Eco-Friendly

This Small Kitchen Tweak Might Save You a Few Hundred Dollars This Year

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

January  2, 2020
Photo by Julia Gartland

Big resolutions are overrated. This year, we’re all about highly doable improvements we can pull off any day. In Small Change, Big Impact, we're making tiny tweaks and sharing the results. Follow along, join in, and let us know what other small changes you’re making this year.


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.

97 Comments

Mrs S. January 9, 2020
Interesting point in today's New York Times Climate Forward newsletter:

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/08/climate/nyt-climate-newsletter-forests.html

They're saying that in North America, some part of your paper towel probably comes from Canadian Boreal Forests which are needed for CO2 storage. (Interesting, new-to-me point: replanting does not do much re carbon dioxide for the first ten years.)

So, yes, avoid, and if you must use, use recycled.
 
FourCats January 8, 2020
I am shocked! I had no idea how many paper towels some people were using. It never occurred to me there would be any reason to use them except occasionally for icky things. I use sponges and dishtowels for most cleanups, and wash them as needed. I had no idea people were going through rolls of towels in a day! OMG! What a waste.
 
Tanny M. January 7, 2020
I use rags made from discarded clothing and towels I get at the thrift store, gives me an endless supply. I live in a tiny apartment without laundry on site so at night when I've finished in the kitchen I put them in to soak with detergent and a little vinegar. While the kettle boils in the morning, I rinse and hang them. In the winter they dry fast on a radiator (old New England multifamily) and in summer they go on the deck. When they are truly useless for the house, I use them for the garden.
 
[email protected] January 7, 2020
My parents used old torn ups sheets. They were great.
 
Dccblue January 6, 2020
I really want to do this, but here is my question. So you end up with wet, dirty, (sometimes gross) towels from your kitchen - what do you do with them? You can't do a load of laundry every time you have a wet towel. If you throw them in a basket they will get moldy and smell. What does everyone do with their towels until laundry time??
 
Linzlee January 6, 2020
I keep a wicker basket with no lid on top of my washer to put the used towels in. I do a “kitchen load” of laundry weekly. Haven’t had a problem with moldy or musty towels. I think having some air flow through the basket helps. Also, if something is really wet, I’ll drape it over the side of the basket to dry before putting it in the basket.
 
Mrs S. January 6, 2020
Can't speak for towels since I use cellulose sponge cloths - they're fairly small (about 6 inches by 7 inches), I give them a quick rinse if I've wiped up something other than water, they dry quickly so by the time they end up in the laundry they're mostly dry. I have about 6 - 10 of them in a given load of laundry - they really don't take up much room at all.
 
Smaug January 6, 2020
Really wet items, I dry in the sun in the summer, the heater in the winter; this generally amounts to one or two rags per day. A well ventilated laundry hamper helps- mine (which I made) has a grid at the bottom and vent slats at the top- don't have any real problem with wet towels- I wash them once a week and have never had anything grow on them.
 
Nancy B. January 6, 2020
I do exactly as Linzlee does. Mine is a wire basket, but I drape really wet ones over the side until they dry. I will say my basket is in the garage not in the house. If you're in an apartment without outside access I would recommend putting a small wire basket inside your bin to put wet cloths in until they dry. This is what I do in our upstairs laundry basket. As someone else mentioned, airflow is the key to keeping them from getting moldy and nasty while waiting to be washed.
 
Mim January 6, 2020
I have an antique wooden rack that folds up - I fold it out and hang any wet rags or towels there (hall beyond the kitchen) until they are dry and then toss in the regular hamper until ready for the washer! I find it a really good system.
 
Adel W. January 20, 2020
I have a little hanging rack that i put in the laundry area to hang all the dirty towels i use. i cycle between about 10 at any point in time, so that each one has their own individual time to dry out. for extra grimy ones, i wash them by hand in the sink and hang them out to dry as per normal. then weekly / bi-weekly i throw them all in the washer with my placemats / oven gloves / kitcheny stuff and wash everything at one go. no problems for me!
 
sara D. January 5, 2020
Love all the ideas - we do radical reuse and downcycle, cutting up stained ripped old T-shirt’s, sheets, and bath towels for reuse. They are used in all fashion and gathered weekly for the last big hot water icy bleach wash load. We try to use old newspapers for cat barf, which goes into city compost.
 
