Giving Up The Goods - Paper Towel Free Me


DISCLAIMER: Let me say this plainly and clearly. I am not totally "green". I am not a "minimalist". I am not vegan nor a vegetarian or "veganist" although I eat plant-based meals a lot. I am conscious of the contradictions in our food system, the choices we have and make, as well as our value systems and the myriad of experiences that shape those values. I could go on and on (and often do) about food justice and the blatant privilege in some of these arguments and lifestyles but I'm not. At least not in this post. At least not today. It's a work in progress. I'm working to do the best I can and make choices I can live with just like the next person. There is bacon involved in this post. So, you have been warned.

On January 4, 2018, I gave up paper towel.

I had been fiddling around with various challenges around minimalism, zero-waste, and eco-responsibility with varying degrees of success. Seemed I still couldn't remember to bring the reusable bags to the store (or even get them to the car), my compost efforts were haphazard at best, the styrofoam take out food containers made me cringe but not enough to make me stop taking them out and, i don't know, this paper towel thing felt like something I could actually do. And if I could do it, and experience this sense of accomplishment, I thought it would help inspire me in other areas. 

Paper towel can be expensive. Even the cheapie store brand was $6.00 for six rolls. At one roll per week, this was costing me about $50 per year. That may not seem like a lot of money, but every bit adds up. The Bounty brand is almost triple that price! And I was using armloads of paper towel it seemed. I can recall literally wrapping it around my forearm to create a bundle to throw down on the floor to absorb a spill or to clean the stove. Now that seems so odd and uncalled for. 

What would mother do? I didn't grow up with paper towel. I remember we had a dusty paper towel holder above the kitchen sink. Its two metal arms would hug the roll so we could snatch a piece whenever someone washed their hands. I do remember wanting paper towel. It seemed cool and unbothered by the messes I would make. Surely paper towel would stop my mother's fussing. Or "Handi-Wipes", I thought those were cool too. Marketing. (Hmmmm...I wonder what it means that I recall having these very strong feelings about this subject at a young age. May need to do some shadow work on this one too.)  So, uhm, yea, I didn't grow up with paper-towel. We had a rag bag. Old t-shirts and flannel shirts, cloth diapers, and grungy towels lived to a ripe old age in the rag bag. We also had dish towels, dish cloths and cloth napkins. Oh yeah, there was a mop! And when we went on outdoor outings, fishing or to the park, my mother would put all those unused slivers of leftover bar soap into a mayonnaise jar with some warm water and a wash cloth for "wipes" on the go. 


So, why did I do it?

I'm not going to say I could have done this when my kids were little. Indeed when I first posted the idea on Facebook, I cannot count the number of responses that began with "I could NEVER do that because I have kids!" (Although my parents did and I'm sure many, many parents did and still do!) I realize that it would require more thought, effort and work, things no parent is signing up for. So, I am speaking from my single human with a single dog existence. When I was setting up my first married home, I waved my paper towels with a flourish! I was liberated from the rag bag and I wasn't looking back! I would get exited to buy paper napkins and paper bathroom guest towels for each season in cute designs too. This was long before I knew of things such as compost, zero-waste, and living lightly on the earth. Now, I've come full circle.  I am aware that

  • Every household produces large amounts of trash. (Just take a moment to think about your trash on trash day, multiplied by your block, then by your neighborhood, then by 52 weeks a year...and on and on and on.) 

  • It takes a large amount of resources to produce paper towels and transport paper towels.

  • They are often produced with chemicals and additives to make them more absorbent.

  • They are also bleached, making them less than ideal for composting.

  • People are using them at a faster rate than they can biodegrade in the landfill. At first I tried switching to unbleached, recycled paper towel but that seemed like a false solution.

  • The recycled versions are very costly and unsustainable even if they are compostable and recyclable. 

  • And they all come with additional plastic packaging. (1)


I mainly decided to try it as a means to reduce trash waste. The amount of trash I produce is something I can work with. I also saw it as a fun challenge to repurpose old clothes and see what creative solutions I could come up with. I was curious as to how I would handle the daily paper-towel duties. And, since I was losing in so many other zero-waste areas, I needed the win!

How did I do it?

I think I was down to about two rolls so I stashed them in the pantry. I had dish towels and sponges. I invested part of my 'annual paper-towel budget' on some more dish towels and a package of reusable paper-towels from Trader Joes to try out (I got my handi-wipes finally! *wipes tear*), and I had some cloth diapers that I was using for herbal medicine making that were ready to be recycled. I was ready!

trader joes reusable towels.jpg

Or so I thought.  

