Breaking Up With Paper Towels Was Easier Than I Thought

I used to go through one or more rolls of paper towels every week. Not anymore.

November  1, 2019
Photo by Julia Gartland

Americans love paper towels. This year, according to Statista, over 318 million consumers reported using them, compared to a mere 10 million who don’t. Likewise, The Atlantic shared that the United States accounted for almost half of the $12 billion global spending on this product in 2017 (for some context, the runner-up, France, spent $635 million).

If you’re thinking they’re just so convenient, well, same. Paper towels can be used to wipe up spilled milk, dry just-washed hands, dust shelves, you name it. If you’re squeamish about cross-contaminating ingredients like raw chicken (also, same), they graciously take care of the mess.

But they come at a price—and I don’t just mean financially (although, give or take, I used to spend a few hundred dollars on this item every year). Paper towels have been dinged as “the least green way of drying hands,” according to a 2011 Massachussets Institute of Technology study. So what does that say about using them for countless cooking and cleaning tasks?

A month-ish ago, my husband and I decided to cut back. Not cold turkey, just less. We ordered a mega-pack of washcloths, and stacked those in front of the paper towel holder on our counter, like a checkpoint.

Here are just a few of the ways we use them on any given day: Dry our hands. Drain wet ingredients, from rinsed canned beans to washed berries. Mop up spills. Spray-and-wipe literally every surface (dining table, coffee table, refrigerator, dishwasher, kitchen counters, stovetop).

Turns out, using a cloth towel is just as habit-forming as using a paper one. It’s also more satisfying. Instead of using one towel for one task, we can stretch one towel for hours, even days.

Yes, I have to throw these in the laundry and wash them, dry them, and fold them. But I was going to do laundry anyway. And yes, they pick up stains over time. But who cares?

Sort of like an ex you thought you couldn’t live without (you can!), the longer I live without paper towels, the less I miss them. Which is pretty freeing. Now the only question is: What am I going to do with that extra couple hundred dollars every year?

This post contains products that are independently selected by our editors, and Food52 may earn an affiliate commission. Are you trying to cut back on paper towel usage? Discuss in the comments!

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Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram and Twitter at @emmalaperruque.


Marina J. November 17, 2019
What I am trying to say is that paper is nothing, just a cellulose which will degrade easily, it normally is made of recycled wood anyway, it's not like forest are cut for kitchen paper.
Not a big deal for the nature. Think about plastic in oceans - that's the tragedy.

Trying to make my soft print I collect plastic litter on our beach, I never buy soft drinks and alcohol,
try to save water and electricity, make compost from our kitchen waste. Would be happy for good advice at it, but not long talk about nothing.
Marina J. November 17, 2019
Of course it's not just about money. It's about not being silly in your arguments, saying 52 rolls of kitchen paper cost hundreds dollars.
And about a soft print... The 80 percent if ghus country population use... firewood for heating. Firewood fir heating, for a moment! We buy 3 tons of it every autumn, having no choice - and I should reduce my kitchen paper to save some trees, really?!
Paula November 17, 2019
I've really enjoyed being part of this thread. It appears many people are trying to make small lifestyle changes and decisions that may or may not make a big difference to the health of our earth home. (Don't even get me started on baby and adult diapers filled with body fluids--both liquid and solid--going into our landfills every day). I've lived on the planet, this lifetime, for almost 71 years and have no illusions that I will save the world. I just feel better when I make an extra effort to leave a soft footprint, and I believe there are others out there just like me. I began recycling by recycling newspapers in the early 1980's, and still do that. Just pick something that gratifies your soul and go with it.
Marina J. November 16, 2019
Thanks to everybody for advice. It would be boring to discuss why they don't suit my household, why I use two washing machines day and night, why I can't escape washing my white kitchen towels by the hottest temperature and still use paper towels. Just believe me, some people need them. Tough I will experiment with washing in cold water with biodetergent, thank you - maybe I don't know something yet about life :-). But just one question: how much costs one roll of kitchen paper in USA? Are they made of sandal wood or rose petals? How did Emma manage to spend hundreds dollars a year for one roll a week? I don't think it costs one dollar. Even if two rolls a week - in one year there is only 52 weeks. Emma, you don't have to think how to spend saved hundreds dollars. I :-) You haven't saved them.
Mrs S. November 17, 2019
I'm not sure that cost (in dollars) is the main concern here. At least for me, the goal is to try and reduce my negative impact on the environment. And if by doing that I save a few cents, so much the better.
Marina J. November 13, 2019
Ridiculous. Just make a calculation for water, electricity and detergents for washing your kitchen towels. You mean it very green? Do you know how much natural resourses is spent to produce this electricity, clean water, washing mashines and how harmful the detergent industry are?
Let alone the time. If you have it, I do not. I simply cannot do more washing/drying as I do for my big family.
And oh yes, animals' accidents. Paper towels are indispensable.
judy November 13, 2019
thanks for nothing (on so many levels)
Mrs S. November 14, 2019
I don't think anybody wants to take your kitchen towels away from you. As Emma mentioned in her article, though, it seems that people, especially in the U.S., use a *lot* of them, and of course much water and electricity (not to mention trees) goes into the making of them.
To me, a mindful approach seems a good one here. Like "do I need to use paper towels here, or will something else do?" And I don't think anybody is doing extra washes for their cloth or cellulose alternatives - I sure don't.
A.S. November 16, 2019
Use bio-degradable detergent, cold wash, and add them to laundry that is going to be done anyways- in reality it isn't that much extra laundry, especially if you use thin, easy to wash fabrics.
Jane L. November 13, 2019
I appreciate this information. If you have pets, you cannot break up with paper towels! But I will replenish my stock of kitchen towels and try to use less. Thanks!
Tricia P. November 12, 2019
We've been using hand towels to replace paper towels for cleaning purposes for years, and I really appreciate articles like this that highlight the facility and environmental advantage of low-barrier, eco-conscious alternatives.

