convenient, but washable, reusable cloths are better for the environment.
Paper towels are a household staple in much of the world, beloved for their convenience. Unfortunately this comes at an environmental cost. Disposable paper products account for more than one-quarter of landfill waste; many office, administrative, and college dorm buildings report even more than that, saying paper towels take up a third of their waste.
While life without paper towels may seem impossible, it's not all that bad, once you figure out some good alternatives. Here are some tips for living paper towel-less, which will shrink your trash and save a decent amount of money over time.
In the bathroom:
At your place of business, offer a pile of clean, folded cloth towels (if your municipality's health code allows it). Alternatively, install a hot air dryer. At home, use towels to dry hands.
Be sure to shake your clean, wet hands thoroughly before reaching for a towel. This minimizes the amount of moisture that has to be absorbed. You can also pat them on your pants or sweater (assuming these are clean) before heading out. You'll be surprised at how quickly they dry once you leave the bathroom and forget about them.
Carry a handkerchief or other small cloth in your purse or coat pocket and use this to dry your hands when you're out.
In the kitchen:
If you're frying foods, drain them on a rack set over a baking sheet. This will allow the foods to drain even more effectively than if they were sitting in soaked paper towel. Alternatively, use old newspaper, if you happen to have it lying around.
If you need to grease a baking pan or muffin tin, save butter wrappers for this purpose. They come pre-greased.
For cleaning, keep a stash of dishcloths and tea towels on hand for mopping messes. I use tea towels for water-only spills and dishcloths for anything to requires multiple rinses and/or a squirt of soap. (Check out these really cool Unpaper Towels, a set of 12 detachable terrycloth towels on a roller, handmade in Asheville, N.C.)
Flour sack towels are also good. One online commenter says she ties one around her waist like an apron and uses it for wiping hands and mopping messes throughout dinner prep and cleanup.
The key is accessibility. If you have cloths on hand to use, you'll reach for them. The food bloggers at The Bitten Word take this a step further by moving their paper towels 6 feet away from the kitchen, tucked into the pantry, where they're even harder to reach, and less likely to be used.
It's all about the rags. Keep a stash of clean, folded rags in the kitchen and every bathroom in your house, so they're always easy to get.
Wipe, scrub, and wash with a set of cloth rags whenever you need to clean anything. If you're picking up solids (i.e. pet or child vomit or clumps of hair), just shake it into the trash before rinsing and/or laundering.
Megean, who blogs at Zero Waste Nerd, suggests cleaning oily messes by first sprinkling baking soda over top to absorb the grease, then wiping with a damp cloth.
Depending on what a rag has been used to clean, I wash them differently. Toilet-cleaning rags go into the cloth diaper pail. Others may sit in the bathtub for a day or two until I have a bigger load to wash, including a mop head. It helps to do all the housecleaning in one day, to increase the number of rags in a load.
Carry a cloth napkin or a handkerchief for quick hand wipes or eating. A water bottle can be used to wet the cloth to wipe stickiness. No need for wet wipes.
I used to make my own baby wipes from thick Bounty paper towels until I realized how wasteful it was. Now I clean my baby's bum using a washcloth and warm water.
This may seem like a significant shift from your current routine, but once you get started, you'll see it's easier than it sounds.