Right now I’m on a bit of a paper towel kick. Paper towels are one of my pet eco-topics and once I get going, look out.
In general I think cloth towels can be used for anything you use paper towels for. However, that said, there are a couple of real downsides to cloth use and some imagined downsides too. First up the real cons…
REAL negative aspects of using cloth over paper:
It’s more icky. From a purely getting down and dirty aspects cloth can’t beat paper. Paper towels are used and tossed. Cloth towels are used and then you somehow have to deal with the mess that you’ve transferred to the towel. If a mess is really messy sometimes I’ll rinse a cloth quick in the sink before tossing it into the hamper.
Pet messes. I haven’t actually come up with a great excuse to use cloth over paper towels for pet messes (like vomit, pee and other icky stuff). To be honest if my son puked a little, whatever, I’d grab a normal cleaning cloth and wash it. If though he puked everywhere I’d grab my oldest cloths – the ones on the way out, use them, then toss them. Pet messes are tricky and they’re one excuse I hear paper towel users mention that I don’t have a great answer for. This is one reason we don’t have pets – because I suspect some aspects of their care is harder to manage in an eco-friendly manner. Although that said, I’d use cloth diapers for a baby and deal with it so maybe pet owners should just use cloth and deal too.
PS before you slam me in the comments for comparing pets to children note that I’m well aware of the human/animal difference. I also have many pals who do consider their pets just as important as kids; hence the comparison.
Do you have any ideas that allow you to have pets and skip paper towels? I read one idea at another blog (in the comments) that said, “In the event of the odd, small mess, like your boston terrier’s vomit, I usually have a few paper napkins in a drawer leftover from eating out somewhere.” That’s one decent idea.
POSSIBLE negative aspects of using cloth over paper:
Germs! Many people are freaked out by germs and that fear can result in some very non-eco-friendly habits like using bleach or paper towels. Germs in a purely scientific sense though are overrated. Worse, super germs are no joke. We just keep fighting them and we’re only going to create monster germs in the process. Hit this link and scroll down to #7 for more info on super germs. That said there are some basic bacteria and germs you should look out for and cloth cleaning isn’t always the best way to kill off these germs and bacteria. Cloth can be used right though and will rid your house of icky junk but if you use cloth you MUST take the care and time to clean correctly.
Hot water use (to kill those germs above). If you wash your cloths in hot water it can cost you and the planet energy. However consider that most washing machines wash no different on hot or cold. It’s true. Unless your clothes washer has a certified sanitizing setting, washing on hot won’t sanitize. The water simply doesn’t get hot enough so you may as well wash everything on cold and save the cash and energy.
If you garden… Gardeners often use paper towels to test the viability of old seeds. Even I’ve done this and it is super easy. You don’t have to do this though. You can use organic soil instead.
IMAGINED negative aspects of using cloth over paper:
The following are the arguments I hear (or read) the most from paper towel users. These are also the arguments that I think are bunk.
“You need paper towels to clean with if you want a clean home.” Not true and I think it all goes back to the germ issue (see above). People really believe we need stuff like toxic cleaners and paper towels to have a clean home but it’s not true.
“You’ll be sick all the time if you use cloth.” Paper towel love is often blown totally out of proportion with regards to germs. In Facts About Paper Towels the author writes, “Cloth towels [are] the main culprit for spreading of diseases and germs in the society. The invention of paper towel made it possible for most of the legislative bodies to create a law against the use of cloth towels, which spreads multiple maladies. ” Um? Good job author for not linking to one source of evidence to back this up.
There will always be people so terrified of germs (read these blog post comments) that they stick to paper towels. However, you won’t win against germs they’re flipping everywhere. If you don’t believe me, sign up for a basic microbiology class at the local college. Two, I’ve never had paper towels in a home bathroom in 30+ years, my current home has been paper towel free entirely for 4+ years and surprise, no one in my house has died from a lack of paper towels. We get sick like everyone else but no more than normal. Still think I’m nuts, many studies note zero bacteria fighting differences between drying your hands with paper vs. cloth towels.
