The Easy, Eco-Friendly Alternative to Paper Towel

Concerned about the carbon footprint of paper towel? Add old-school and environmentally-friendly cloth rags to your arsenal of green cleaning products.
Posted on
April 16, 2021
The Easy, Eco-Friendly Alternative to Paper Towel
The U.S. spends nearly as much on paper towels as every other country in the world combined.

If endless rolls of single-use paper towel have become a cleaning staple at your house, you’re not alone: The U.S. spends nearly as much on paper towels for use at home as every other country in the world combined.

According to the EPA, the use of tissue paper and paper towels (not including bathroom tissue) added up to 3.8 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2018.

Much of this ends up in landfills, emitting methane while decomposing. 

A person cleans a frying pan with paper towel
Photo by Africa Studio on Shutterstock

Luckily, for anyone looking to reduce their household carbon footprint, there’s a sustainable alternative that’s so simple, chances are you already have the material to make it right this moment: the humble cloth rag.

Read on for some practical tips to make the switch and why it’s worthwhile to consider.

What is the environmental impact of paper towel?

Paper towel is popular because it’s undeniably handy and also perceived as a sanitary way to clean. (It may serve a purpose when you’re wiping down the kitchen and trying to avoid cross-contamination from raw meat, for example.) 

Unfortunately, like tissue and toilet paper, the disposable stuff you use to mop up household spills is usually made from virgin wood pulp. Since these fibers have yet to be recycled, they’re longer, more durable and absorbent, softer and whiter, and possibly even more hygienic.

Industrial logging for tissue products claims more than 1 million acres of Canada’s boreal forest every year.

All of this sounds great for the person cleaning up after dinner, but not so for the old-growth forests where this wood is usually harvested. Industrial logging claims more than 1 million acres of Canada’s boreal forest every year, a recent report from the National Resources Defense Council found—in part to provide pulp for tissue products such as paper towels used by Americans every day.

What’s more, clearcutting in this boreal forest releases, on average, 26 million metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, the NRDC estimates.

Trees in an old-growth forest
Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

Then there’s the manufacturing, which consumes water, electricity and other resources, and the transportation—every step in the process adding to the carbon footprint of paper towels. And where would nature normally store all these extra greenhouse gas emissions?

Ironically, a great deal would be absorbed and sequestered by the same type of old-growth forests being chopped down.

Make the switch to reusable cloths

Paper towels are admittedly convenient.

Cleaning with cloth rags—and then cleaning those cloth rags—can feel like yet another chore you don’t want or need. Maybe you assume they won’t mop up messes as well, or they’ll harbor extra bacteria if the wet fabrics hang around your counter too long. Well, good news: It doesn’t have to be this way.

An old, ripped piece of clothing that would be perfect to repurpose as a cleaning rag
Photo by ed2806 on Shutterstock

The trick to seamlessly swapping disposable paper with cloth rags is planning in advance. Here are some key pointers:

1. Consider what old textiles you could repurpose

The greenest cloth rags are ones you can make with what you have. A great place to start is with your faded but usable towels; they’re already super absorbent by design. Once you decide on your material, you can cut it to your preferred size. Many cloth enthusiasts favour about 16 by 16 inches (like an average tea towel, by no coincidence), but if you’re a super keener, you can prep small, medium and large rags, so you’ll have options for whatever task you need to tackle.

Once you hop on the cloth towels bandwagon, you might find yourself leaning into your new low-waste lifestyle: Don’t toss that worn-out T-shirt—chop it up! (Cotton makes for excellent dishcloths.)

And all those lonely single socks hanging around, doing nothing? They’re great for dusting and shoe polishing. 

Take a look around your house and you may realize you don’t need to rush out and buy trendy sponge cloths, reusable paper towels or “unpaper towels.”

The point here is that you can repurpose old materials you already have lying around—and prevent still-handy things from going to a landfill prematurely—before buying anything more. 

2. Make enough cloth rags to fit your needs

How many? This is up to you, but having at least a dozen—maybe two—means they can go through your laundry cycle and be back in business before you have to think about it. You want a clean cloth rag always readily available nearby, so you never miss the ease of you-know-what. 

3. Be sure to set up a system

Clean and folded rags should have an official home in your kitchen; dirty ones can have a dedicated bin, too. It’s ideal to have separate rags for separate tasks—one for hand drying, one for wiping down dishes, another for cleaning countertop spills—to minimize your chances of possibly transferring germs.

4. Keep them clean

Microbes thrive in moist, warm environments exactly like your kitchen, so it’s a good idea to toss rags into the laundry daily. Since cooking cloths often come into contact with bacteria (from, say, raw meat), wash them in hot water and avoid mixing them in with your other laundry. Similarly, be careful if your rag is soaked with hard-to-wash-out substances like cooking oils—this may be a job for the occasional paper towel. A dash of baking soda in the wash cycle will help cut grease, and you can add a cup of vinegar to the rinse cycle for extra deodorizing power. 

Wooden and natural cleaning products
Photo by Heather Ford on Unsplash

How to use paper towel more sustainably

Even when paper towels aren’t your everyday go-to, there may be moments where they’re necessary, warranted and appreciated—say, when you’re working with raw chicken and wanting to prevent cross-contamination. So if you’re shopping for just-in-case rolls, be mindful of the most sustainable options available to you. Ones made with entirely recycled content or alternative fibers, like 100 percent bamboo, check the box for convenience and don’t entail cutting down trees.

Ready for even more ways to create a more sustainable home?

You’re in the right place.

We have ideas for making your bathroom more eco-friendly, embracing simple and delicious plant-based cooking, and saving energy (and money) while staying cozy.

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Rosemary Counter
Written By
Rosemary Counter

Rosemary Counter is a freelance writer currently curbing plastic cutlery, baby wipes and takeout coffee cups. In her reusable mug, however, she's having as much coffee as she wants.

This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada, RBC Ventures Inc., or its affiliates.

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