Ditch paper towels and save $1,000 in five years

Currently I’m running an experiment here at Growing a Green Family. Can the average family of four save $50,000 in five years simply by living green?

So far we found that you can save $6,000+ if you switch from bottled water to tap and filtered tap water in reusable bottles and we also found that you won’t save much at all if you switch from paper to cloth napkins (although you still should). Up next…

Ditch paper towels and use cloth towels instead


Figuring this calculation won’t be easy. It’s easy to calculate cloth towel use because I’m actually in a family of five and use cloth exclusively – so I’ve been there. It’s a lot harder to guess how many paper towels people are using, although research in this area points to a lot.

You may think, “I don’t use too many paper towels” but it’s easy to see how paper towel use can get quickly out of hand if you consider these estimates for a family of four…

  • Use as napkins at meals = 84 sheets per week.
  • Use as hand towel in the bathroom – (4 potty breaks a day x 4 people) = 112 sheets a week.
  • Washing up before meals and before cooking (3 meals a day) = 105 sheets a week.
  • Washing and drying fruits and veggies (assuming you eat them at each meal – which you should) = 63 sheets a week.
  • Cleaning two bathrooms once a week = 20 sheets a week.
  • Wiping down the kitchen after cooking = 42 sheets a week.

That’s 426 paper towel sheets a week (typically 3.5-7 rolls a week – most paper towels have 60-120 sheets per roll) and I haven’t even covered cleaning up spills, pet messes, kid messes, washing hands after baby diaper changes, snacks and more. Paper towel use adds up alarmingly fast.

How many paper towels does the average family of four use in five years?

The most common estimates I’ve seen are 1.5 to 2 rolls of paper towels used per week per family of four. However, excessive use could be far more (as seen above). The most common estimate I’ve seen among friends who use paper towels is about one roll every week to two weeks. I also know families who use maybe one roll a month (combined with cloth). It really varies and I’m guessing one general estimate won’t make everyone happy so I’ll do estimates for people who use paper towels excessively and for people who use them less so…

  1. Excessive virgin fiber – 12 rolls a month; 720 rolls in 5 years: You use a ton of virgin fiber paper towels (like this person who states she can use them to dry a sinkful of dishes – WTF?). You use them in the bathroom instead of hand towels, for cleaning, for napkins and more.
  2. Excessive recycled – 12 rolls a month, 720 rolls in 5 years: (See above for usage).
  3. Mid-range virgin fiber 6 rolls a month, 360 rolls in 5 years – You use them a lot but not so much as excessive users.
  4. Mid-range recycled 6 rolls a month, 360 rolls in 5 years – (Ditto above)

How much will five years worth of paper towels cost?

Based on two of the current best-selling bulk paper towels at Amazon; Bounty 15 rolls, 60 sheets per roll, 900 total sheets ($2.08 per roll) and Seventh Generation 30 rolls, 120 sheets per roll, 3,600 total sheets ($1.93 per roll).

  1. Excessive virgin fiber – 12 rolls a month = $1,498
  2. Excessive recycled – 12 rolls a month = $1,390
  3. Mid-range virgin fiber 6 rolls a month = $749
  4. Mid-range recycled 6 rolls a month = $695

How many cloth towels does the average family of four use in five years?


At my house we’ve got 3-5 people living here at a time and use about this many cloths per week…

  • 2 bathroom hand towels per week.
  • 3 kitchen hand towels per week.
  • 30+ kitchen cleaning towels per week – we’re insanely messy cooks.
  • 2 car cleaning towels per week. I also wash my car with cloths but only a few times a year, so I’m not counting that in daily averages.
  • 5 dusting and general wiping down towels per week.
  • 8-12 bathroom cleaning towels per week.
  • 10-20 misc towels per week depending on what’s going on.

Cloth towels last forever. At my house old cloth baby diapers (from nine years ago) along with old hole-ridden tees, unusable cloth napkins and other discarded cloth become cleaning towels so we actually never buy any cloths other than three microfiber towels I got for glass and the cars. Our total cost for cloth towels over the last ten years has consisted of those 3 microfiber, maybe 5-10 kitchen towels, one pack of washcloths that I originally bought for homemade baby wipes but now use to clean with and I’d estimate 6 bathroom hand towels. IF you care about pristine looking hand towels you might buy more often but we don’t care.

How much will five years worth of cloth towels cost?

For the purpose of this post I’m calculating what I most often see. People who use cloth (including myself) tend to reuse what they have (old cloth napkins, old cloth diapers, cut up fraying towels, old tees, and so on) or head to the thrift store (used is eco-friendly) where you can score 5 years worth of cloth towels for almost nothing. I’m talking $20 and that includes hand towels.

However, maybe you do need some new cloth towels so I’ll also add on some new purchases, made with sustainable fabric because it uses less water and resources to manufacture and zero pesticides. Cloth towels will last five years plus easily so I’m also assuming a one-time purchase over five years.

WASHING COSTS: Five year’s worth of eco-friendly cloth washing (wash on cold) for a family of four would total about $60 (rounded up big time for soap use and energy fluctuation).

Average cost of all cloth use above = $95 for cloths + $60 for washing = $155 for five years.

Savings with cloth towels vs. paper towels over five years…

  • If you go from excessive virgin fiber paper towel use to cloth = $1,343.00
  • If you go from excessive recycled paper towel use to cloth = $1,191 .00
  • If you go from mid-range virgin fiber paper towel use to cloth = $594.00
  • If you go from mid-range recycled paper towel use to cloth = $540.00

Switching from very judicial paper towel use to cloth use will save you about 170 rolls of paper towels but will only equal negligible savings. You’ll save a lot of resources but not a scad of cash.