“You need paper towels so you can use the recycled rolls for crafts.” Use toilet paper tubes or make other crafts.
“It’s the only way to get rid of grease – like from bacon or other greasy fried foods.” One, you don’t have to cook fried foods. Two you can use a broiler pan. Three you can buy some less linty tea cloths for just such an occasion. That said, with the health risks being what they are along with a stunning obesity epidemic in full force I suggest baking, not frying.
“Paper towels work best if you need to pick up a super messy mess (think egg spills) or broken glass.” You can use a reusable dustpan for this and rinse it off.
“Paper towels make awesome baby wipes.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this. You can make an excellent paper-towel free baby wipes kit that will cost less and work better.
“What if you need a quick coffee filter when you run out of paper filters?” Use a reusable permanent coffee filter and you won’t need either paper filters or paper towels. I’ve had my current reusable filter for so many years I’ve lost count – but I’d guess 4-5.
“You need paper towels to dry produce.” This one I actually get because I HATE wet produce especially lettuce for salads. However you can use a basic cloth to dry most produce and for stuff like broccoli or lettuce use a salad spinner which is lint-free unlike cloth or paper towels. I love my salad spinner. Here’s a BPA-free salad spinner you might like.
“They’re more time consuming.” It’s true, you do need to wash cloth towels which is more work than tossing paper. However, we’ve got five people living at my house and during a really bad dirty week we might wash one full load of towels but normally it’s only every other week. That’s not so much time you can’t handle it. It takes me about 15 extra minutes each week to two weeks – I wash and don’t fold – cleaning towels at my house are simply stored unfolded in a reusable bag.
“Lint free mirror and glass cleaning is only possible with paper towels.” Recycled newspaper works good for lint-free cleaning. We don’t get the paper so we use microfiber reusable cloths which also seem to be lint free. Also, I have some old school flat baby diapers I use mostly for glass and windows and they work great – the trick is to use one side with your glass cleaner and then the dry side for a rub down. Mostly though, I don’t think most people care about lint. I’ve never gone into friend’s home and mentally noted how linty their glass is. Mold, sure I’d notice; but lint… really?
“Paper towels make great safe packing material for breakables.” It’s not worth it. Not when you’ve got all sorts of good green packing material choices out there.
“They’re necessary to cover foods that can splatter when cooking in the microwave.” For kids food storage and reheating try Kinderville Little Bites Silicone Storage Jars which are freezer to microwave safe and BPA, phthalate and lead-free. For adult sized plates or bowls try a reusable lid cover made with non-toxic silicone.
AND the big one – “It wastes too much water and energy to wash cloth vs. simply using a paper towel.” I honestly cannot believe people try to argue this point. It takes massive amounts of water, energy and other resources to make paper towels. It does for sure take a lot of water, energy and other resources to make cloth towels too and a small amount of water to wash your towels. However, the life of cloth is so much longer than paper that this point is moot. I’ll cover resources used more in an upcoming post – when I compare costs of paper towels to cloth.
A little more on real negative aspects of cloth towel use.
Because I couldn’t come up with any real negatives, minus the two above, I asked my roommate Dave. Dave is not so into green as me and it’s taken him some time to catch on to things like not washing towels on hot, buying organics and carrying reusable bags. In fact eco-friendly topics have started some debates around here SO I figured Dave would have scads of negative cloth ideas. However, he didn’t. He says, “I’m no hippie but seriously there are no real negatives of cloth towels.” In fact he even was against me including the “icky” factor under real negatives. After some thought he noted, “If you use cloth towels you might get stressed from saving all that money – if so send me the money.”
If you can think of any other real negatives of cloth or pros of paper towels please let me know in the comments below.
Lastly, if you’re feeling like you want to go paper towel free check out Simple Mom for one mama’s story of going paper towel free. She has some nice tips posted that should help, even if you’re addicted to paper towels.