About a year ago, my partner and I decided to break up with paper towels.
We’d already ditched dixie napkins for cloth ones, and switched to things like old t-shirts and rags for most cleaning tasks (dusting, polishing mirrors, makeshift Swiffers). As a household, we were burning through way fewer paper towels than most, but even our two rolls a month were adding up. Literally.
At the time, a roll of Brawny or Bounty at the grocery store was running us around $3, and that wasn’t just an “oh, New York is so expensive” thing: Manufacturers have been hiking up the prices of paper goods all over the country.
And, you know, paper towels kind of stink—environmentally speaking. There’s all that goes into making them (trees, water, energy, transport). And then there’s where billions of pounds of them end up: the methane-spurting landfill. Sure, if they’re soiled with foodstuff, you can pitch them in the compost, but that’s not so easy for everyone. Plus, as with so many sustainability situations, the best solution is to just use fewer of them to begin with.
I should be clear that we didn’t ditch paper towels entirely, because there are some messes that are too gnarly to let linger in a hamper. But a win’s a win: We have displaced around 75 percent of our annual quicker-picker-upper ration with reusable terry towels. It wasn’t easy.
Keep scrolling to soak up the habit-forming tricks that helped us get there—and don’t forget to tell your paper-happy besties.
Loads of rubbish
There’s tons of back-and-forth in life-cycle assessments that try to quantify the cradle-to-grave impact of paper towels versus hand dryers versus cotton towels. Totally independent research on the subject, though, is annoyingly scarce. A lot of blogs and news items shout out a 2011 MIT study [PDF] in which hand dryers come out way ahead in terms of their footprint—and which (ahem) Dyson, makers of possibly bacteria-blasting dryers, commissioned. On the flipside, Proctor & Gamble, who manufactures the ubiquitous Bounty towels, funded its own study in 2016; that one, among other things, highlights an accounting ouroboros in which the carbon sequestration benefits of growing trees neatly helps cancel out the emissions generated from turning those same plants into pulp to make paper.
So you can you argue the environmental (de)merits of paper towels either way. And, fair’s fair: When it comes to swapping paper for cloth, I have to own that my trusty towels have a footprint, too. Based on the production and laundry emissions alone, the switch would take years before it gets into the green. It’s like this:
If making a cotton napkin produces 2.2 pounds of greenhouse gasses, and each additional load of hot-water laundry adds 5.3 pounds, then buying 12 cloths and adding 3 loads’ worth of extra bulk amounts to 42.3 pounds of emissions in the first year, and 15.9 pounds a year thereafter.
If producing a paper napkin coughs up 0.02 pounds, a roll of paper towels is equivalent to 40 napkins, and we’d normally use 24 rolls a year, then that’s 19.2 pounds of emissions a year.
Stretch those numbers out, and it’d take around five years for the reusable cotton to zero out the single-use paper. That is, until we get to garbage.
According to the EPA, paper and paperboard make up the largest portion of what Americans send to the landfill each year. Tissue and paper towels alone account for about 3.8 million tons [PDF]. If we say half of that total is towels, that’s still a lotta pollution-burping rubbish. One ton of landfill coughs up 0.135 tons of methane (that’s 0.145 pound-for-pound), which means 1.9 million tons of it makes around 6.4 million tons of CO2-equivalent gas.
What does scaling that trash back look like? My household cut our annual paper-towel habit from 24 rolls a year to 6, which is a 75-percent drop. If each roll weighs about a pound, that’s 18 pounds less trash a year, or close to 67 pounds of CO2e saved. Upshot math: Factoring in garbage puts our switcheroo in the green by the end of Year One.
Nationally, a similar move would equate to 1.43 million tons less paper in the trash heap per trip around the sun. That’s like erasing 37 percent of what drops into the country’s largest landfill each year—or 4.8 million tons of CO2e. That’s a big number.
