Replace Paper Towels with a Reusable Cloth Alternative

Reader Contribution by Danielle Pientka and Diydanielle.Com
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When I heard about “unpaper towels,” my first thought was, My grandmother would be disappointed in humanity to hear dishcloths touted as a new invention.

For those who aren’t familiar, “unpaper towel” are the reusable alternative to paper towels. They’re the millennial version of dish cloths. And while we might be prone to blaming millennials for this idea that dishcloths are a new idea, we can hardly blame them when they grew up with parents who may have used single use products almost exclusively.

Trending Away from a Culture of Waste

I’m not blaming you, mom and dad. Toilet paper became popular in the 1920s, and paper towels followed behind in the 30s. It was convenient and “the thing” to do. For most of us (I’m nearly a millennial), our parents were the first generation raised when those products were expected to be kept in the house.

My grandma lived through the Great Depression. Her family moved back and forth between Quebec and New Hampshire, trying to make a go at farming in the different climates. They eventually settled in New Hampshire, where she raised my mom and her four sisters. She was cut-the-mold-off-the-cheese level thrifty.

By the time younger generations were born, disposable products were the norm and there was societal expectations working against reusable products. Mention you use cloth diapers? There’s a good chance a friend or family member will offer to buy you disposables because they assume you can’t afford them.

Despite this inclination for the convenience of disposable items, there came a push in the late 1980s to live more sustainably, and that trend has grown. Young people have certainly picked up that trend and run with it. Good for them. It’s important to be concerned about the impact we have on our Earth.

Appreciating the Switch from Paper to Cloth

Paper towels aren’t the worst offenders, in my opinion, for creating waste — they can be composted with the kitchen scraps, after all. But dishcloths (sorry, I hate the term “unpaper towels) are certainly convenient. We have two small drawers with folded dishcloths, a kitchen wet bag to store dirty cloths, and we use them almost exclusively. 

They’re perfect when you have kids. We expect our children to help clean up messes and they frequently spill things. The absorbency of dishcloths helps clean up spills fast. Kids need a job? We give them empty spray bottles of water and a dish cloth to wipe down the glass doors while we do the real cleaning. Just don’t ever give a child a full roll of paper towels. There won’t be any left when they come back.

For our own purposes, cloth towels just do more work than their paper towel alternative. They absorb more. They’re easy to grab. They cost less long term. And they produce less waste. While ideally we compost paper towels, realistically they end up in the garbage in most households. 

While sponges are another common item in households to clean up messes, we’ve replaced them almost completely. They harbor bacteria and aren’t washable. As a washable product that can be used once then laundered, dish cloths don’t run into the issue of spreading bacteria around, provided you don’t continue to them for a week.

I still keep paper towels for guests and wince to see how many people use when they visit. Occasionally we use them for icky messes that I don’t want to launder or any chemical cleaners. Chemicals can destroy the fabric, especially if it’s left on there too long before being rinsed.

Tips for Switching to Cloth Towels

When I run a load of towels, I pop our kitchen towels in with them. It’s convenient now that our laundry room is right next to our kitchen. Wash the laundry on hot to kill bacteria and don’t leave your dirty cloth sit in a wet bag too long.

While I’ve found that store bought dishcloths are the least effort option, I occasionally make my unpaper towels, too. When I first started, I added snaps or hook and loop to the edges so I could roll them up like paper towels. What a waste of time! I have three kids and no time for snapping towels together. Quickly folding them makes way more sense.

I have discovered that old towels, particularly thin ones, are perfect to upcycle for this purpose. They’re not as pretty, but boy do they soak up a mess. Because I’m a bit vain, I also keep a couple of “pretty sets” made with two layers of flannel. The fabric goes on sale frequently and can also absorb liquid pretty well.

Whatever you do, don’t forget the wet bag. I made this kitchen wet bag from scrap pieces of PUL (polyurethane laminate) leftover from sewing our cloth diapers.

The main struggle with switching back to dish cloths is remembering to use them. Putting the paper towels in a less convenient spot, say under the sink, and keeping the dish cloths in a convenient basket on the counter can help.

So make grandma proud. Invest in some dish cloths. Get a few different sizes. You’ll find small ones are perfect for hand washing, medium size towels for cleaning, and large ones are good for cleaning messes and hanging to dry hands. Your wallet, and Mother Earth, will thank you.

Danielle Pientkais a stay-at-home mom to three boys and a blogger When she’s not chasing children, goats, or ducks, she’s gardening, reading, sewing, or brainstorming her next DIY project. She is the author ofHow to Sew Cloth Diapers, as well asa few other sewing books. Her husband and she developed a sewing phone app, Sew Organized, available for iOS and Android devices. Connect with Danielle onFacebook, Twitter, Pinterest, InstagramandYouTube, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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