Replacing Paper with Cloth, One Step at a Time: Paper Towels

I’ve been thinking lately about the environment, our budget, and household waste. The amount of trash we generate is kind of alarming; not only is it bad for the planet, it’s bad for our bottom line. We’ve tried here and there to replace paper with cloth – paper towels, napkins, tissues, and feminine hygiene, primarily – but it never seems to stick for long. We’re going to try again, though, without changing a million other things at the same time. Just replacing paper with cloth, one step at a time. If you’re thinking about doing the same thing, let’s give it a try together. I’m planning to start by replacing paper towels with cloth.

Replacing paper with cloth, one step at a time - starting with paper towels

The biggest obstacle in the past has been a lack of laundry facilities or a lack of laundry routine. We have a washer and dryer now, so that’s become easier. But I know that without a routine, permanent transition to reusable cloths is never going to take root for us. I’ve found that, with any kind of change, I need to make it habitual. This will come as zero surprise to anyone who has read any kind of self-improvement blog, book, or tweet, I’m sure.

Still, as I’ve mentioned, I tend to go for Grand, Sweeping Change, and it works for a little while, and then boom it’s too much effort and not incorporated into my everyday routines and it falls by the wayside. I’m not the only one, right? I also do a little better with accountability, but most of all with a group of others who are pursuing a similar goal – so please, join me in our Facebook group and let me know if you’re also replacing paper with cloth (or if you already have)!

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I’ll admit that my initial instinct is to go shopping for some shiny new cloths to use, but that’s contrary to the point of this change – which is to reduce consumption and waste. We already have lots of old receiving blankets that can be refurbished into smaller cloths for cleaning. I also have some very nice kitchen towels from Grove Collaborative that are attractive and durable. And it makes no sense to buy durable stuff if you’re just going to keep buying MORE durable stuff and end up with a whole hoard of it, right? And I also have both Norwex and eCloth microfiber cloths (I prefer Norwex, as I think it works better – not for the antibacterial factor but just sheer mopping-up-stuff capacity).

We don’t have so much in the way of handkerchiefs, or cloth napkins. I may use the aforementioned receiving blankets – it seems like cotton flannel would be nice on the nose. I also just bought twelve boxes of tissues on sale so the preschooler doesn’t freak out – once we get switched over, I’m going to have to transition him slowly. He’s picky. I imagine my toddler daughter will be easier to convince since she doesn’t have a strong preference yet!

I also have cloth pads, but that’s another post for another time. Oh, and diapers. But in all honesty, I’ve tried cloth diapering and I just do not have the energy for it. I wanted to love it. I know disposable diapers are wasteful. But I also know that I’m working with a limited number of spoons because of illness, and we can only do what we can do. So keep that in mind for yourself, too. And hey, with the small steps, maybe I’ll get there eventually?

The Biggest Issue With Switching – Laundry

So. I don’t know about you but the single biggest issue for me, as I mentioned, is the lack of a laundry routine that gets the reusable cloths washed regularly and keeps them in rotation. If you’re reading this and thinking, “Seriously, that’s so trivial and easy!” then you  may be on the wrong blog. Ha! In all seriousness, though, I need to make a step-by-step plan with small tasks that can fit into my list on Todoist. (That’s how I stay on top of things; you may use a planner or a bullet journal or a post-it note. Or your brain, if you have one that still works for stuff like that.)

In the interest of small steps, I’m going to start with just towels to replace paper towels for everything except raw chicken juice cleanup. Hand drying, dish drying, wiping up spills in the kitchen, drying vegetables: All will now take place with the assistance of a lovely, reusable bit of fabric.

Making a Laundry Plan

To make this work, we need to have clean towels available at all times, and I need to convince my husband to stop using them when they’re dirty. Nobody wants to do something that’s more work than what they already do, so it needs to be easy.

  1. The first step, then, is to have a receptacle for the dirty stuff where it gets used. Since I’m focusing on paper towels, 90% of that use happens in the kitchen. I don’t want to keep them in a plastic bin since that doesn’t allow for much air circulation, and wet, dirty towels mouldering in a bin sounds disgusting. So! I plan to use a mesh laundry bag hung on the pantry door. If that turns out to be too annoying, I may switch to a plastic milk crate or canvas bin. I think I have both of those things.
  2. The second step is to estimate how many towels we’ll use each day. I’m going to start by guessing 4 towels a day, since I have young kids and things get spilled. I don’t have a problem wiping up a little milk with the corner of a towel and using it again a couple hours later to do the same thing. Next day is leaving it a bit long, though.
  3. Next, I gathered all the kitchen towels to see how many we have. There are three of the nice cotton ones from Grove, as well as a few flour sack towels from Target’s Threshold line. The previous residents left behind a whole pile of microfiber towels (I think they’re from Dollar Tree – I’ve seen similar ones there). The latter will work best for spills and dish drying, because I cannot abide drying my hands on microfiber. The cotton towels are nice and thick and will probably be the best choice for hand drying. Flour sack towels are great for drying relatively quickly between uses, so I plan to use those for drying produce (and making jelly rolls, right?). Of course, all this will probably change as we go along.Anyway, I’ve got 3 Grove towels, 3 flour sack towels, and 8 microfiber towels. If I use one each of the Grove and flour sack towels and two microfiber towels per day, we can go for three days between launderings – and have extra microfiber just in case.I also have the microfiber Norwex and eCloths, and plan to keep those handy as well. That adds a little extra buffer room for spills, too.
  4. The final step is to schedule laundry. By themselves, these towels really don’t even constitute a small load of laundry, so I plan to combine them with bath and hand towels to make a full load. Otherwise I’m wasting water instead of wood pulp. The neat part is that it will ALSO get the bath towels washed more often!Since Todoist allows me to schedule something “every 3 days” and just repeats it for me, it’s pretty easy. If I were using a paper list I’d have to remember to write it in as appropriate, but it shouldn’t be too hard, right?
  5. Well, I guess the actual final step is to do the laundry and then to actually get it back to the kitchen in its clean state. I’m sure folding is lovely and all, but (Marie Kondo, avert your eyes) our kitchen has a drawer deep enough that I can just toss the towels in all higgledy-piggledy if need be.

Starting Today

We’re pretty low on paper towels, as it turns out, so today is a great day to get started. I’m going to make a couple post-its to stick on the kitchen cabinets that say “USE CLOTH TOWELS” so I don’t forget – and so my husband doesn’t forget. My preschooler likes to help but needs to be prompted, so I’ll just have to remember to tell him to get a cloth towel.

And that’s it! Wish me luck or, better yet, join me!

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