Plastic-Free Paper Towels

Roll of white paper towels backlit by product shelving.
Photo by Michael Semensohn on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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 towel aisle at a local supermarket
Paper towel aisle at a local supermarket, photo by me.

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

Cloth towels, or "unpaper towels," substitute for paper towels, colorful fabric on a roll.
Made and photographed by CatEyedKP on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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
        • newspaper
        • 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!

Silverware set on top of a burgundy cloth napkin.
Image by Alexander Lesnitsky from Pixabay.

Plastic-Free & Forest-Friendly Paper Towels

Two rolls of white paper towels with white background.
Photo by Marco Verch Professional Photographer on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

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.

Who Gives a Crap paper towel rolls in box.
Who Gives a Crap paper towels in box. Photo by me.

Make The Switch!

Whether you decide to switch to reusable cloths or rags, or switch to bamboo paper towels, you’ll be making a difference on multiple levels. You’ll reduce waste, protects trees, eliminate toxins, and maybe conserve water. Congratulations! Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!
This article does not contain any affiliate links nor do I receive compensation to promote these products.

 

Footnotes:

DIY & Zero Waste Gift Wrapping (for All Occasions!)

Last updated on March 9, 2024.

Christmas wrapping paper and ribbon, red and white colors, on black table, scissors in background.
Image by tookapic from Pixabay.

Americans spend an estimated 3 to 7 billion dollars annually on wrapping paper. We buy wrapping paper, something we are intentionally going to throw away. We are paying for stuff that’s going to go into the trash!

Maybe it’s time we reallocated those funds.

Wrapping paper and gift wrap often come wrapped itself in plastic film, which is not recyclable. We use the paper once to wrap gifts and then we throw it away. Some wrapping paper has a plastic coating, making it non-recyclable. On top of that, the plastic tape we use on gifts makes the paper unrecyclable (because of “contamination”) in most municipalities.

What can you do?

There are so many things you can do to make a difference in the amount of waste we produce, and often even save money. Here are just a few ideas:

      • Use the alternative methods in this post for gift wrapping.
      • Reduce the overall number of gifts you give – think minimalism!
      • Gift e-gifts! Think ebooks, e-audiobooks, music: gift subscriptions to Audible, Kindle Unlimited, Spotify, a video game, or any other similar online subscription.
      • Gifts for experiences – tickets to the movies, theater, ballet, climbing gym, museums, or the spa! What would the person you’re gifting really like?
      • See my Black Friday article for additional ideas.

There are so many alternatives! But first things first…

Let’s talk about tape

Stop buying “Scotch” or plastic tape. I know this seems crazy, but if you want to reduce waste and plastic pollution, plastic tape has got to go. I recommend gummed paper tape, which I first learned about from the blog, My Plastic Free Life. The tape is water-activated and is super sticky with just a tiny amount of moisture. I cut out small strips of the paper tape, apply a tiny bit of water with a paintbrush and let it get gummy, and then apply the tape.

Paper tape roll, scissors, water cup, and paintbrush
Supplies: Paper tape roll, scissors, water cup, and paintbrush.
Cut strips of paper tape
Cut out strips of paper tape.
Paintbrush to brush water on paper tape
Use the paintbrush to brush on a tiny amount of water. You don’t need much to make it adhere.

It’s not the most attractive tape, but if the gift wrap is going to be trashed or recycled after the gift is opened, who cares? People you are giving gifts to probably know you well enough to understand that you’re an eco-warrior. Be proud. And if you are worried about it, you could decorate the tape.

You can find paper tape at local office supply stores and on Amazon. Just steer clear of the types that are “reinforced” because they contain fiberglass filaments, which are plastic fibers. This defeats the purpose of using paper tape to be eco-friendly.

Use up gift wrap that’s already in your house

If you’ve got wrapping paper you’ve already purchased, please use that up and don’t waste it. You can glue small scraps together to make a larger piece to waste even less.

Large piece of wrapping paper made from scraps.
Large piece of wrapping paper made from scraps.
A second gift I wrapped from the same large piece.
A second gift I wrapped from the same large piece. This one used leftover plastic ribbon and a leftover store-bought gift tag. I have used these up and no longer purchase plastic ribbon or gift tags.