I bravely allowed the sponges to wipe down the counters, basins and tables and the dishtowels dried the clean surfaces. The first time I buffed and polished the stovetop with a towel, it shone so brightly that I posted a picture on my Instagram proudly saying, "its amazing what a little elbow grease can do! #zerowaste #minimalist #nopapertowel #sustainableliving and #allthehashtags"

Then a spill happened on the kitchen floor and I hit a dilemma. I was hit with a wave of revulsion at the thought of putting my dish towel on THE FLOOR. Ewwwwww. I just stood there looking at whatever it was (I don't recall now) spreading its way along the cracks and crevices of the stone tiles. Ew. I mean, I have a dog. And dogs have hair. And there are crumbs and dirt down there. And what I do to clean that towel? And it certainly could NOT touch the counter or any eating surface again! EWWWW.

At this point I am still new to the game. I don't have a "rag bag". I don't even have ANY rags for said rag bag. I was going for the paper towel on this one. I opened the pantry door and reached in past the mop to get the roll. I stopped. Could I....? Why yes, I could! I think this thing called 'mop' could handle this problem. After all, it works on the floor. It lives for this very thing! And I knew what to do with it in the laundry tub. OK! I got this! It worked beautifully. I had to marvel at the fact I had completely disconnect the good old fashioned mop from this intended task. I only pulled it out on "mop day" when all the floors got a bath. I had a good old-fashioned cotton mop because I had refused to buy more Swiffer dry cloths and wet cloths and all of that so the handle was just sitting there looking forlorn and envious of the mop. (I still have to figure out what to do with it. BUT I have come up on some DIYs for replacement Swiffer cloths so....wea see.) 

I felt pretty confident at that point and was really not missing the paper towels at all. I was proud, I admit it. Then Riley decided to give me my next hurdle. The sick dog hurdle. I don't know what he ate, but it all came back up and out.  And that was not going on my mop. Or towel. I first thought I would have to use toilet paper or the paper towel stash but I got an idea! The dust pan and junk mail. All those sale papers would finally come in handy! I folded a wad and creased it sharply into a sort of flat spatula and eased the mess onto the dust pan. It worked! I dumped it and took the dust pan to some hot soapy water in the utility tub! I did have to use a little toilet paper for the remaining dampness on the floor but it worked! 

There were other hiccups 

I had friends over for lunch and piled a nicely folded stack of lined napkins on the table. I had lucked up on them at a yard sale. They were a lovely tan linen with a embroidered flower on one corner. They were beautiful. And no one wanted to use them. It took me some getting used to as well. It just didn't feel right smearing lipstick or pizza sauce on the cloth napkins. Some of them eventually stained as well. I ended up fishing out the decorative paper napkins I had, but when they are gone, they are gone. (And to show how little I reach for them, I have had the two packages for two years or more!)


I think this year I am going to use designated bar towels, dish towels or another cheap option. Maybe I can repurpose some cotton sheets or inexpensive flannel into something that feels more friendly and inviting, not so formal. There are also tutorials such as this one to make reusable paper towels:

Honestly, I haven't felt much of a loss in this whole challenge except in this area. It just took some work arounds and getting used to. 

In the bathroom 

This is an area that took some creativity. When my grandchildren and god-children come to visit, each little one gets their own color or design hand towel for after meal clean ups and hand drying. They seem to like that it is their own, you know how territorial children can be. When I have company, I tend to place about four folded hand towels in the sink area and I swap them out often throughout the event so they dry quickly and stay fresh. I think this is another area where I would like more of a stack of one-use (not-disposable) washable towels though. Or maybe each guest could also get their own towel too....hmmmm. Something to think about.  (Checking that paper towel line item.) 

For cleaning I have designated bathroom utility towels that live under the sink and get washed in hot water, vinegar, and washing soda after use. For the toilet I use gloves and a scrub brush on the innards. The seat and back are done with one of the designated rags. That works for me and I feel comfortable with it. I can however understand this to be a "paper-towel exception" area depending on your family size and their bathroom habits. Do what works for you and yours. No judgement here! 

Cleaning up all the spills, unless we are spilling tea…

Cleaning up all the spills, unless we are spilling tea…

So, what else is there? 

Like I said, I do keep a roll or two on hand but have not had any reason to use them in the past year except when I went camping. There we burned a lot of the paper that was trash but I will continue to explore less waste options.

