If you read my article about toilet paper, then you’ll understand that almost all paper towels come from trees and most of its packaging is made of plastic, much like toilet paper. This plastic film is not recyclable and it is mostly unnecessary. Additionally, most paper towels use trees, water, chemicals, and electricity in their production.
Most people use paper towels for a variety of cleaning-related tasks, such as window washing, wiping surfaces, dusting, and cleaning up spills. They also use them to simply dry their hands or as napkins at mealtime. These are used mostly for convenience in our disposable culture. But our overuse of disposable paper items is contributing to climate change and our waste problem.
In America, we spend about $5.7 billion annually on paper towels. Americans “reside in the paper-towel capital of the world…the U.S. spends nearly as much on paper towels as every other country in the world combined…No other nation even comes close.”1 In 2013, we were using more than 13 billion pounds of paper towels each year, which is equal to wasting 270 million trees!2 But why do we use so many? Is it our desire for convenience, our addiction to disposability, our hyper-awareness of sanitation, or just that we can afford it? Many other nations use rags and cloths for cleaning and wiping.
“About 50,000 trees would need to be planted daily to offset the amount of paper towels thrown away every day.” -Tom Szaky, Terracycle3
Paper Towels are Optional
I have not completely eliminated paper towels from our home. There are certain gross things that my family wanted paper towels for, such as pet accidents (waste or vomit). You can use newspapers to clean up stuff like that if you have it around. But you will no longer be able to recycle it, you’ll have to throw it away. (Newspaper is also good for cleaning up dog poop while walking, instead of putting it in little plastic bags.)
We switched to cloth rags, wipes, and washcloths many years ago, eliminating our need for paper towels by about 77% (we went from approximately one roll per week to one per month or so). We buy fewer paper towels, and we now buy ones that are environmentally friendly (see below).
Alternatives to Paper Towels
You do not need to spend a bunch of money on replacements for paper towels! You can use almost any type of cloth:
- old or second-hand washcloths
- old or second-hand towels
- old clothing that isn’t good enough to donate
- cloth napkins for meals
I’ve used all of these. I turned stained or torn washcloths into cleaning cloths. I’ve bought old washcloths at yard sales. I’ve cut up old towels of my own or that I bought at the thrift store down to the size I wanted and hemmed the edges. And I’ve used old shirts that weren’t good enough to donate and cut those into cleaning cloths. This is a great way to upcycle old clothing. If you can’t sew or don’t have a sewing machine, don’t fret, you can use them as is. Hemming just prevents the edges from fraying. You can use fabric glues, available at the craft store, but I don’t know what chemicals or toxins those contain.
There are many DIY instructions on how to make cleaning cloths and ‘unpaper towels’ online.
There are also alternatives you can purchase such as reusable Swedish Dishcloths from the Package Free Shop. Their website says that one of these cloths is equal to 17 rolls of paper towels. They are machine washable and backyard compostable. I have not personally tried these so I cannot recommend them, but I think I might! I will, of course, update this article if I do.
You can make or purchase cloth napkins, just try to use or find 100% cotton. We’ve been using cloth napkins for many years and have saved many trees this way! It does require water and electricity to wash them, but it is less than using new paper products from trees. And cloth napkins are plastic-free!
Plastic-Free & Forest-Friendly Paper Towels
If you want to reduce your paper towel usage but still purchase some for icky jobs, buy plastic-free and forest-free paper towels. The company I prefer is called ‘Who Gives A Crap’ and they sell paper towels (and toilet paper) made from renewable sources, they do not package their merchandise in plastic, nor do their products contain inks or dyes.
Their paper towels are made from a blend of bamboo and sugarcane bagasse. As the company’s website explains, “Bagasse is a byproduct of sugarcane processing and is considered to be ‘waste’. Rather than burning or burying the bagasse (which is often the case), we’ve chosen to upcycle it into our paper towels. Upcycling for the win!”4 They are slightly shorter than traditional rolls. They were intentionally designed this way in order to ship more efficiently.
I’ve been using Who Gives A Crap toilet paper and paper towels for more than 4 years and I’m extremely happy with the company’s products. While they are not quite as absorbent as brands like Bounty, I use old towels for spills anyway. But they are durable and do a good job overall. Even more exciting, you can use their wrappers for Christmas gift wrapping. Read my article about DIY zero-waste Christmas gift wrapping.
Please note: this is an honest review; I do not receive any promotional items or money for writing about them.
Make The Switch!
This article does not contain any affiliate links nor do I receive compensation to promote these products.
- Article, “Americans Are Weirdly Obsessed With Paper Towels,” by Joe Pinsker, The Atlantic, December 10, 2018.
- Article, “Dirty Little Secret: Why washroom design, cleanliness matter to quick-service restaurants and consumers,” by Jason Renner, qsrmagazine.com, September 2013.
- Book, Make Garbage Great: The Terracycle Family Guide to a Zero-Waste Lifestyle, by Tom Szaky and Albe Zakes, Harper Design, New York, 2015.
- Product page, Forest Friendly Paper Towels, whogivesacrap.com, accessed October 16, 2022.