How to Break the Paper Towel Habit

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how to break the paper towel habit

My husband and I aren’t ones to say we are Super Green – gosh you all know where I purchase my clothing and beauty products. However, we do regularly try to infuse more earth-friendly routines and activities into our life. It’s better to do one or two small things than nothing at all. One of our new year’s resolutions was to cut down the amount of trash we make as a family. Our decisions were to make a compost pile in the back yard (for food scraps, produce past its prime, dryer lint, etc.) and to break the paper towel habit. I realized that we were going through almost an entire roll of paper towel in a week. From cleaning up muddy footprints from Ruckus to a quick wipe-down of the bathroom before company was to arrive, we always seemed to be running for the paper towel. In fact, the first gadget I bought for our new kitchen was a brushed stainless paper towel holder to match the appliances. We realized we needed to break the paper towel habit; this is how we did it.

You may also like: A peek inside our kitchen

How to Break the Paper Towel Habit

I thought it would be tough, but this weekend I realized that we still have the same roll of paper towel that we purchased back in January (okay we broke down once our child was born and bought one of those Costco-sized packages of like 24 rolls). For those of you who are paper towel addicts like us, I wanted to share how we broke the paper towel habit, and now live a life where we can’t even imagine needing a roll of disposable paper at the ready.

Make Yourself a Rag Basket


As soon as you walk into our home, we have a half bath/laundry room. In there we have this mesh bin. In there we have a random assortment of rags. Bath and hand towels that are past their prime, cheapo Gerber diapers that were given as gifts or passed down from friends, a couple of automotive microfiber cloths, old dishtowels that now have holes in them, even old t-shirts – cut off the edges and sleeves and you have two great dusting rags! Anyway, we have a real assortment so we are ready for most any spill or situation. Dogs went outside on a rainy day? I take an old bath towel and put it down on the floor right at the door for them to step on and have an old diaper ready to wipe feet and raindrops from their fur. Our kid spilled food on the floor? If it’s not too soggy, we grab an old t-shirt; if it’s soupy we grab another diaper or some microfiber. Classic cloth diapers are our preferred rag – the size and absorbency make them great for everything from a quick cleaning of the glass and wood coffee table to scrubbing banana off our kid's Jumperoo, to wiping down the quartz kitchen counters.

This mesh basket is great because I can see in it so I can easily dig around for the right sized rag. Also, the mesh lets the towels breathe so they never smell musty or old. By the way, this basket is only half-full because a load of rags was in the laundry at the time of the photo.

When a rag is used, we have a vented laundry basket inside our laundry closet and toss the rags right in there. Then they get washed the next laundry day. I sometimes toss them in with our kid's cloth diapers because I know they will then get scrubbed really well; other times I have so many I can do a load of just rags. When it’s nice out I put them on the line. I never use fabric softener with them because that inhibits the fabric’s absorbency – instead, I use dryer balls.

I know people who keep said rags in a basket under their sink, in a box in their pantry, or even their hallway coat closet.

Create a Space in the Kitchen for Paper Towel Alternatives


Want to buy me a gift? Get me a cool looking dish towel. I love these guys and have slowly been building my stash. Clearance at big box stores, funky shops at the beach, thrift stores… you can find great dish towels most anywhere.  This pile is a bit low because many (including my funky faves) were in the wash at the time of this photo.  I could probably fill a whole drawer with dishtowels but don't have the kitchen space so they bunk with random gadgets.

We use dish towels for quick wipes of the counter, to clean up splatters on the stove, even as napkins for some meals. We throw them into the laundry basket in the half bath when finished. For those who do not have a laundry room so close by, they sell wet bags that can hook right onto the front of your oven to hold dirty dishtowels and rags. Come laundry day, dump the contents into the washer, and even throw the wet bag itself in there and use it to carry your towels back to the kitchen after use.


Hey, I again have a good use for my paper towel holder!

Switch to Cloth Napkins

No picture, but we have slowly been getting a stash. I got some gorgeous blue printed ones that look like something that would be sold at Williams Sonoma – they were $5 for a 4-pack at Marshall’s. I of course bought two packs. Etsy has tons of shops that sell great cloth napkins in fun prints for low prices. Cloth napkins are easy to launder, take up little space, and add a touch of elegance to even take-out pizza and cans of beer!

It really is possible to live without paper towels – and this comes from a woman with three dogs and a baby!

A woman with curly hair wearing a plaid blazer holds a green fur coat over her shoulder on a city street.

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  1. We make (& sell) lightweight cloth “unpaper” towels that also double as everyday napkins for us. They are of similar size, shape and weight of paper towels that can be used, tossed in the wash, and used again and again. They’re white, so we can bleach them, and since they’re lightweight, they don’t add to the amount of our overall laundry.

    Our family takes them straight from the dryer and drops them into the dispenser/holder we made for them. Best part? NO FOLDING!

    If you want to take a look: http://www.madeintheredbarn.etsy.com

  2. Also with the cloth napkins, if you can sew even a little, it is easy to pick out pretty (and cheap!) fabric and just sew up the edges in easy hems. I use these all the time in my 3 daughters’ lunches instead of paper. We rarely use paper towels or paper napkins. I love the idea of your rag bin!

  3. I understand about the germaphobia. It was what held my husband back (he’s ex-military and a neat freak). But we started with cloth diapers and after doing so much research about them and how hygenic they are even when laundered in a regular washing machine, it opened my eyes to cloth rags. We also usually only use each one once (except the one to wipe hands) and wash them on hot.

    But I also understand about doing what works for you – I can’t give up some of my makeup and clothing and beauty faves. I make up for it in other ways! 🙂

  4. I have thought about switching to cloth too (well we do use some cloth napkins and dish towels) but I keep getting hung up on my germ-phobia! I think of all of the bacteria and germs that are on my counters, in my sink, on the trash can, etc and then I just can’t make myself switch. I hope that my many other green ways balance out this one transgression! 🙂

  5. I don’t iron them unless I am having a sit-down dinner with guests. They aren’t perfect looking out of the dryer or off the line, but they are fine for casual use 🙂

  6. Good for you. And good for the planet. I probably use only 3-4 rolls per year (mostly other people in the household use these) so I buy the more expensive ones made from recycled paper. I have my rags in a plastic box under the sink but I like your storage idea.

    We are also moving toward exclusive use of cloth napkins. I need to buy more so I’ll have enough for company, too.

  7. I am impressed. I work in environmental policy but you are way more green than me in a practical sense. I am ashamed of my wasteful ways with paper towel… I’m not quite ready to give it up but when we buy a house (hopefully in the next couple of months) I will try and copy your rag basket idea.

  8. Good for you! We’ve done the same thing for the last few years. We still have paper towels around for the occasional horrific mess that we want to throw away (think animal vomit), but that’s about all we use them for, and a roll lasts months.

    Another tip for cloth napkins is thrift stores. People get them as gifts and then don’t use them. I have a huge collection, and nearly all of them were purchased new at thrift stores.

  9. Now I regret buying paper towels earlier today. I have always done the towel on the floor before doggie comes in with muddy/wet paws. I love pretty dish towels too, but then I hate to actually use them and get them all funky looking. I really need to start a new rag basket, box, or drawer.

    Thanks for the inspiration! The purple paint in your kitchen has me curious as to what the rest of the room looks like…

  10. I love that you included some greening tips! I just started a green company to get people started. I’ve been a long time reader of yours but I don’t think I’ve commented. Thanks for the great post!

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