Green New Year’s Goal – Quit Using Paper Towels & Paper Napkins

So far we’ve looked at 5 insanely easy New Year’s goals for families who are newer to green living. Plus we started looking at some harder green challenges for more experienced eco-families. Next on our list is the goal of zero paper towels and paper napkins.


  • Paper products use up entire forests – in total, 75% of the plantations established for paper and wood products in the last 20 years have been established at the expense of natural forests.
  • Paper products create pollution; in fact, the paper industry is the 4th largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.
  • Paper products use excessive water and energy to manufacture.
  • Typical paper towels are manufactured using chlorine, a known toxin which releases carcinogenic dioxins into the environment.
  • Paper products account for 25% of landfill waste. In turn, landfills account for one third of human-related methane emissions.
  • The majority of all commercial inks used in paper products are made with petroleum, a non-renewable resource.

The major reason you should give up paper towels and paper napkins is because on top of creating some serious negative environmental impacts, they’re unnecessary. This isn’t about something vital like food, shelter or clothing; it’s about a totally expendable item.

See many more facts about the damage caused by the paper industry.


I never had to switch from paper napkins because my own mom raised me with cloth napkins. I never assumed there was another choice – I figured people just used cloth napkins.I was wrong of course. All kinds of people use paper napkins, but I never have.

Paper towels were another story. My own mom bought them when I was growing up, then later I bought them. Everyone I knew used paper towels, and honestly, I guess I assumed they were a necessity. You clean with them, use them for plates, wipe up spills with them – you know, all the typical stuff.

However, around the time my son was born, I started wondering why I was using paper towels. For one thing, they’re expensive for a disposable item. Secondly, I was using cloth baby wipes, reusable coffee mugs, cloth napkins and other reusable items, so using paper towels seemed a little lame. We bought fewer paper towels or bought recycled, but I didn’t decide to quit using them until Cedar was about 6 years old – or a little over three years ago.


I quit cold turkey. One day I simply asked myself, “Hey, what if the store was out of paper towels?” I never bought another roll. Now, to stop buying paper towels is one thing. To quit the habit of reaching for a paper towel when you think you need one is quite another.

I had moments where I’d attempt to reach for paper towels, then I’d have to remind myself, oh, we don’t have any. Luckily for me, as noted above, we already used tons of reusable items – cloth napkins, reusable ice pop molds, cloth baby wipes and so on, so the transition wasn’t as painful for us as it can be for some families.

All in all, it took one moment in my day to quit buying paper towels, and a couple of months to stop missing them. This was, in my opinion, a super easy goal to complete, but I’ve seen families who have a hard time with it.


It depends. Overall completing this goal will actually save you money, not cost you money.

This goal cost me nothing, but if you have zero cloths, it’ll cost you a little bit. I already had cloth napkins, as noted, and I spend very little on them when I get new ones. As for replacing paper towels with cloths, I pretty much used what I had around the house, which included stuff like…

  • Old cloth diapers, old cloth baby wipes, old washcloths, old cloth napkins and old shirts (cut up) to clean with and wipe up spills.
  • Decent kitchen towels (that I already had) for spills and other kitchen messes.
  • Decent bathroom towels (that I already had) for hand drying.
  • Plates instead of paper towels for snacks and such.

If you’re a paper freak right now, and have few cloth items, you’ll need to get some. I have a break-down for the costs of each…

What it will cost to switch from paper to cloth napkins.

What it will cost to switch from paper towels to cloth.


Go cold turkey. If you have any paper towels or paper napkins in the house, and it’s already in your nature to use them, they’re just too easy to reach for. If you don’t have any in the house, yes, you’ll be stopping to think at first, “What do I grab!?” but this is a necessary step.

Stock up on cloth before you quit. Make sure you’ve got plenty of options laying around and a good amount of cloth napkins. If you have nothing to substitute for paper, you’ll get frustrated. Next thing you know, you’ll be running to the store for paper.