Keep in mind…

Cloth use equals bigger savings in the long run. In ten years we’ve rarely bought new towels of any sort so if you’re an excessive paper towel user and you switch to cloth not only will you save $1,299 in five years but you’ll save about $2,500 in ten years – the savings will continually edge up the scale with time.

Also, at the regular grocery store I often see people with 8-packs of paper towels. Not everyone buys in bulk. If you don’t buy in bulk and are an excessive user it can cost you a lot more ($2.50 per roll is a typical mid-range cost at my grocery store). That’s about $1,800 in five years.

To know how much money you could save by switching to cloth towels from paper towels you have to be 100% honest about your paper towel use.  Research by the paper industry shows that paper towels are a growing market and that most Americans use them at home (often regularly to excessively) so plenty of folks out there could probably be saving about $550 to $1300 over five years or an average of about $1,000.

Since the money savings aren’t insane, hopefully you also consider your eco-impact. You’ll save trees, water, and petroleum by switching to cloth.

END RESULT: We’re trying to save $50,000 and so far we’ve saved $8,534.00 That leaves $41,466.00 left to save. Whew. On one hand we’re going to have to find some better money savers to meet the $50,000 goal. On the other hand $8,534 is worth a whole lot of organic produce, no?!

[images - paper towels; cloth towel]

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Comments

  1. says

    Thanks for working all the numbers, Jennifer. My family and I are currently working towards many of the same goals as your family. Love all the great content your site provides. Such a great resource!

  2. Brad says

    Who in the hell uses that many paper towels? I use 1 while making lunch, 1 while making dinner, 1 while eating dinner, and maybe 2 to clean up the kitchen every two or three days. My wife sometimes uses 1 for dinner. thats 5-6 per day or 35-42 per week. and let’s go crazy and even DOUBLE it for cleaning up messes(which is absolutely ridiculous)… thats UP TO 84 per week for two people. A FAR cry from your alleged 426 sheets.

    These environmental outreach blogs really lose a lot of meaning when they’re 90% lies and 10% selling useless crap.

    You and your type are worse than the government when it comes to lying.

  3. Jennifer says

    Brad…

    Well, first of all, my calculations, as noted, are for a family of four (kids included), not for a couple. Also, it’s rare to, as you say, clean the kitchen only once every two to three days. Most people (especially people in a family with kids) cook and clean a lot more often than that, and if someone was using paper towels, it would add up.

    I’ve been in homes where they use paper towels for everything – washing fruits and veggies, drying their hands in the bathroom after every bathroom use, cleaning daily, as plates for kids snacks all day long and much, much more. it’s excessive but not uncommon. I’ve known many a family who purchases those insane bulk packages of paper towels at a Costco-type place on a weekly basis.

    It doesn’t take long for paper towel use to add up in some homes. I’m glad you and your wife use so few paper towels, but not everyone has that same restraint. In fact, the paper industry has done their own research on this subject and they note that paper towels are a growing market and that most Americans use them at home either regularly or excessively.

    That said, it’s hard to calculate paper towel use. People are all over the map, which is why, as you hopefully noticed, I did more than one calculation. I think if you visit enough homes with four+ people in them who do use paper towels, you’d see how quickly that use adds up.

  4. says

    Hey Brad, sounds like you’ve got it all figured out already so why are you even visiting an “environmental outreach” blog and ranting in the comments? Your comment lost a lot of meaning when you chose to ridicule rather than be constructive.

    And I hope you clean your kitchen more than every 2-3 days, man.

  5. Nellie says

    My husband uses 2-3 paper towels every time he washes his hands–it drives me crazy. I’m going to get some cotton terry hand towels and embroider the days of the week on them so he can’t complain that they never get washed(he’s going to wash them). My daughter works for an eco-friendly company–I’m going to suggest they start carrying something like this–I know it would sell. I’ve checked out 25 pages on the Internet and no one has anything close to it–flour sack towels are not strong enough for men to constantly abuse and bleach. Yeah, I know it’s not “green” but my husband is OCD and only bleaches occasionally, whereas when we were married many years ago,he used to bleach almost everything. He’s gotten better. Best luck in your goal.

  6. Janell says

    In 1980 I was listening to energy saving ideas. I did things while I raised my family to cut costs. I used cloth napkins instead of paper towels because they can easily be tossed in the washer with the other laundry. No big deal. Thank you for doing the math for me. 25 years and the only thing I used paper towels for was to place between cooked taco shells. The oil did not come out of cloth napkins very easy. The big thing I did however was to wash in Cold water. In 1980 my family of three…with diapers, cost twenty five dollars a month to use a water heater to do the laundry. So I stopped. I ended up with a family of five. I saved a great deal on that one. I also taught my children not to run water the whole time when they brushed their teeth. These are not new ideas. I adore President Carter and all his ideas on saving energy. And creating new energy. A lot of people did not listen. Look what happened. Here we are again. By washing laundry in Cold water, not even counting for inflation etc. I saved 300 dollars a year just on a gas water heater bill. Thanks. I appreciate the perspective.

  7. Megan says

    Thanks Jennifer. My family is working toward being paper towel-free and this really puts it into perspective.

  8. Jennifer Chait says

    @Megan – that’s great you’re working on going paper towel-free. It’s so easy once you start. It’s been years, maybe 8 or 9 at this point since I’ve bought a roll and we don’t miss them at all. It gets super easy.

  9. says

    I came across your post today while researching average paper towel use for a challenge I’m starting on my blog tomorrow. My family only uses about 3 rolls per year, but my sister’s family uses about 3 rolls per week :-) Big difference, and big potential savings for those who are willing to make a little bit more effort. I love your math by the way- it’s very my style!

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