A major obstacle in our household is cat poop/vomit! We still use paper towels largely to clean up after our animals if there is an accident anywhere - because it feels gross to pick up poop or vomit, drop it off, and keep the cloth. I guess it's not really different than cloth diapers. But if anyone has advice on this - including "we have this problem too, just get over it" - it's welcome : ).
eyecee November 12, 2019
While I avoid plastic bags, so many are unavoidable. I strive to use them as many times as possible before putting them in the garbage. The best use is for collecting the weeks coffee grounds and scraps for our compost heap. I feel better knowing the now nasty smelly bag has had a good life of service.
Selma M. November 11, 2019
I posted earlier about the need for recipe authors and bloggers, and now (publishers) to take responsibility for not suggesting the use of paper towels to drain fried food. I have just checked the Food52 frying section recipes and found that, not all, but many of them suggest draining fried food on paper towels.
Mrs S. November 11, 2019
I've been using cellulose dishcloths (I believe they're sometimes called Swedish dishcloths in the U.S.?) for years. They are super absorbent, machine-washable, they last for years, and unlike cotton cloths they dry quickly (and they don't get icky fast like sponges do). I switch to a new one every day and wash them hot or warm, depending which load is next.
I find that paper towels are easy to tear into smaller pieces if you go from perforation to perforation, so I will use half or even a quarter of a towel to wipe out a greasy frying pan, or small oil spills. But that's about it - one roll of paper towels lasts a long time in our kitchen.
And yes, it would be great if recipes didn't automatically call for them. For example, tofu can be drained in other ways.
A.S. November 11, 2019
Now we need the plastic wrap/ziploc version of this article! Echoing Selma M. it drives me nuts when authors/ chefs/ bloggers suggest using ziploc bags and plastic wrap for simple tasks that could easily be replaced with something common and not disposable! I just don't understand why people are so comfortable avoiding the issue!
Paula November 11, 2019
We bought a set of glass containers (unfortunately they have plastic lids) that we absolutely love. That being said, we occasionally use plastic bags and plastic wraps. I find myself frequently covering a dish with aluminum foil and then recycling the foil. If people don't focus on this issue (and commit to change), they will continue to do the easy and convenient things in the kitchen, unfortunately. I watch the shows about hoarding and they keep me highly motivated!
Colleen R. November 10, 2019
I usually go through a roll of paper towels every 3 months or so. We use cloth kitchen towels, cloth washcloths (one side with a nylon mesh for better cleaning) and cloth napkins. Every day we put dirty into the laundry, then wash on hot at least once a week to sanitize. They feel better, absorb more, and are much lighter of a load on the earth.
Selma M. November 10, 2019
To be truly effective, recipe authors and bloggers are going to have to cooperate when writing recipe instructions. Almost always you are told to drain fried foods on paper towels, (which means you are using a LOT of paper towels!) Instead, drain on absorbent brown paper such as a grocery bag. Or, drain on a cooling rack set on a grocery bag.
Paula November 10, 2019
What a great reminder! When I lived in Texas as a child and young adult, quite often we would buy barbequed brisket and it would be handed to us wrapped in absorbent brown paper. Works great! Remembering to do this is the challenge!!!
FrugalCat November 9, 2019
I bought a huge stack of white, waffle-weave washcloths at Bed Bath & Beyond on clearance a few years ago. I keep a few in the bedroom, one at my desk and the rest in the kitchen. We use them as napkins as well as paper towels. I look at the huge, expensive, wasteful packs of Bounty at the grocery store and feel a little smug that I don't have that giant package in my cart every week.
Ridie G. November 9, 2019
We have also switched (mostly) from paper to cloth towels. We installed a small basket inside the cupboard door under the sink to collect them when they needed laundering. On laundry day they are conveniently there in the basket to scoop up and add to the wash.
Paula November 5, 2019
Regarding paper towel usage. A few months ago, I decided to make my own paper towels, using toweling from a fabric store. I cut the pieces into sections about 6 inches by 12 inches and edged the edges with fancy stitches on my sewing machine. I washed, dried, and folded them and keep them next to the kitchen sink. I only use paper towels for stinky cleanups, like fish or raw meat juices. I love my homemade towels!!! It's no big deal to wash them and allow them to dry naturally.