Goodbye Paper Towels: How to Ditch Disposables in the Kitchen {GUEST POST}

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This is a guest post from Sarah at Early Bird Mom (clearly not me!!).

Did you know that Americans use 3,000 tons of paper towels each day? (source) That’s a LOT of paper (and money) that goes straight in the garbage.

A lot of you already know that there is a better way.

Ditch the Disposables and Have a Paper-Free Kitchen :: via Kitchen Stewardship

What if more people had a paper-free kitchen?

If you don’t already, what if you switched to the “real” thing: cloth napkins, kitchen towels for spills and clean-ups, and cloth washcloths to help scrub little hands?

Why go to the trouble of avoiding paper and reducing waste in the kitchen? With a little extra work, you can avoid a whole lot of waste and save a lot of money. If your kitchen is as hard-working as mine is, there’s a LOT of clean up on a daily basis! Using cloth helps avoid throwing a ton of paper right into the garbage.

6 Ways to Keep Paper Waste Out of the Kitchen

1. Regular dishes (obviously) instead of paper plates.

I know, I know: sometimes even getting plates into the dishwasher is more than a tired mama can bear, but hopefully these times are the exception to the rule. Plus, once your kids are old enough, they can take over this chore and you’ll be less tempted to fall back on paper plates.

If it helps you stick with this ideal, don’t buy the paper plates to begin with. If they’re not in the cupboard, you won’t be tempted to use them. :)

Tips to Create a Paper-Free Kitchen :: via Kitchen Stewardship

2. Cloth napkins

We keep a basket of napkins (found on Amazon) for mealtimes. I find that 2-3 napkins per person is enough for our family. After meals, we toss them back in the basket (as long as they’re not messy). We usually go 2-3 uses between washings. If you want to get a little more organized, color-coded napkin rings will help family members re-use their own napkins.

3. Baby washcloths

I keep a small bin of baby washcloths(found on Amazon) for washing my youngest child’s hands and face. He usually needs a wipe-down after a meal or a snack like yogurt and honey so this makes it quick and easy to do. The bonus with washcloths is that they hold up much better than paper towels so you can really scrub off that stubborn tomato sauce or jam that gets stuck on little faces.

4. Kitchen washcloths

I keep a supply of washcloths for hand-washing dishes and wiping counters. I prefer using these over a kitchen sponge because they hold up much better over time and I can toss them in the laundry at the end of the day or whenever they become grimy.

5. Kitchen towels

Cotton towels are used for drying hands, pots and pans, and counters.

6. Cleaning rags

The hardest working cloths in my stash are my cleaning rags. I keep a drawer full for extra-messy clean-ups like sanitizing the counter after cutting up meat or wiping up spilled tomato sauce. These rags are also great for wiping up spills on the floor.

The cheaper flat cloth diapers (found on Amazon) you see in the stores are a great choice for cleaning. They are usually super-absorbent and will last forever. I drop these cloths right in the laundry after one use so they don’t spread around germs.

How Do You Launder All These Cloth Items?

If you have a large enough collection, you can have a separate basket dedicated to these items. When it’s full (or you’re running low) toss them into the washing machine. Teach your kids to fold them somewhat neatly (see my comprehensive Chore Guide HERE) and you’ll be all set.

I like to keep my napkins and rags separate from the other laundry for 2 reasons:

  1. No sorting required. Everything can come right back to the kitchen to be put away.
  2. More sanitary. I wash this load in hot water and kill any lingering bacteria. Plus, no leftover food accidentally stains our other laundry.

Using this system, I have approximately 1-2 loads of rags, napkins and towels a week. This is the easiest load I do and it fits in with my simple laundry system without much extra work (especially if I have the kids do the putting away).

Tips to Create a Paper-Free Kitchen :: via Kitchen Stewardship


Don’t Worry About Stains

This may be the key to staying paper-free. If you don’t worry about stains, the laundry is much easier to manage. And truly, does it really matter if a rag that’s going to be tossed right in the laundry has a spot on it? If the cloths are clean, some set in stains won’t hurt anyone.