Eliminate plastic bows and ribbon

Bows sold at regular stores are usually made of plastic. Even if you reuse them for several years, they eventually must be thrown away. Stop buying these and look for alternatives online or make your own. Cycle out the plastic ribbon in your home as well, switch to a cloth (not polyester, because that’s plastic too) ribbon, or just use pretty string or twine. You can also make some out of fabric or old t-shirts! Ideas abound online!

Silver and blue gift bows on a white background.
Plastic bows: pretty but bad for the environment. Photo by DiEtte Henderson on Unsplash.

Eliminate store-bought gift tags

Gift tags are often stickers or plastic-coated paper, and sometimes have a plastic band or ribbon to attach it with. You can make your own tags out of regular paper or leftover gift wrap which can be recycled.

You can also write directly on the gift with a marker. This is what I’ve switched to most recently, and it saves me time. Here’s one I did recently, using leftover wrapping paper and a plastic bow that I’ve been reusing for several years (I haven’t cycled all of those out yet):

Gift with handwriting on the paper in place of a gift tag, with a red bow.

Gift bags

Gift bags are often plastic-coated paper, so I don’t recommend buying these. They are reusable, but they do have an end life and aren’t recyclable. Cycle these out and don’t purchase more.

Switch to uncoated paper gift bags. If they are plain, you can decorate them! One zero-waster recommended using regular shopping bags and decorating them by placing a used greeting card over the logo but you could glue any pretty picture over it, from an old magazine or calendar. You could also place a photograph over the logo and let that be part of the gift (grandparents would love a photo of their grandchildren, for example).

Alternatives to buying wrapping paper

Furoshiki (Fabric)

Two furoshiki wrapped gifts
Image by Weekend Knitter on Flickr. Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Furoshiki, a Japanese tradition of wrapping items in cloth for carrying and gift-giving. Often the fabric is meant to be reused for other purposes. This is an eco-friendly and gorgeous way to wrap gifts and it’s the one I primarily use now. I love pretty fabrics, and even though I’m striving for minimalism, I always have a box or two of fabric in the house. What a beautiful way to give gifts! Here are three I’ve done:

Fabric wrapped gift, pink satin

Fabric wrapped gift, red leopard print

Fabric wrapping is also good for odd-shaped or sized items, such as this one:

Tube shaped gift in fabric, red leopard print

It’s easy to learn but it does take practice. I’ve linked a few other helpful resources below under Additional Resources. You can buy fabric remnants at fabric and craft stores for small pieces. Some companies offer unique innovations related to fabric wrapping. For example, Lush Cosmetics sells Knot-Wraps, their version of Furoshiki but they are meant to be used again as a scarf or tote – so it’s like giving two gifts. They are made of either organic cotton or two recycled plastic bottles, and the wraps are gorgeous!

Homemade wrapping paper

I’ve made wrapping paper from many different things! This takes some time but it’s easy and allows for creativity.

Magazines:

This is one of my favorite ways to upcycle old magazines! I glued random magazine pages together to make large sheets. After wrapping, I let my son decorate the package. Please note, this is also before I switched to the paper tape, so you’ll see Scotch tape on the gift as well as a plastic bow I reused:

I collected a few old art magazines to make wrapping paper. The next two images show one of the large sheets I made, and the images below those show wrapped packages using that paper.

The brown paper tape is hardly noticeable on these packages.

Another publication I used was High Five magazine, a popular children’s magazine. We had several years’ worth so I just grabbed one older edition and tore out the colorful pages. You can see in the following images how I glued individual pages together until I had one large sheet:

Here’s a gift I wrapped:

Child art:

This is another favorite, especially for gifts to family members. You can glue pieces of child art together and make a large sheet, just like you would with magazine pages. It makes this wrapping paper truly one-of-a-kind! Grandparents will be delighted with original pieces of artwork wrapped around the gift you’ve chosen for them.

You can even just use one coloring book page to wrap small gifts. Here’s one I wrapped last Christmas with a single sheet (but with plastic ribbon and a gift tag I still had leftover):

Reclaimed books:

You can use pages from old books to make wrapping paper – children’s books, photography books, or just plain pages of text from books. You can find cheap books at any thrift or second-hand store. Many used bookstores, such as McKay’s here in Tennessee, have a “free” bin of unwanted books. These are items that were not accepted by the store but that people did not want back. I have not personally tried this method but think it would be really cool. What a great way to honor these books and upcycle!

books on table, like at a sale.
Photo by Min An from Pexels.

Toilet paper wrap:

Toilet paper rolls from Who Gives A Crap
Toilet paper rolls from Who Gives A Crap.

