Last year at a friend’s house, I was pouring myself a drink and had a little spill. I was scouring his kitchen for paper towels when he walked in on me opening cabinets — “Where are your paper towels?!” — his reply was “I don’t have any. I try not to waste paper if I don’t have to.” Then handed me a cloth rag.
Well. That was an idea I had never considered. The exchange stuck with me.
Over the past year, I have repurposed old washcloths, cloth napkins at the end of their lives, cheesy souvenir T-shirts I’d never actually wear, and any other kind of reject cotton cloth in my house into rags. I cut them (with fabric scissors for ease) to varying sizes and leave a pile under the kitchen and bathroom sinks. A cute, little, thrifted box was purchased for my laundry area to toss the used rags into while accumulating enough of a pile to add to a wash load.
It turns out, almost everything is rag-worthy rather than paper towel territory. One paper towel roll now lasts me 4-6 weeks. I know -— crazy!
Here’s the situation: water is renewable; used paper towels and napkins are not. They will biodegrade, but production of them uses energy and chemicals and they are served up to us on the store shelf encased in plastic. And, of course, they are transported around from factory to store to home. Every little bit helps on the eco-front, and utilizing more cloth at home is an easy adjustment that causes less waste and saves money.
If you have kids (or just messier folks in your life), what a great way to repurpose stained garments! And since the kiddos might stain cloth napkins more readily than adults, I recommend picking some up at thrifts, garage sales, discount stores and such. Once stained permanently, into the rag pile.
Cloth over paper is a wonderful habit to pass on to the next generation, who will be dealing with eco-issues in a much bigger sense than we are now.
The transition to using less paper towels and no paper napkins was painless. The only reason I’d used paper instead most of my life is because I hadn’t thought to do otherwise.
How to tell what is paper towel territory? Let your intuition guide you.
Counter wipe downs, liquid spills, cleaning most surfaces, dining, catch cushion under a serving bowl of dripping chili? Cloth. Cat coughed up a hairball? Paper towel all the way.
Stephanie Casey is the sometimes writer of the Frugal Foodie column for our Living Well section.