My cloth napkins aren’t in pristine condition. They are clean, but they do have some stains. I don’t really care, though. The napkins are all dark colors to help hide any stains and we keep one nice set for special occasions.
Being paper-free in your kitchen does take some extra work, but the cost savings and environmental benefits are huge.

It would be great if everyone switched out their paper towels for kitchen towels. Until then, we’ll just keep saving the world one step at a time.

Are you currently paper-free in your own kitchen? What steps can you take today to be paper-free?

SarahM2Sarah Mueller blogs at Early Bird Mom and is homeschool mom to 4 boys. She loves helping busy moms get more done through simple household systems. She’s giving away her latest free e-book, 5 Critical Technology Safeguards: A Mini-Guide on Internet Safety for Families. Get your copy here!

Photos by Sarah Mueller
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61 Bites of Conversation So Far

  1. Amy Schmelzer says

    I am mostly paper free in my kitchen. My biggest stumbling block is wiping out leftover grease from my cast iron skillets. If there’s a lot, then I pour it out, but that still leaves quite a bit of excess to be wiped out. It is certainly more than I am comfortable putting into my washer and dryer (it’s a fire hazard because no washer removes 100%) , so I use paper towels.

    • Bethany W says

      (Amy – I compromise here, too. Glad I’m not the only one!! I just got a new washer/dryer and read about flammability issues in the dryer. Wonder if that has actually happened to anyone?)

      • says

        I miss my cast iron :( We can’t use it on the cooktop that came with our latest house. However, I would think there’s not really more than what you might find in a regular pan that was used to saute’ something. Either way, if that’s your only use for paper towels, you’re doing great :)

    • says

      Amy, I have some cut-up T-shirt squares (from a holey undershirt that would have had to be tossed anyway) that I use for cast iron and pitch when greasy… but I also leave a good bit of grease in there for a day or two on the stovetop and just make sure I preheat for 3-5 minutes before using to kill any germs that may have tried to grow…so I don’t wipe it out very often! We haven’t died yet… 😉 Katie

  2. MrsJennyK says

    We already incorporate a lot of these ideas into our every day life. We don’t use paper plates at all. We use cloth for kid cleanup after meals, I have tons of kitchen washcloths, tons of kitchen towels, and a decent amount of cleaning rags.

    But we STILL go through an obscene number of paper towels. I’m embarrassed to admit to how many rolls a week we use. What I can’t seem to figure out is how to eliminate paper towels for the chunky stff, super greasy stuff, oatmeal-sticky stuff and raw meat stuff.

    I’m totally freaked out by using anything reusable for wiping up after raw meat. And the glumpy gloppy sticky stuff could be rinsed off of a rag – I do get that – but then I have a wet rag to store somewhere until wash day. Wet rags in a hamper = stinky rags. I don’t have space to hang them all up until they dry. **Doing** the laundry isn’t a problem. I have a great system in place.

    I think if I could just get past those other things I could finally, really cut down on the paper towel addiction!

    • Amanda says

      I have a hamper just for kitchen linens. Depending on the house, it’s been in the garage or the kitchen. I put the damp cloth over the edge of the hamper until it’s dry, then I toss it in the hamper later. I do find the kitchen linens load difficult to get 100% smell-free out of the wash though, unless I do that load every 3 days or so, even if I could wait longer to do a fuller load.

    • says

      Just a couple ideas on where to hang wet rags until they dry, which hopefully is 12 hours or less:
      1. the pipe under your kitchen sink usually has a flatter area where a washcloth fits perfectly, out of sight!
      2. The center on your washing machine, for really icky stuff you don’t really want to touch especially…I do that when I know I’ll do towels next particularly, then I can just knock it into the washer with other items! And you can hang a few over the edge of the washer.
      3. I have over-the-door racks in all bathrooms where at least one cleaning rag in each hangs.

