How to Break Your Paper Towel and Plastic Bag Habits

A rag is more environmentally friendly than a paper towel, and it works better, too. (Photo: Mizkit/Shutterstock)

There's a big push to eliminate the 500 million plastic straws in the United States that get thrown away each day, and it's worth paying attention to this movement. There are other one-time-use items that most Americans use daily that we need to eliminate, too.

Eliminating, or cutting drastically back on these items can put a big dent in your personal contribution to landfills each year. Start with baby steps. Pick one and see how you do. Then move on to the next. It's a lot easier than you imagine.

Paper towels

paper towels
Eliminating three rolls of paper towels a year is helpful, but more would be even more helpful. (Photo: Africa Studios/Shutterstock)

Paper towels are incredibly convenient, but they're also incredibly wasteful. According to Better Planet Paper, 13 billion pounds of paper towels are used in the U.S. each year, ending up as waste. That's 120,000 tons of waste could be eliminated each year if each home used three fewer rolls of paper towels each year.

If you put your mind to it, you can eliminate more than three rolls each year by using rags instead of paper towels. Keep a bin of rags in the kitchen and the bathroom made from dish towels that are ripped or grungy (cut them in half so you know you've demoted the cloths from a dish towels to a rags), old T-shirts and other appropriate clothing that's way past its prime.

Bonus points: After you wash the rags, hang them to dry instead of drying them in the clothes dryer.

Take it up a notch: Eliminate paper napkins, too. Purchase two week's worth of cloth napkins and wash them when you wash your dish towels.

When to give yourself a break: If you're hosting a big crowd, go ahead and put out a roll of paper towels or paper napkins. It will make it easy for others who want to help you in the kitchen to clean up spills, and they won't need to second guess whether a rag is clean or dirty. This also applies when you're away from the house and can't avoid using paper products. But as R. P. Joe Smith, a former district attorney from Oregon, explains in the video, it’s easy to only use one paper towel if you follow these simple steps.

Zipper plastic bag

zipper plastic bags
Swap out zip-top plastic bags for reusable containers as often as possible. (Photo: Trong Nguyen/Shutterstock)

For leftovers, lunches and even storing craft pieces, zipper plastic bags make things easy, but they're almost always thrown away after use and are rarely recycled. They end up in landfills, as trash on the street and as ocean plastic, harming marine life.

Purchase a supply of reusable containers in various sizes to store food instead of using throw-away bags. It may be a little extra work to wash them, but the savings to the environment are well worth it.

Bonus points: Save the inside bags of cereal boxes and cracker boxes to use for those times that you really do want a throw-away bag to wrap food in.

Take it up a notch: Eliminate plastic wrap that you'd place over a bowl in the refrigerator by simply placing an appropriately-sized plate on top of the bowl.

When to give yourself a break: When lugging the empty containers around after use would be a hassle — say when you're hiking — using a zipper bag or two isn't the worst thing you could do. Just take the bags home with your or make sure they are properly disposed of.

Plastic grocery bags

A woman in Monterey Park, California, carries her groceries in a plastic bag
Plastic bags may be convenient for us, but they're not terribly convenient for the environment. (Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

We use about 100 billion plastic shopping bags every year in the U.S., and each bag is useful for an average of 12 minutes, according to Conserving Now. Those 12 minutes are the time from the checkout lane to home where most of them get them thrown away.

Reusable grocery bags are inexpensive, and each time you use one, you put a small dent in that 100 billion plastic bag statistic. Remember to take them every time you go to the grocery store, the pharmacy and even clothes shopping. Also, remember to clean them regularly, especially ones that have held perishable foods.

Bonus points: No matter how hard you try, every once in a while you'll end up with a plastic grocery bag. Make sure any plastic grocery bag you get is either recycled or used a second time as a trash can liner or in some other appropriate way.

Take it up a notch: Buy reusable produce bags for fruits and vegetables so you don't have to use the plastic bags in the produce section.

When to give yourself a break: Taking a plastic grocery bag or two on purpose to use as trashcan liners or for pet waste disposal saves a different plastic bag from getting used, right?