Don’t worry, it’s still Plastic-Free Tuesday, but we’re taking a slight detour in the blog today to address another common single-use household item—paper towels—which often come packaged in plastic, but can easily be replaced by a reusable alternative.
When you need to clean up a kitchen spill, what do you reach for? If you’re like most Americans, there’s a good chance it’s a paper towel. According to the Ocean Conservancy, Americans use 13 billion lbs (nearly 6 billion kg) of paper towels each year. And while Americans are by far the most prolific users of paper towels, the market is growing worldwide.
That’s a lot of trees and—almost always—quite a bit of plastic packaging, too. The good news is there’s a simple solution, and it starts with hiding your paper towels.
To be clear, before I took this step, I was a relatively light paper towel user. I had the select-a-size variety so I didn’t have to waste a whole sheet on a small job (and I would even tear off smaller pieces if that was all I needed). Though I’m pretty sure my usage was on the lower end, I know it wasn’t at zero because I was still purchasing new rolls—wrapped in plastic, of course—every so often.
In order to truly break the habit, I had to ensure paper towels weren’t an option. I had to take them off the table—literally—and put them in the cabinet under the sink. With the towels out of reach, I was forced to come up with a new system.
The clear choice was cloth towels. Since microfiber (and other synthetic fabrics) shed plastic fibers in the wash, I prefer to use cotton. I happened to have some cotton dish cloths sitting in a drawer that I was able to tap for this project, but bonus eco-points for repurposing old cotton t-shirts that are too stained or torn to be worn again.
The two main concerns you’ll need to address when switching to cloth towels are: (1) avoiding cross-contamination (basically, you don’t want to be cleaning the kitchen counter with the same towel you’re using to wipe the floor); and (2) mold.
In my experience, these are both easily avoided. To prevent cross-contamination, have a designated “floor” cloth. It might be helpful to choose a towel with a distinctive color or print (mine is blue). Use it to wipe up spills on the floor (and anywhere else where you don’t mind if it’s being cleaned with the “floor” cloth—spills on the bottom or the outside of the fridge, or the door of a kitchen cabinet, for instance).
What are your other needs? You can designate a cloth in a different color for drying dishes, and another for counter spills. Figure out your needs and determine what works for you.
Make sure to air out wet towels (after drying dishes or soaking up a liquid spill) to prevent mold. Hang it over the oven handle, on a towel bar, anywhere it can air dry. Once dry, you can use the towel again for its specific purpose—or, if it’s too soiled, toss it in the hamper. At the end of the week, remember to gather up the towels that are still in use to be washed with the rest of your laundry.
Let’s save some trees (and the plastic wrapping, too)!