      For raw meat, you probably would be fine using your kitchen washcloth and then hanging it up and getting a new one afterward (what I do). Greasy stuff does need a disposable sometimes, if it’s more than a small smear. I have some cut-up T-shirts that would have been trashed (holes) anyway – they’re under my sink and used for the cast iron seasoning, and I do throw them away, but they are salvaged from the trash anyway, so I figure it’s a step. :) Katie

  3. AshleyB says

    Great tips! I have paper towels in my kitchen, but rarely use them (usually for the times the dog has an accident or throws up in the house). I keep a basket under the sink in the kitchen and bathroom for rags & washcloths; they get added to the sheets & towels for laundry. I try to leave dish rags & washcloths hanging up overnight so they’re not super wet when I put them into the baskets (dish rags hang over the middle part of the sink, washcloths over the spout in the bathtub). Having a system in place makes a big difference!

  4. Emily says

    We don’t buy paper products but we always keep an eye out at events where paper products are used and will get tossed at the end. My husband’s in school so pizza lunches are a great source of paper napkins/plates/cups that will get tossed with the empty pizza boxes. He makes sure to grab them up and this gives us a stash for busy times!

  5. Anna says

    I am not a representative, so no personal benefit to me with this comment; however, I LOVE my norwex microfiber cloths. They aren’t cheap, but a good investment in my opinion. They have colloidal silver so are antibacterial. You only need to use water! They remove food-borne bacteria with just a wipe, wheras any chemicals that you may still be using (yuck!) requires the surface to remain wet for FOUR MINUTES!. I also love them along with the polishing cloth for windows, and my stainless steel. I have been so pleased with this system. No germs, no papertowels. I”m a happy camper.

  6. Melissa says

    We do all these steps, and eliminated paper entirely… until the first time a kid threw up in the middle of the night, all the way from bed to the bathroom. We had one of those “super helpful” middle of the night arguments about no paper towels in the house, but by the light of day my husband convinced me to keep a roll in the house for the worst of times. I buy one roll about every four months, so it really is our emergency roll.

    I would also love a suggestion on how to clean up grease without disposables, though!

    • says

      Yup, that’s not a fun one…

      For grease, I mentioned above about my cut-up T-shirt squares for cast iron, and grabbing napkins from restaurant tables (they’re going to throw them away anyway) for this purpose is another good step in the right direction. :) Katie

    • Kay-Marie says

      I was a nurse aide before I was married and I feel for you hearing about throw up mess. I was the am shift at a nursing home and sometimes we would not find the vomit that someone did while sleeping very quietly and it was dried, or partly so when found. A strong solution of salt in water will help cut through a very stubborn mess of vomit. Hope this tip helps, and your kids stay well and healthy!

    • wendy says

      No paper needed. I soak grease up with baking soda, then wash it away down the drain. It really absorbs all the grease so that a simple dishwashing will do.

  7. Karen says

    I also wash my cloth stuff with the towels. I use vinegar as a fabric softener and I can tell a difference when I forget it. The rags can get really stiff as they dry in the hamper waiting to be washed, and the vinegar seems to help strip that residue off.

  8. Carolyn Aleven says

    I really have no idea, but in terms of saving money, how much is spent on washing your cloths vs using paper towels?

      • Julie says

        It costs me $1.50 to wash a load of laundry in my apartment complex (and I don’t use the dryer). The laundromat is $1.25 a load.

        • Tricia says

          Even an in-home washer/dryer costs more than pennies to do a load. It’s not cheap to heat the water, regardless if you have an electric or gas water heater. Electricity to run the washer (no matter if it’s a HE washer that uses less water, it still costs $$ to run it) Do not forget the simple act of using water – regardless if you have well/septic or you pay for water/sewer. If you use paper, you can throw that all in the recycle bin. I would love to see the hard facts in comparison. I bet the difference is negligible on your pocket book or the environment.

