The Disposables: Running a Kitchen Without Paper

The Disposables: Running a Kitchen Without Paper

Aug 23, 2010 |  by  |  On the Homestead, Reducing Waste  |  Share

So as I mentioned in my introduction to ditching disposable products, my goal is to gradually cross each item off my “Nasty Little List of Disposables.” And I’m going to start with what I feel is the biggest target – the kitchen. Now this isn’t rocket science. But I’m still gonna break it down for ya.

pt mugshot 259x300 The Disposables: Running a Kitchen Without Paper
Suspect #1: Paper Towel
In America alone, the nefarious paper towel contributes 3,000 tons of trash to landfills each day. Based on our family’s use of a roll of paper towels per week (which is probably on the low end for the average family of four) we could save around $100 per year by using dishcloths and other various cloth rags instead. And even if we had to purchase new dish and washcloths we would still come out ahead, especially considering the lifespan of a cloth towel vs. paper.

Let’s start by taking a look all the ways we use paper towels on a regular basis. Here’s a quick list:

  • Cleaning
  • Napkin replacement
  • To dry leafy herbs and vegetables after washing
  • Covering food in the microwave
  • Soaking up grease from fried foods (only occasionally when we have delicious bacon)
  • To absorb moisture when storing herbs or other vegetables in the fridge

The first three bullets are easily addressed in step 1 below, but to keep food from splattering in the microwave we’re thinking of purchasing these reusable food covers. If we buy ‘em I’ll let you know how well they work – still need to research them a bit more. And to handle the issue with fried foods, one simple solution is to place a cooling rack on a cookie sheet and place the greasy food on the rack allowing the grease to drip off the food. Works pretty good. Finally, there is the issue of effectively storing herbs and vegetables in the fridge. With fresh herbs we tend to wrap them in a paper towel and seal them in a plastic bag in the fridge. This helps control the moisture and prolongs the life of the herbs. A little searching on the web led me to a new way of handling my herb storage. All you do is place your herbs in a jar of water and cover them with a plastic bag. Supposedly, they’ll last up to 2 weeks using this method, and it also forces you to look at your purdy herbs every time you open the fridge door. Hard to forget about them when they’re front and center. The other thing I’ll be doing is making sure all our herbs and vegetables are plenty dry before placing them in the fridge – using cloth towels to dry them of course.

For everything else, the solution to the problem is to replace the paper towels with cloth ones. I really liked simplemom’s idea of designating several different types of towels so when it comes time to grab one, you know right away which to use for the job based on factors such as quality, thickness, and type of material. So with that in mind, along with Lisa Wuertz’s idea of having a separate mini hamper for dirty cloth towels (hers was tucked under the sink), I came up with an ultra-bad-ass-smoke-’em-out kind of plan.

Step 1: Get the Gear

Here’s the type and count of towels and cloths we have on hand.

  • Big stack o’ rags – for the really gross and messy stuff. And the bigger the stack the better as far as I’m concerned. For me something just doesn’t feel right about using a perfectly nice towel to wipe up some foul cat barf or sloppy, wet stuff from the floor. Without fail, I end up wiping loose cat hair and other floor dwelling “things” along with the mess. I can tolerate that kind of cleaning much more when I’m using a cloth that’s already fairly worn. What can I say? I’m anal with that sort of thing.
  • 4-6 bar towels – these are thick and heavy hand towels that are great for keeping around the kitchen all day long to wipe down the sink and counters and clean up spills. they are highly absorbent so they are the go to towel for most of our above ground cleaning needs.
  • 6 scrubber washcloths – These washcloths have a honeycomb looking web on one side that acts as a scrubber. Nothing too abrasive, but it’s rough enough to handle nearly all stuck on grime in our kitchen. We haven’t been using these for very long but so far they’ve been working well for our needs. And they have also nearly eliminated our need for scrubbing sponges in the kitchen.
  • 24 casual cloth napkins – For our family of four (two under 5 yrs.) we can usually get by with using four napkins a day total, unless it’s pasta night and our three-year old is feeling hungry. Some meals, the napkins are hardly touched so we just reuse them. This might be gross to some people. If so, you’ll want to plan to have more of these in stock. With 24, we have eight per day available and we’ll wash them every few days.
  • 8-10 nice/formal cloth napkins – These are used when company comes over. If you do a lot of entertaining, you’ll probably want to have more of these on hand.