How to call it quits
Evicting something you’ve been doing for years from your brain starts with grokking the behavioral chasm between a routine and a habit. A routine requires effort. Schlepping laundry to the basement, paying bills, grocery shopping—these are routines. Habits happen automatically and without any real thought. They’re why we pick at our nails or mindlessly grab for paper towels.
Psychologists have landed on something of a formula for creating a habit, which boils down to two things. First, you have to understand your motivation, your “why.” Then you need to anticipate the places you’re going to screw up, and give yourself leeway. In dialing down our paper-towel problem, the “why” bit was easy: ♥️ 🌎.
Getting a jump on the missteps took a little thought. This was our plan of attack:
Step 1: Accept you’re not going to quit paper entirely
As we considered dialing down our Bounty habit, I catalogued all the tasks we’d typically use paper towels for. We were unspooling a lot of paper in the kitchen. Towels were the go-to for drying glassware and produce, mopping up counters, and wiping down cooking messes on the stove—and cat messes on the floor. We also used them to line containers of greens to absorb moisture and keep them fresher longer.
We drew lines in the sand. Scooping up kitty puke with a cloth that doesn’t go right into the washing machine or on a one-way trip to the dumpster wasn’t happening. Paper also just does too-good of a job keeping greens crisp without buying specialized tupperware, so it got a pass there, too. But the other everyday kitchen stuff? That we could handle.
Step 2: Get the right towels
Knowing there was already a lot to figure out in our towel-cutting-quest, I decided to forgo analysis paralysis and buy the ones our pals at Wirecutter recommended (click away, there are no affiliate kickbacks at one5c), which are actually bar mops. They come 12 to a pack; if you assume you’re gonna dirty 1 or 2 a day, that’s enough to get through a week. The terrycloth has proven plenty absorbent, and it has stood up to dozens of wash cycles. We opted for the dark gray color so coffee or soy sauce stains wouldn’t show.
Step 3: Make ‘em easy to grab
I wanted to ensure quick-grab-ability in our storage situation—that is, that we’d be able to reliably pull out only one towel at a time with one hand. I considered a couple crafty options, including carefully spooling them around a paper-towel holder to mimic the real thing. I quickly deemed that way too fussy; besides, I needed to use my holder for the few sheets we knew we’d continue to use. I also opted against smushing the towels into a jar, because that seemed to be begging for a box-of-tissues “three come out when you only need one” scenario.
Depending on your receptacle of choice, the fold that ensures an easy single-towel-grab will undoubtedly be different. But this is what mine looks like:
Step 4: Identity a habitual location
If the cloth towels were even a shade less convenient than their trashy counterparts, any experiment would be sunk. That’s why I opted to place the basket right next to the paper towel holder on the counter, making the reach for cloth a mirror of what we were already doing. Eventually, we’d relocate the paper, but leaning into our existing habit was an important first step.
Step 5: Agree on what “dirty’ means
These towels encounter a lot of kitchen funk, so it was essential to set loose ground rules for what triggers a wash cycle. A couple of our if-this-then-thats:
If all it touched was water, or you only used a small corner to wipe up a drip of something, hang it up and let it dry
If you’re actively cooking, and need something to regularly wipe your mitts on, keep it on the counter or slung over your shoulder.
If it touches the floor, mopped up a spill, or was engaged in a post-cooking wipe-down, give it a ticket to the laundry bin.
Step 6: Establish a hamper
If you’re like us, your clothes hamper is in the bedroom—or very close to it. That’s not the place you want days-old food messes to linger. So I converted an unused wastebasket into an under-the-sink laundry bin for soiled towels. These get washed in hot water with our other linens.
Step 7: Cut yourself some slack
It’s gonna take time to hit your goals. Even with these backstops in place, it took us three months of the cloth-towel life—50 percent longer than the 60-days pop-psych says it takes to form a new habit—to move the paper towels off the counter. But we did it, our kitchen is clean, and life is no less convenient. If you’ve ever thought this task was impossible, trust me when I say you can do this and it’s worth the effort.
Keep up the good work. I’ll try, too.