Teddee G. January 4, 2020
I grew up in a rural area before paper towels so am quite familiar with using "rags" for leaning, but I live in an apartment now with no washer and dryer so would have to use a coin laundry to launder cloths. I wonder how "green" this would be since I, and even you, are using detergent, hot water for washing and heat if you dry the cloths in a dryer.
 
Adel W. January 20, 2020
an alternative solution would actually to be handwash them in the sink and hanging them out to dry, it's really not that much trouble and pretty green since you have to use detergent & hot water to wash stuff anyway (or at least for me!).

I stay in an apartment too, and sometimes when i don't have a big enough load to toss in the washer/dryer, i'll just handwash them right after i'm done washing dishes. takes no time at all and beats throwing out tons of paper towels.
 
Lou A. January 4, 2020
So glad to hear you use China, silver, and real napkins....some people eat on paper plates every day....I love setting a nice table, especially at the Holidays...paper does have its place,but you add something to your family having gone that extra step to make something memorable for them. My grandchildren love coming here for the Holidays because we make it special....glad to hear this!🤬
 
Lou A. January 4, 2020
Guess someone didn’t like this post. Sorry.
 
Lou A. January 6, 2020
The point is use china instead of paper plates, use cloth napkins instead of paper as much as possible.
Less in the landfill and cheaper as well.
 
Patricia January 4, 2020
This is great news to my ears. We stopped using paper towels and paper napkins in the 70's when people were becoming more aware of the environmental impact on landfills and trees, to say nothing of our budget. We reared three children on cloth napkins at the dinner table set with actual china and silver flatware; now they do that in their homes. I've made it a habit to save the extra napkins one receives at fast food restaurants and I use them for cleanups when needed. Otherwise, it's the old fashioned, frugal, and much more civilized way for our family. Love this site; so much to be learned. Thank you.
 
Z L. January 4, 2020
Wow!! This is SUCH a great idea! We spend a TON on paper towels. We just took the paper towel holder out of the bathroom and replaced it with one hand towel but I was concerned about germs. This is the perfect idea for the bath as well as the kitchen!! I remember going to some restaurants and then having ha d towels in the bathroom instead of paper towels. It just makes sense - reusable, saves money, and helps the planet! Thank you for reminding me!
 
Lou A. January 4, 2020
Back in the day I would buy one or two rolls of paper towels every two weeks. It was a luxury because most people used dish rags, or later sponges to clean up in the kitchen. I shudder to think how many rolls I go through, bathroom sinks, cleaning the bathroom, kitchen counters, sinks, spills, etc.
Yes, you will survive without them. I cut up my husbands old T shirts and old flannel sheets and have a basket of white rags that I use to polish furniture, polish my granite, etc. love the feel of them, wash, dry and use again.
I will endeavor to cut back on those paper towels this year.
Great article, makes you think about daily habits we get into...thank you.
 
Patricia January 6, 2020
Yes, yes. Now I too use dish RAGS... along with well made MICROFIBER cloths. Like any other adaptation, it's just a matter of establishing a better habit. Cost saving and GREEN.
 
Angela January 4, 2020
We actually keep a cute basket for our cloth napkins and cloth dishrags on our counter tops and a cute basket for our used cloths near our garbage can to encourage us to use them more. As that fills up I empty in the laundry room and keep going. We are using fewer paper towels now. Only for things like cleaning toilets and specific things.
 
Lynda January 4, 2020
I stopped using paper towels a year ago. I realized I was addicted to using them. I would grab one everytime I rinsed my hands. Or everytime a drop of water splashed on my counter. Not to mention just day to day cleaning up after yourself in the kitchen. So I went to the store and bought an economy pack of basic white cotton bar towels and a cloth made especially for glass cleaning(works better than paper). After one year I do not miss paper towels, I do usually have at least 3 towels lying around the kitchen by the end of day but that's okay because i know I have maybe helped our environment in some small way. This year's goal reducing more plastic waste.
 