            • jana says

              What about a burn pile for paper? Arent ashes good for compost piles? You could take an old washing machine drum or small hibatchi bbq and put all your used paper goods that cant be recycled in there and burn them. Then dump the ashes in the compost or whereever ashes benefit the most!

          • says

            I’m not sure anywhere allows you to put soiled paper towels in the recycle bin. Recycling needs to be free of contaminants.

            We got an HE washer two months ago. The new water bill should arrive any day so I will have a good idea of the difference a new washer makes (mine was 10 years old).

          • says

            I agree with Sarah and Helen, you can’t recycle paper towels. Some say you can compost them, but then you’d have to be regularly composting, and not everyone does.

            I guess I figure the tiny wipe-up rags I use (and reuse before washing, often) just assimilate into larger sheet/towel loads anyway, so it’s probably only a full load a month or less of actual impact on our laundry. That can’t be very expensive…the cloth diaper experts are often running the numbers on washing vs. buying disposables and it always comes out in favor of cloth. ??? But the geek in me wants to know the numbers on a load of laundry, too! I just don’t think the rags I use increase my usage that much.
            :) Katie

  9. Bethany W says

    Love this post.

    We keep a basket of baby washcloths in the bathroom to help wipe up children who are day-time potty trained but still wear a diaper at night. I used to use those flushable wipes (*hides head in shame*), but I’m glad I found a much better solution all around!!

  10. says

    Our rags are made of old towels that we cut into squares. If I need to wipe up grease or puke or some other gross mess, then I just go ahead and toss the rag too. We have so many that it’s not a hardship to lose one every now and then. I haven’t purchased paper towels in 2 years! Our only disposable item that we use is toilet paper. I’ve thought about ditching that for the “family cloth” but I can’t see actually going through with it.

  11. Cait says

    I do have paper towels but we use less than a roll per month…often one sheet used to wipe up the vinegar after working with raw meat. I just don’t trust washing normally to completely sanitize my cloths. I’d like to recycle more things for kitchen rags – I have kitchen towels and cleaning rags for the bathrooms, but no ‘stain this!’ rags for the kitchen :) Which would be nice to have since I often end up using my towels and then they look nasty :( My whole stash of washcloths was knitted by friends and family for our wedding, and I use small crocheted squares for dishes because using a big floppy washcloth grosses me out for some reason.
    A running joke with my in-laws is the difference between DISH towels and HAND towels. There IS a big difference, which is why in my (and in my mom’s!) kitchen there will always be two towels hanging up – a flour sack style one for drying dishes (so much better than other weaves) and a terry one for hands. My father-in-law understands me but his family can’t agree 😉

  12. says

    I try not to use paper towels, but I sometimes struggle when I know cleaning up certain things will cause problems, like oils that if I don’t wash out well enough in the sink, will get on other things in the load.
    Since it’s just my husband and me, loads with just dish towels and cloths are so small, they seem like a waste of water.
    It’s a work in progress.
    Sometimes I do the load with a bunch of towels (and hope nothing stains my bathroom towels, although it wouldn’t be a huge deal).
    Do you have any tricks to cleaning up loose hair in the bathroom without using disposable anything?

    And thanks to Cait for defining dish towels and hand towels. I didn’t always understand, but had a roommate that commented on it once. I asked what the difference was and she replied, “Well, they’re just not the same thing!” without any definition :) Ha.

    • says

      I guess I always just put wipe up rags and cloth napkins in with bath towels and hand towels. If something is super oily, like seasoning cast iron, I use a small square of cut up T-shirt (one that would have been tossed anyway because it was in such bad shape) and then throw it away. For hair, letting it dry and sweeping it up is my defense. :) Katie

  13. says

    Thanks for such a great post. I grew up in Germany and never used Paper Towels until I moved to the US and married my American husband. We ended up using them quite a bit early in our marriage, but have since switched back to using rags.

    I enjoyed the breakdown of using different clothes for different types of “dirty jobs”. One I’d like to add is using single socks that have lost their mate. I use them all the time to clean and dust.

