Getting the paper towel monkey off your back—give it a try


So many messes; so many towels.

OK, I admit it. I have someone that helps me clean my house. And no, it is not a husband or a child. Of course, they do their parts with the daily work: the dishes, the laundry, making the bed. But no one else was really getting down on their hands and knees and scrubbing the bathroom floor with me. So I have help once a month. It is lovely. I adore my friend and cleaning associate (Let’s call her “Anna.”) She had been cleaning for the previous owners and kept on after we moved in. She was the first regular cleaner I had ever had. I was in heaven.

But lovely and helpful as Anna was, she had a few habits that were troubling for me. She liked to use paper towels—lots of paper towels, like two rolls per visit. And this in a household that previously used only rags for spills, newspapers for cleaning windows and cloth napkins for wiping our chins. I knew I had to break her from the paper towel habit. I couldn’t stand the waste and I didn’t like chunking down an additional $4 every month on a single use, disposable item. I was a little concerned about making things harder for her or interfering in the way she handled her business.

Turns out it wasn’t an issue at all. Basically I asked, “Hey—do you mind if we try using rags instead of paper towels? I will always have a bucket of them clean and ready for you to use.” And she said, “Sure.” It has been years since the conversion—we are both happy with the arrangement.

I realize I am not saving the earth by reducing my paper towel use. I know that there are things far more onerous than my paper towel use that affect the earth more harshly—things like airplanes, cars, electronics, PVC, factory farming, herbicides and fertilizers and so on. In the face of all that—does my attempt to limit paper towels really even matter? I say, resoundingly, yes! Small changes can have an enormous impact.

Making the switch from paper towels for wiping up my spills to rags might seem insignificant but it is decidedly not. Take for example, Anna’s paper towels: If she had used two rolls a month and had been cleaning my house once a month for five and a half years that would have been 132 rolls of paper towels adding to a landfill or being burned in an incinerator. Let’s extrapolate further—what if, because of my request, Anna had decided to change her regular cleaning business to a green business and began using rags in all the houses she cleans. It is the ripple effect in all its glory. Multiply those unused paper towel rolls by 10, by 100, by 1000 and you can see the enormity of how little gestures have big impacts.

Switching to cloth napkins can have the same impressive impact. I have about five sets of napkins—two sets that are in very nice condition for holidays and company. Then I have three sets for everyday use or for particularly messy food. I pick up napkins at garage sales and thrift stores or when they are on sale at a department store. But if I had been using paper napkins for all these years, say, since I’ve had kids (25 years), I would have gone through a small forest! Please bear with me for one more extrapolated example. If an average package holds 250 napkins and one family of five goes through roughly 15 to 20 a day because folks may use more than one at a setting or grab an extra for a puddle of milk, etc. then that package would last less than two weeks. But to make it easy—say a package lasts two weeks. In 25 years of household meals I would have gone through 650 packages of napkins! I can guarantee you I have napkins (or my kids have napkins I have passed down to them) that have been around more than 20 years.

Progress can seem both forward- and backward-moving. My parents’ generation—you know, that “greatest generation”—were absolute naturals at reusing, reducing and recycling. It wasn’t trendy or hip—it was basic survival and common sense. When we moved my mother out of her house and into a senior high-rise, my daughter and I were amazed by how many washed and folded squares of aluminum foil she had stashed away. Who knows, maybe she thought there would be a shortage someday but I think most likely she just couldn’t throw away a perfectly good piece of foil!

It was only 100 years ago that paper towels were (accidentally) invented by Mr. Scott. Was it progress? And if so, does that means we are regressing when we choose to use rags? Or are we just circling back around on the spiral of awareness and conscious consumption learning from our mistakes and changing old habits? My vote is for the latter because those 3 Rs are an excellent mantra for all times. And at the end of the day— cloth lasts and paper is trash.