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?
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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.