Step 2: Organize Your Stuff

This step is key because if it’s not organized properly then you may never use it. Your towels and cloths will stay tucked away inside some closet or drawer and those rolls of evil paper will continue to infiltrate your home. How to go about organizing them? Well, start by going cold turkey and not have any paper towels in your home. If you don’t have them, you can’t use them and suddenly reaching for your drawer full of towels instead of reaching for that roll of evil paper will become habitual. It’s hard to forget about your cloth towels when that’s all you have to clean up a mess.

Keep cloth napkins out in the open too. On your dining table in a nice basket perhaps or if you have to put them in a drawer then keep then close to your silverware. That way, at your next meal you can grab your fork along with the napkin hanging out nearby.

As for the rest of the towels? Well, my preference is to keep the bar towels and washcloths in the same drawer and the funky rags go in a cabinet in our laundry room, which is just off the kitchen.

Step 3: Commit to Quit

This means you can’t hang around paper towels anymore. Not in the store. Not at home. They’re a bad influence. Don’t invite them in your cart, car or home. If they’re not within arm’s reach, you can’t use or abuse them. Oh, and don’t make excuses why you need paper towels. You don’t.

And for those of you out there who think this switch is an insurmountable challenge that will cause riots in your home, all I can say is – let it go. These are paper towels we’re talking about here…PAPER TOWELS! It’s not like you’re telling your family they can’t bathe with soap anymore. You’re just asking them to use cloth instead of paper. That’s it. They can still wipe their faces and clean up messes. And not using paper towels is kinda like giving the earth a big, narly high-five. So be the leader and role model that you know you are and kick those paper towels to the curb for good.

One last thing…if cost is a driving factor for you then you’ll want to take a look at the cost-benefit analysis of paper vs. cloth products at the Growing a Greener Family Blog. Love Jennifer’s straight talk on the subject. She breaks down napkins and paper towels in uber detail.

Please note: The paper towel cartoon within my mugshot mashup is from nataliedee.com. Very funny artist.



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6 Comments


  1. Thanks for the link love :) I really agree with your statement about this switch NOT being an “Insurmountable challenge that will cause riots in your home” – this is what most people say, such as “We could never do it” but I’ve been paper towel free for years plus paper napkin free my entire life and it’s not a big deal. Good post.

    • Thanks, Jennifer. Ever since I found your blog, it’s my go-to spot for mathematical analyses of all things green. Good, good stuff.

  2. Hi! I’m glad my idea was able to help. We’ve since moved and the mini hamper no longer fit under the sink, but our washer and dryer are now behind a curtain right by our kitchen so I just keep a hamper on top of the dryer for all this stuff. Still works great. I also recently bought some of the cotton flour sack type towels that I use for absorbing grease from fried foods, straining homemade yogurt, etc.

  3. Our kitchen is almost paper-towel free. We still use them for soaking up grease from fried foods or bacon, but it takes a few months for us to use up a roll. I keep one roll tucked away in the pantry, out of sight. Towels and rags are right in the middle of the kitchen, easy to grab. And I now have cloth napkins in the middle of the kitchen table, on a tray. Guests will go looking for a paper napkin, though, saying that they don’t want me to bother with washing a napkin for them!

    When my kids make a mess at someone else’s house, they look around for a rag to clean it up, and never even notice the roll of paper towels until someone hands one to them. I guess I’ve trained them.

    • That’s great! We’re actually following the same system that you mentioned – we’ve got a roll of paper towels under the sink that comes out every now and then. But no one thinks to use them on a day-to-day basis. Amazing how not using paper towels makes so many people get all weird!

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