By Kim Robson
Paper towels are so convenient and useful; it can be hard to even think of giving them up. I’ll ‘fess up: I’m guilty, too. Nine out of ten households use them. We still use them sparingly in our home. But I’ve managed to use significantly fewer of them since I started also using cloth dish towels and cloth napkins. It all began years ago, when I was browsing through a thrift store. I found a dozen simple, unused, cream-colored linen napkins for 50 cents. Figuring it’d be fun and classy to use cloth napkins, I brought them home. It was a revelation. Not only are they fun and classy, but they are tough and absorbent enough for messy meals (corn on the cob, anyone?). When soiled, they just get tossed in the laundry hamper for the next wash. They’re great for covering warm bread, wrapping a sweaty bottle, or patting dry wet produce. They are attractive and utilitarian, and will last for many, many years.
Paper towels have been around since 1879 in industrial settings, but were only introduced for kitchen use in 1931. It then took many more years for them to gain acceptance over cloth towels. Today, their usage is second only to toilet tissue. Up to 51,000 trees are required to replace the number of paper towels that are discarded every day. Once used, paper towels cannot be recycled. Paper production is the fourth largest contributor to global climate change. On average, every American throws away 700 pounds of paper, resulting in 254 million tons of trash, annually. If businesses in the United States reduced paper use by just 10%, it would prevent the emission of 1.6 million tons of greenhouse gases – the equivalent of taking 280,000 cars off the road. Compared to using virgin wood, 100% recycled paper uses 44% less energy, produces 38% less greenhouse gas emissions, 41% less particulate emissions, 50% less wastewater, 49% less solid waste and – of course – 100% less wood.
In my kitchen, I keep a generous stack of cloth dish towels on hand. Two are always present on the counter, one for messes and the other for drying wet hands. You can usually find them at the grocery store, but at a steep markup. They’re easy to find online for dirt cheap. Fifty flour sack cloths can be had for only $14. Try looking at wholesale restaurant suppliers, catering suppliers, Goodwill, thrift shops, and, best of all, your grandmother’s cabinets. I inherited a stack of old-fashioned dish towels from my mother-in-law when she moved to assisted living. They remind me of her wonderful cooking every time I use one. Cotton and linen are the best fabrics for absorbency and durability. Note: please avoid bamboo cloth. Bamboo is popular right now because it’s sustainable – the mother plant is not killed at harvest time. Therefore, it’s a fantastic substitute for wood (my cutting board is bamboo), but the process to convert bamboo into cloth involves large quantities of highly toxic chemicals. Not very green.
For cleaning floors and walls, instead of using paper towels, try using old bath towels, cut-up old t-shirts, or cloth diapers. Natural sponge or chamois cloths also work well and are reusable. If you own or manage a brick-and-mortar business, install electric hand dryers in the bathrooms. A five-year cost analysis study by the Office of Sustainability at Lane Community College was performed using 200 units – hand dryers and paper towel dispensers. The study factored in cost of materials, disposal, labor, seconds of dry time, cost of electricity, and purchase and installation cost. The cost of a hand dryer was $150,343, while the cost for paper towels was $524,183, a remarkable 71% savings.
In fact, all of these tips will save you money, not to mention the planet. It’s gratifying to see how many cloth towels and napkins we use each week. I know we’re making a difference. Now, if we can just give up paper towels completely, that would be quite an accomplishment!