Virginia January 4, 2020
How about bathroom cleaning, no way would I use a cloth nor sponge.
 
IrishMary24 January 4, 2020
I agree. Sponges used anywhere are petri dishes for bacteria, and the "90 seconds in the microwave" method of debugging has since been proved ineffectual.
 
Smaug January 4, 2020
In the bathroom, I use rags made from old socks and such and throw them out- you can't do much scrubbing with a paper towel.
 
Adel W. January 20, 2020
Might be icky to some, but i actually use my old dishwashing sponges (provided they're not too grimy, of course) to clean out the bathroom before i throw out the sponge. but generally i wash everything in super hot water and dry it out thoroughly... so far i've been pretty okay!
 
Betsey January 3, 2020
I’m sorry, why aren’t you just using a sponge? The only things I use a paper towel for are bacon and cat barf.
 
nancymae January 3, 2020
Love the idea.
 
JudiAU January 3, 2020
I wanted to add that I prefer a higher quality napkin (Williams Sonoma Hotel White; Pottery Barn linen hemstitch) because they shrink less and retain their shape.
 
JudiAU January 3, 2020
We use one roll of paper towels every other month, generally for greasing a pan or soaking up used grease. We have “rags” (square white wash clothes from amazon folded on the counter in a big stack) as well as dish towels and flour sack towels.

Washing is not a problem. We use cold water and 7th gen detergent. They wash with clothes without an issue.
 
Smaug January 6, 2020
You might try small pieces of wax paper for greasing pans- they don't soak up the grease. Old butter wrappers are great.
 
Mim January 3, 2020
I use some paper towels (cat vomit again) and a ton of rags and towels for different uses, until they dissolve from use. I'd still like to know if having to wash said towels and rags ends up using the same amount of energy it might take to either make the paper ones or degrade them. I mean, I don't kid myself there's no footprint with either, but wonder if it's all that big a deal in the end.
 
Nancy B. January 3, 2020
Many years ago when we were all becoming more aware of our waste, I was wondering the same thing. I seem to recall (and you should fact check me) reading an article that stated that all that washing was ultimately better than using paper towels. I do agree with one of the other commenters that I prefer the cloth anyway. It is better at cleaning up messes and easy to wash out and keep on going.
 
Jane January 3, 2020
I have a roll of inexpensive paper towels on reserve for nasty clean ups, dog barf etc, but use terry bar mops for everything else. First they wipe dishes, then the counter and after the floor they go into the washer. Sams club sells 24 for $12 and then mine have lastEd for years.
The major advantage is they clean up so much better than paper, and cost next to nothing. Saving trees is good, but a better clean up is the real reason I use cloth.
And I NEVER use paper napkins. They are disgusting.
 
Adel W. January 20, 2020
100% agree! I keep paper roll towels on hand for the nasty stuff (dog barf is the worst.) I get them at 6 for a couple of bucks where i'm from, so it's really not too expensive. But cloth still cleans up much better than paper anyday.
 
Denise S. January 3, 2020
One of my GOYs (Gifts Of the Year) to my friends was a napkin holder from amazon and a dozen amazon basics washcloths to sit on the counter and use instead of paper towels. Very well received!!
 
Smaug January 3, 2020
I've been very pleasantly surprised by the quality of some of the Amazon Basics products- I just bought a set of 8 hand towels for the kitchen for $16, and they seem just as good as the ones I paid $10 each for in the bathroom. I also like the rags -I think they're called barkeepers rags- from BB&B; they cost practically nothing and do a fine job- really don't understand why people use sponges for dishwashing. I like the paper towels that come half sized, which is usually plenty- I go through maybe half a dozen rolls a year. One place you can't (or shouldn't) get around paper is grease- the amount that goes down the drain (including in the wash) should be kept to an absolute minimun.