It really has not been that difficult. What did I miss? Are there any uses that you think would not be covered by towels, rags, napkins, or mops? I admit that I have thrown a rag or two in the compost or trash depending on the mess (like the mysterious 'beyond' in the bottom of my fridge). But rarely. I mean, I can probably think of two instances of that in a year. I think having the back up paper towel frees you from thinking you are trapped bare-handed in mess land. 

I have to also add that I do not have or use a microwave oven which I seem to remember was a paper towel buddy. 

Oh yea, about that bacon.

I think I seriously derailed an entire minimalist group on Facebook with this challenge. I had decided to fry some bacon and needed to place the fried bacon on something to absorb the grease. I eat bacon maybe twice a year and rarely fry food in general so I had not planned for this. I didn't want to use a towel because I didn't want to get it all grease stained and I just didn't like the idea of the towel touching my food (does that sound problematic to you? Maybe its just me). I had a vision of fish and chips or a crawfish boil on newspaper or brown paper so I decided to use a paper grocery bag (Because even if I couldn't remember to bring the reusable bags to the store, I did loudly respond, "Paper!" to the check-out bagger's question of paper or plastic.). I cut it open with scissors and folded it so that the inside surface was facing the strips of bacon. I proudly snapped a pic and posted it to Facebook. Again,  #zerowaste #minimalist #nopapertowel #sustainableliving and #allthehashtags" and the thing blew up!


Apparently I had to be vegan to be a minimalist! I did not know that. (I don't! But ya’ would have thought so based on the rage in the responses to this bacon!) Also bacon is not sustainably sourced, they yelled in the comments. (Although no one bothered to ask where from or how I got the bacon.) Quite a few people thought the bag was dirty! They would not put their food on a brown paper bag. (This just doesn't bother me like the towel did. Whatever. ) They yelled at me too. I mean they were all-capping out for blood. One woman got herself blocked for literally bullying me repeatedly about veganism.  The administrator eventually had to turn off the comments on the post! Whew. That was a ride. And that was on day #1! I haven't been back in there because even if I am imperfect and making my own mistakes along the way, I'm not going to be shamed, judged, and bullied for them in some Facebook group. I am not a label or an "-ist" any way. I want to be intentional about whatever I do, think it out and do what works best for me and my chosen lifestyle. You may decide that your crispy chicken is worth its weight in paper towel. (Speaking of that chicken, in my research several people still use paper towel for clean up after handling raw meat. I rarely handle raw meat, but I can understand this caveat.)

So to review: 

  • Stash your paper-towels and just see how long you can go without. When you do use it, or before you use it, ask yourself if there is any alternative.

  • Stash some away for the emergency that you think you are going to have. (You probably won't but it will make you feel better).

  • UnPaper towel options are available on Amazon and other retailers, or try Etsy and support a small biz. 

  • Ask someone you know who sews to help you out on this and pay them instead of Amazon. 

  • Invest in some towels, cheap towels. Try thrift stores or discount stores such as Ollies.

  • Use what you have. Repurpose old sheets, pillowcases, towels, flannel shirts, pajamas, jeans, anything that is absorbent, has scrubability (made that up), and is lint free.

  • Newspaper, brown paper bags, and junk mail circulars can do double duty in a lot of ways.

  • Use the paper towel when you feel you must. There may be tasks or needs that you decide require paper towel (See chicken comments above.)

  • Go slow. This isn't some type of punishment. (Even thought I personally feel #Winning!)  

Here are some additional resources to check out for paper towel alternatives.

Sustainable alternatives to paper towels  and A blog post to check out with a lot of info and other paper-less options.

(Totally personal side bar: I HATE the feel of micro-fiber towels on my hands, wet or dry. UGH! Found that out the hard way after I had purchased a dozen or so.)

Even if you don't completely do away with it, I'm sure you could cut your paper towel usage by 3/4. I know that sounds like a lot, but I believe it to be true. I t basically boils down to a decision based on values. Yes, you will wash potentially more dishes if you do not have a paper towel to put a piece of cake or some cookies on.  Yes, you will need to asses your messes and tolerance levels. I'm not saying its not as clean of a lifestyle, be we have been conditioned to believe certain routines and products equate to "clean" and that may take some reworking. 

I hope this was helpful if you are thinking of downsizing in the paper towel area. I would love to hear your thoughts and about your journey.

I have also done away with aluminum foil but that is a post for another day!

Be well and I wish a peaceful and productive new year! 

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