They're convenient and easy to use, but they're bad for the environment. You don't need an intervention to break the paper-towel habit. These tips will have you paper-towel free in no time.
What's wrong with paper towels?
- Trees are cut down. The "paper" in paper towels reminds us that our temporary convenience comes at the price of a tree which provides oxygen, shade, beauty and a home to wild creatures. "Paper towels are made from virgin tree pulp," says Kristin Arrigo, environmental columnist and author of Seasonal Home Repair Checklist: Eco-Alternatives for Maintaining Your Home. "Virgin" paper towels are those which have no post-consumer fiber.
- They have a big carbon footprint. Energy, most of which comes from the burning of fossil fuels, is needed to harvest, manufacture, transport and dispose of paper towels. Producing one 8-ounce roll of paper towels releases about 1.25 lbs of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Think about it!
- Paper towels end up in landfills. You can't recycle a paper towel — after it has been used and thrown away, it goes to a landfill. In fact, products like paper towels make up more than one-third of landfill trash, according to CarbonRally.com.
They're easy to replace
It is possible to maintain a spot-free home without using a single paper towel. "Paper towel alternatives are really rather easy," says professional organizer Alison Kero, owner of ACK! Organizing.
- Sponges are an inexpensive, reusable alternative, but they've earned a bad reputation for breeding germs. Not to worry. Stick a damp sponge in the microwave for a couple of minutes or in the next dishwasher cycle to keep it germ free.
- Purchase a supply of inexpensive bar mops or dish towels for messes. Rinse them out and let air dry until you're ready to do your next load of laundry.
- Rags. Use terry cloth, T-shirts, cloth diapers, flannels and other fabrics from around the house in place of paper towels. If it's stained or torn, then repurpose it!
- Flour sack towels (shown on right) are 100% natural cotton and contain no bleach or chemicals, which makes them perfect for lint-free cleaning and shining ($2 and up, Towels and Home).
- Reusable microfiber cloths offer another alternative to single-use paper towels. Use them to dust and shine eyeglasses, TVs and computer screens ($70 for 72 cloths, GreenCupboards).
- Clean mirrors and windows with sheets of newspapers. They won't leave any lint behind. Now that's recycling!
But what about germs?
Drying hands with paper towels rather than shared hand towels can prevent the spread of germs, but paper towels aren't your only clean-hands option.
- "We color code our hand towels by person," says Wendi, mom of two. "Each member of the family has a different color towel to use in the kitchen and bathroom, so the only germs we touch are our own!" Just pick up some colorful inexpensive hand towels at a discount or dollar store. Hang them from the stove handle and towel bars to give family members easy access to their "own" towels.
- When you're out and about, consider your public restroom options. Take just as many paper towels as you need to thoroughly wipe your hands — you don't need a two-foot long piece to do the job. Or use the air dryer, if available. It's another way to do your share!
Invest in "green" paper towels
Sometimes the claims about the greening of paper towels can be misleading. "A recycled mention on a product may only be in reference to the cardboard tubing that the paper towels are wrapped around," says Arrigo.
Honest-to-goodness "green" paper towels are few and far between. Check the National Resources Defense Council website for options like these:
- Recycled paper towels: Seventh Generation paper towels are made of 100 percent recycled paper and contain no chemicals, dyes or fragrances ($58 for 30 rolls, Amazon).
- Washable paper towels: Bamboo grows much more quickly than your average tree. One roll of sustainable, biodegradable Bambooee paper towels replaces up to 60 roles of regular paper towels ($13, Bamboee).
Stop using paper towels today, and by the end of the month you will have done your part to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 5.8 pounds!
More ways to go green at home
10 Easy ways to minimize your household waste
Tips to finally organize your recycling
52 Cheap ways to go green