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 the food editor 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 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 at @emmalaperruque.

117 Comments

ncf15 February 17, 2020
When they have served you well, remember to take cloth items to special disposal locations. Please don't put in the trash.
 
Jana February 16, 2020
I have transitioned to “Wet It” towels made from cotton/cellulose. Amazing! I use them everywhere in my home, and they’re washable and reusable. They’re like a super absorbent chamois non-scratching, safe on dishes, or any surface you need to clean. We recently used the large sized (9 x 13?) Wet It cloth to wipe up 5+ gallons of water that blew out onto our wood floors from our 150 gal. aquarium. It was so quickly absorbent and efficient that it out performed any mop or sponge that I’ve ever owned. The floor and interior of the aquarium cabinet were completely wiped up and dry in less than 10 mins (would’ve been less time had we not had to disassemble and remove the pumps, and move the cabinet to also get at the water underneath.). I couldn’t believe how much water the cloth could hold until I wrung it out. While I’ve been using them for 6 months now, I’d never used them in that capacity...the volume of liquid it can hold is AMAZING! It saved my floors! LOVE LOVE LOVE!
 
gail G. February 16, 2020
Back in the days of my childhood, I was not allowed to use paper towels unless I asked and only for certain messy cleanups. They were too expensive. We had a fresh wash rag and hand towel each day, One of each. I still don't use them much but my kids sure do!. By the rolls. I thought $300 for paper towels was high but then I thought of my son and his family and how much they use. I bit of bleach and hot water is not a big deal once in awhile, unless you have a "high efficiency" washer that doesn't use much water and never goes on hot. I guess the younger generation is saving water so they can buy paper towels?
 
BerettaFleur February 1, 2020
I’ve been using only rags for months and they are so wonderful. I got mine at a hardware store and use them everywhere in place of disposable cleaning wipes and paper towels. They are white so I can bleach them if they stain. You could also use recycled shirts etc. but these ones absorb spills very nicely and clean granite counters ten times better than anything.
 
Paula January 31, 2020
This has been a very satisfying thread to read. I got in on it at the very beginning, telling about how I make my own cloth towelettes for the kitchen out of terry cloth. I began this about 6 months ago, and I now feel lost without my cloth towels in the kitchen. My husband loves them too. I also keep some in the bathrooms next to the sink. Our paper towel usage is almost zero. I love the texture of the terry cloth and its amazing absorbent properties. And I'm so gratified to see that many people are doing something similar!
 
Chris January 31, 2020
Several years ago I decided to cut back on paper towels. Placement is key: I put them under the kitchen sink behind the trash bin. Out of sight out of mind. Cloth towels are my go to, paper towels used on rare occasions. That big Costco package has lasted years!
 
energyefficientfood January 25, 2020
Yes! Great article! I've used "un-paper towels" for years now. These are just plain 100% cotton muslin purchased at the fabric store and cut into a paper towel-like size. I didn't even sew the edges. The first few laundry washings will result in some loose threads and then that's the end of it. They are very absorbent, have been washed hundreds of times and are still going strong. I also cut "un paper towels" out of adorable fabrics (or 100% cotton oxford or t-shirts that reach the end of their useful clothing life). With these two piles of cloths in my kitchen, I can separate the towels used for messy clean-ups (muslin) from those I use to wrap a bagel or similar as I'm headed out the door (cute fabrics). I'll admit I still keep a roll of paper towels around for really nasty clean-ups but that is very rare. More ways to reduce the energy of your food system can be found at www.knowwattscooking.com.
 
Sandra S. January 25, 2020
I found wonderful towels at Trader Joes. They are not paper, but they are paper. I don't know exactly, but they can be washed by hand or in the washing machine, and air dried. I save them up and wash them in the machine. They are really absorbent, too!
 
Alexia J. January 25, 2020
I buy 1-8 count pack of paper towels a year when they're on sale for $5 and don't really even go through them all. How can anyone be spending a few hundred dollars a year on paper towels. That's just pathetic.
 
Shilla January 24, 2020
I’ve been using cloth too though I do buy paper towel but this is used only on 2 occasions - one, as a base on a plate/container that holds my deep fried food to absorb oil. The other use is when I need to wipe off oil from the mouth and sides of the bottle, after pouring oil into my wok. /pan. But I make sure I tear off a small bit of the paper towel for this purpose, instead of the usual size if I were to tear it at the perforation. In this way I use less but I do hope to move away from using paper towel completely one day. My mum has never used paper towel and I hope to follow her foot steps
 
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.
 
russeaime January 25, 2020
Exactly! Why wouldn't you use a sponge, dishtowel, or rag instead?
 
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!
 
russeaime January 25, 2020
I keep them in a separate bag or container from the rest of my laundry. I've never had a problem with them getting moldy and I do my laundry every 1-2 weeks since I live in an apartment building with only one washer/dryer for everyone.
 
Sandra S. January 25, 2020
The Dollar Tree has laundry baskets for $1! They are white, with plenty of air vents!
 
MsMora January 31, 2020
I use old pant/skirt hangers with metal clips to dry wet, dirty towels until they're dry enough for the hamper. On the short end of the wash room I have a spring-loaded rod on which I hang the hangers. It's also where I dry many of my clothes that I prefer not to put in the dryer.
 
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.
 
Anne Y. January 24, 2020
Same for us, except cat barf with newspaper goes into composting bin
 
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.
 
Anne Y. January 24, 2020
We don't have so many that it affects number of loads. Along with drying beforehand by leaving on top of the washer or elsewhere until a load is read. Just add it to whatever you are already running through laundry.
 
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.