You can use the decorative paper from toilet paper rolls from Who Gives A Crap toilet paperhis eco-friendly company makes recycled and bamboo toilet paper and gives 50% of their profits to help build toilets in places where there are none. I’ve been using this toilet paper since writing my post about toilet paper in 2018. The paper wrappers on these rolls can be used as gift wrap and the company even makes a special holiday edition.

This has become a regular method in my home. You can place stickers or pretty pictures over the logo if you want to cover it up. Here are images of the large sheet of wrapping paper I made and the wrapped gift:

Newspapers or Brown paper

Newspapers or Comics:

You can use the old-fashioned method of using newspapers. This is what many of our grandparents did.

Brown paper:

Cut brown paper from grocery store paper bags or leftover builder’s paper into the size you need and wrap away! Once you’re done, you can color it or paint it with your favorite medium. You can ask your child to help too!

Thank you for reading!

I hope this helps you reduce waste year-round! If you have other ideas about DIY wrapping paper or reducing gift wrapping waste, please leave me a comment below – and don’t forget to subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Guide, “Furoshiki: Japanese Gift Wrapping,” Marie Kondo (KonMari), accessed January 16, 2021.

Article, “How to: Furoshiki (Japanese fabric wrapping),” One Million Women, December 22, 2015.

Article, “Think Outside the (Gift)box: 3 Ways to Wrap Gifts With Fabric,” Craftsy.com, accessed December 23, 2020.

Wrapping with Fabric: Your Complete Guide to Furoshiki - The Japanese Art of Wrapping book coverBook, Wrapping with Fabric: Your Complete Guide to Furoshiki – The Japanese Art of Wrapping, by Etsuko Yamada, 2014.

 

 

 

 

All photos in this post were taken by Marie Cullis unless otherwise credited.

 

Footnotes:

Toilet Paper: Paper, or Plastic?

Last updated on May 21, 2023.

frog figurines next to toilet paper
Photo by Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay.

Toilet paper is one of those things that we all buy and use. But have you ever noticed that the vast majority of brands wrap it in plastic? We throw that plastic in the trash because it’s not recyclable. My family used Quilted Northern (or other brands if they were on sale for years) and threw away the plastic packaging every week. Some, like Charmin brand, have packs of 4 wrapped in plastic and then 3 or 4 of those grouped together and wrapped in plastic, again, to make a 12 or 16 pack. Plastic wrapped in plastic.

I’ve looked almost everywhere locally, and the majority of toilet paper is plastic wrapped, sadly.

“It turns out that regular toilet paper—at 1.5 pounds of wood and thirty-seven gallons of water per roll—is surprisingly wasteful.” -Eve O. Schaub, author of Year Of No Garbage1

Plastic-Free Toilet Paper

I discovered a company called Who Gives a Crap, which makes toilet paper from recycled paper and bamboo, meaning they use no virgin paper and don’t cut down any trees to make their products. Their products are plastic-free and they don’t use inks, dyes, or scents. The company also gives back: “We donate 50% of our profits to ensure everyone has access to clean water and a toilet within our lifetime.”2 So plastic-free and toxin-free, and the company does good for the world? I don’t normally buy anything in bulk, but I had to give them a try.

Who Gives A Crap toilet paper
My Who Gives A Crap toilet paper order. Photo by Marie Cullis.

The result is that we’ve been using this toilet paper exclusively since 2018. The company makes recycled toilet paper from “post-consumer waste paper (things like textbooks, workbooks, office paper, etc) and a small percentage (around 5%) of post-industrial paper.” Using recycled paper allows them to reduce their carbon dioxide and particulate matter emissions, and it also saves water. It is also free of BPA because they use recycled paper that is free from BPA.

Who Gives A Crap’s bamboo toilet paper is the one I prefer. Bamboo, which is a grass, is a sustainable option because it grows fast, is very renewable, and needs no irrigation or fertilization. Their bamboo is mainly grown in remote areas of Sichuan Province in China by farmers who plant bamboo on the outskirts of their family farms in order to supplement their income.