Make a list of alternatives. What could you use if paper towels didn’t exist? You can easily use cloth to clean with and dry your hands, right? I know a lot of people who have quit or tried to quit using paper towels and the place they get hung up on isn’t with cleaning issues, but food issues. It’s sooooooo easy to grab a paper towel for your toast or use a paper towel to cover a bowl of soup in the microwave. What you should do instead is use a microwave safe plate to cover items in the microwave and use plates, not paper for holding food and snacks.

Keep some REALLY old cloths around for super messes. At first, everything might seem like a super mess when using cloth. But in reality there are messes, then there are real icky messes, the kind you think won’t wash out of cloth. That’s not true – almost everything washes out. However, to save your sanity, it can pay to keep some really old, almost dead cloths around for those psychologically bad messes.


I’ve actually got an entire post with common arguments for paper towel use. If you’ve got tons of concerns about switching to cloth, then this post is a must read. Here are some of the most common questions and comments I’ve heard from people about paper towels and napkins…

You must not have kids – because I do and paper towels are a must!: I DO have kids. Three kids in fact, between my boyfriend and myself. My own son has almost never used paper towels and doesn’t miss them. He knows how to clean with cloths, use a cloth napkin and so on. My boyfriend’s kids are extremely prone to disposables, because their other household is big on disposables. However, when they’re here, they don’t have a problem using cloth. Having kids is a terrible excuse for using disposable paper products.

Paper towels are best for cleaning because they kill germs better than cloth: For one thing, germs are highly overrated. Secondly, it depends on how you clean. You can clean incorrectly with either paper or cloth. Learn how to clean correctly with cloth.

Paper towels help stop the spread of germs!: This is what the paper council would like you to believe, but it’s a lie. In your own home, the chances of spreading deadly germs via cloth are slim. If your family washes their hands properly, you can all use the same cloth hand towel. Make sure you switch them out a couple of times a week and wash them. In the case of illness, the Canadian Lung Association suggests that you  give the sick individual their own hand towel for the illness duration, but paper is an unnecessary step.

What if I want to quit using paper towels when I’m out and about too?: Use a hand dryer or try PeopleTowels, which are reusable, personal, carry-along hand towels.

How can you suck up the grease from bacon or other greasy foods without paper towels?: Buy some lint-free tea cloths and only use them for grease. However, with the insane health risks related to fried foods, along with the current obesity epidemic in full swing, I’m gonna suggest you quit frying foods. Bake, don’t fry and place food on a broiler to catch grease.

How do you dry produce without paper towels? I use cloths for most produce and a salad spinner for my greens – because I HATE wet greens in a salad.

How do you get lint-free glass without paper towels? Microfiber cloths or recycled newspaper both give you lint-free glass. Personally, I think lint-free glass is overrated. Seriously, when was the last time a friend came over and actually said, “Wow, I just love your lint-free mirror!” That’s never happened to me – even when I used paper towels.

Don’t cloth products take up a lot of time? You will need to wash cloth towels and cloth napkins which is more work than tossing paper into the trash. However, at my house we use a ton of towels and napkins, and we really only wash about one full load of towels per week. Also, to save time, we don’t really fold. We fold napkins in half and toss them in a drawer and we store our cleaning cloths, totally unfolded in a reusable bag I hung up in the laundry closet.  Using cloth takes about 15 extra minutes of my life each week to two weeks – it takes much longer to drive to the store for paper towels.


Quitting paper towels and napkins is such an awesome goal for families with kids – just think, your kids could grow up and not even know that there’s an option other than cloth. If you’ve got questions, leave them in the comments and I’ll try to help. If you need more inspiration or stories, here are some other bloggers who have quit the paper habit…


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  1. Mommy wants to be green says

    What about toilet tissue? Have you ever thought about coverting the whole family to cloth wipes like what we use for our babies in cloth diapers? My family is pretty resistant, but wonder if there is anyone out there that has successfully done so and if so, pointers please!! :)


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