  14. says

    We’re definitely paper free in the kitchen. I won’t say 100% since I keep paper towels on hand for cat spit up. Not sure I don’t like to use rags for those, but I don’t.

    Thanks for linking up at Motivation Monday!

  15. Michelle via Facebook says

    All six! We keep our washcloths in the linen closet, though, since I don’t have babies anymore. I also admit to buying two packages of paper plates a couple of weeks ago when we had a water crisis and couldn’t use our tap water at all. :)

  16. Judith via Facebook says

    Sara, we do the same. Btw, when my husband lost weight I had to buy him new undershirts. We cut up the old ones, and use those in lieu of paper towels, minus draining bacon. When we have company, we pull out the nice napkins.

  17. Chasity via Facebook says

    Sara, I live in an area that has banned plastic shopping bags so we have a lot of paper bags. I use my abundance of paper bags to drain bacon.

  18. Jennifer via Facebook says

    We now use paper bags for bacon. I cut them up to the size of a small select-a-size paper towel. Works great.

  19. Jamie via Facebook says

    All of them! I have 36 wash clothes that I split between the bathroom and the kitchen to clean up the kiddies, works extremely well for us. That way there’s always a clean washcloth to wipe hands/faces/for bathes so no need to resort to paper towels

  20. Irene via Facebook says

    I still buy for bacon and vomit/cat accidents. I worry about cross contamination from cat cleanup. It happens rarely but just often enough to keep a roll.

  21. says

    Super common question Sara – a few others on this thread use brown paper bags (cut up) and I have recently just been draining on a wire rack over a plate (and pouring the grease into a jar for sauteeing veggies later). :)

  22. Rachel via Facebook says

    We use everything on the list except I just can’t get rid of my paper plates. We recently moved, I’m expecting baby number 4 and my new house has no dishwasher so I just can’t part with them.

  23. Kentucky Lady 717 says

    If you are familiar with the “PIONEER WOMAN” on food network on Sat’s. she lives on a ranch and does a lot of cooking and entertaining and she uses BANDANAS for napkins (what a agreat idea)..she has all colors, so you may want to think about getting some bandanas and using those for napkins…..
    I use DISHCLOTHS to wash dishes, not wash cloths……and I hang them up to dry after I use them (a clean one for every time the dishes are washed) and then I put them in a separate container until I am ready to wash them…I wash dish cloths and dish towels by themselves…….usually about every two-three weeks I will have a load… bathtowels and washcloths are washed separately also, and of course my cleaning rags have a separate container and they are washed about once a month also separately …..I just hang up wet things in the laundry room and they dry overnite…..and then you put them in the proper containers to be washed later…..

  24. Charolett says

    I don’t use many paper towels, may be 1 roll every three months. And that is because we have two pups that like to eat grass and throw it up. Enough about that. I use a spatula to scrap grease off pans, plates or what ever. Then I throw it in the trash. So I don’t have greasy rags or towels. I hope this helps you

  25. Elena says

    I am almost paper free. I cut meat on a cutting board which is washed afterwards, so no need for paper. In Italy white paper towels are compostable, so I suppose it depends on the recycling system.
    I use paper towels for guests and for food spill on the floor, but it is a very limited amount.
    About the ecological aspect: true, washing cloth uses water and energy but I read somewhere that producing paper towels is on the whole more water – consuming than using an upcycled cloth and washing it many times.
    On the other hand my mil is very pro-paper and I wish I could teach her something without seeming arrogant.
    Not kitchen related: for make up removal I use small squares cut from old shirts, with water and/or oil (such as almond oil) and I love it!

  26. Estelle STone says

    I am always looking at ways to go “greener”. I haven’t stopped all the way yet on paper towels. I would like to, though. I have read conflicting thoughts on using paper vs. using water to wash all of the dirty cloths. Any thoughts on that? I do compost all of my paper towels, etc. instead of throwing them away, but I’m still trying to figure out what is the lesser of the two evils. Thank you!

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