For extra fun, you can reuse the paper from the rolls to make gift wrapping paper! Who Gives A Crap also offers blog posts about other crafts you can make with their paper wrappers.3

Who Gives A Crap’s Mission

When the founders discovered that 2.4 billion people don’t have access to a toilet and that contaminated water from lack of toilets contributes to over 1 million deaths per year, they wanted to do something about it. Here’s how they describe it:

A toilet could make all the difference, but billions of people worldwide still live without one. Without a loo, waste ends up in local waterways – the same place people collect water for drinking, cleaning and bathing. That’s why toilets are an integral part of a bigger health initiative called WASH, which stands for water, sanitation and hygiene. Together, these three elements strengthen communities and save millions of lives.4

This is a really great cause and one we don’t think of much in the U.S. We take toilet access for granted!

Who Gives A Crap recycled toilet paper.

Affordability

Who Gives A Crap’s bamboo rolls cost $68 for 48 rolls, which equals about $1.42 per roll. Their recycled rolls are about $1.29 each. Their rolls are double length, so I’m comparing ‘mega” sized toilet paper rolls in the other brands:

        • Charmin 30 mega rolls $31.17, or $1.04 per roll
        • Target brand 30 mega rolls for $19.99, or $0.67 per roll
        • Great Value brand is $17.96 for 18 mega rolls, or $1.00 per roll
        • Angel Soft 24 mega rolls at $15.46, or $0.64 per roll
        • Quilted Northern $18.87 for 18 mega rolls, or $1.05 per roll

So the average cost for Who Gives A Crap is slightly higher than regular store brands, but their products are plastic-free, toxic-free, delivered to my door, and half of the company’s profits go to help others across the globe. Keep that in mind!

Sustainable Toilet Paper

In 2020, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) issued a report that rated toilet paper companies by sustainability. They rated Who Gives a Crap the highest. As Eve O. Schaub wrote in Year Of No Garbage, the same report pointed out “that Charmin toilet paper is sourced from 100 percent virgin trees from Canada’s boreal forest, and that every second 1,400 square feet of Canadian boreal forest are clear-cut for products such as toilet paper. Now, we aren’t given the basis of the marks on the NRDC scorecard in the article, and so can’t see how heavily transport figures in to the overall calculation of environmental impact, but unlike so many of the industry sources who are tap-dancing like mad around such issues, the NRDC is a pretty reputable source in my book. They very clearly choose Who Gives a Crap as the lesser of all toilet paper evils. So I decided to accept that they had, in fact, done the math.”5

Alternatives to Toilet Paper

Modern bidet.
Modern bidet. Photo by Basan1980 at German Wikipedia/Wikimedia.

Yes! Bidets are like an additional toilet used for washing your nether regions. “The classic bidet is a miniature, bathtub-like fixture situated next to the toilet, with taps on one end. Its tub is filled with water, and the user straddles themselves over it to wash below the belt,” an article in The Atlantic described.6 An article on how to use a bidet explained that you should “Always use the toilet before you use the bidet. A bidet is intended to help you wash and clean up after using the toilet, but the fixture is not an actual toilet.”7 But they are more popular in Europe and Japan than in North America. 

Does the use of a bidet reduce toilet paper consumption, and hence save trees? Yes, according to an article in Scientific American, they save trees and also they save water, from the production of toilet paper!8

Personally, I’d be willing to try this but there is just no room in our small bathroom. But in a future residence, perhaps!

Reusable Wipes

Don’t buy disposable wipes. They are made of plastic, are not biodegradable, and cause major damage to sewer systems. “Once flushed, the wipes glom together with any fat from food waste and can form what are called “fatbergs”—iceberg-style blockages that can clog a whole system.”9 They are expensive to extract and repair the damage they cause. Disposable wipes also end up in waterways, the ocean, and beaches. If you must buy these, please throw them in the trash even if they are advertised as ‘flushable.’

Cloth wipes, sometimes referred to as family cloths, are reusable cloth wipes that you launder after each use. I had a family member who made her own to use while she was pregnant because she was peeing so frequently – brilliant! Many people have strong opinions for and against this process.10 I sewed some family cloths for our home to use instead of disposable wet wipes. I simply took cotton flannel scraps and old t-shirt fabric and made two-layer rectangular wipes. We have found them very useful as a supplement.

Toilet paper rolls in a white basket.
Photo by Vlada Karpovich.

Other Ideas?

Have you found other brands of plastic-free toilet paper? Or have you tried one of these alternatives, or another that I did not cover? I’d love to know if you’ve thought of something else, leave me a comment! Thank you for reading and please share and subscribe.

I did not get paid or receive gifts to write about Who Gives A Crap’s products. The opinions in this article are honest and mine.

Footnotes: