Some figures state that it takes 17 trees and more than 20,000 gallons of water to make one ton of paper towels.
We have another staggering figure: According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2015 we generated 7.4 billion tons of paper towel and tissue materials.
The majority of paper towel sold is virgin paper, meaning it's not recycled. We cut down millions of trees every year just for paper towel.
The Two Solutions: Reusable Paper Towel vs Paper Towel Alternatives
While I know you might be looking for reusable paper towel, and it does exist, it might not be the best solution. Here's what you should know.
Reusable Paper Towels (Made From Bamboo)
This is literally what it sounds like. These will be made out of bamboo and often come on a roll, just like regular paper towel. The difference is that these sheets can be used, washed and reused.
When they're done, they can be composted. If you throw them in the trash, it's not a lot better than using regular paper towel, so these aren't a great option if you can't compost them.
There are a few problems with reusable bamboo towels, however.
- Once they're off the roll, they're hard to store. They're conveniently rolled up at first, but what do you do with a wet piece of paper towel? There's not really a good solution for that.
- You can't use them indefinitely. Expect to get about a week's use out of them before they need to be disposed of.
- They aren't always as durable or absorbent.
- They need to be either composted or thrown in the trash.
Swedish Dishcloths - Another Good Alternative
Swedish dishcloths were invented by a Swedish engineer in 1949. As a reusable, highly-absorbent, eco-friendly and inexpensive alternative to paper towels, it's easy to see why they're found in homes all over Scandinavia.
They're typically made from either 100% cellulose (wood pulp) or a combination of 70% cellulose and 30% cotton.
Swedish dishcloths have some benefits over disposable towels:
- They can be used up to hundreds of times before they need to be disposed.
- The combination of cellulose and cotton makes them ultra absorbent—up to 20 times their weight. Ever used a huge wad of paper towel to clean up a spill? One Swedish dishcloth can do the same job.
- They're easy to clean and dry quickly. To sanitize them, simply put the damp cloth in the microwave for 1-2 minutes, or boil them in water for 1-2 minutes. To fully clean them, either run them in the dishwasher or washing machine.
- When the Swedish dishcloths are worn out, they can be composted.
- They can also be used as a replacement for kitchen sponges. They dry out really fast, so unlike sponges, they don't harbor bacteria or stink.
There are lots of brands that offer cotton-based cloths as an alternative to paper towel.
Fully cotton cloths are probably not as eco-friendly as Swedish dishcloths, but anything is better than using paper towel. The reason for this is that cotton takes a lot of water to cultivate and process.
It also takes a lot of pesticides, and is grown in developing countries where the pesticides greatly impact both the farmers and the communities around the area the cotton is grown.
Having said that, they're still a lot better than paper towel, can be used and reused many times, and will biodegrade if composted at the end of their life.
It's Hard To Ditch Paper Towel
It's true that paper towel is convenient. It can be used for many uses around the house: cooking, cleaning, drying your hands, cleaning up spills, and more.
There are also some downsides to using reusable cloths instead of disposable paper towels:
A Few More Smaller Problems With Reusable Cloths
- You need somewhere to store them. As soon as you stop using paper towel, you quickly realize how quickly the dirty rags pile up. And they can be filthy.
- They're probably going to get stained or discolored over time, especially if you use them with fruits or veggies.
- For those that pat their chicken or other meat down, disposable paper is a lot better for the task.
- Cleaning up a nasty mess like pet pee or something really dirty with a cloth isn't exactly ideal. You should have a designated cloth for specific messes... like cat puke. Sorry for the gross visual.
Use a Single Cloth For a Single Purpose
To stay as safe as possible, never use cloths for more than one purpose.
Cross-contamination is a real concern, especially in the kitchen. If possible use cloths with different colors or designs to help differentiate them.
Always Rinse & Dry Them Properly
Any reusable fabric will grow bacteria quickly if not allowed to dry out quickly. This is not only dangerous, but will also make the cloths stink.
Be sure to hang used cloths in a way that they can fully dry out quickly after use. Also, be sure to always rinse and wring out the cloths after using.
Why Switching To Reusable Paper Towel is a Great Choice
There are two very good reasons to ditch the disposable paper towels and go with a reusable alternative.
You're Going To Save a Lot of Money
Think about how much you spend on paper towels. The average family goes through at least 1 roll of paper towel a week. That's a good amount of money that's getting thrown away—literally.
A good quality reusable paper towel replacement will easily last a few years if properly taken care of.
You'll Be Killing Less Trees
It's hard to get exact figures, but some estimates are that we cut down as many as 51,000 trees every day for paper towels. If true, that's a a staggering number.
Making the switch to reusable paper towel or a paper towel replacement will save a lot of trees over the course of your lifetime. Think about how good that will feel.
Washing Them Uses Less Water Than It Takes To Make Paper Towel
A common concern many people have with reusable paper towels is the added amount of laundry you have to do. Doesn't the extra water make them not eco-friendly?
The truth is that manufacturing paper towel takes a lot of water. One ton of the stuff takes 20,000 gallons of water, and that's not even including the fossil fuels used, the bleaching of the wood pulp, and all the other damaging practices that go into the manufacture of paper towel.
Combine that with the fact that you're constantly using new paper towel, and it's easy to see that reusable ones are just more eco-friendly, period.
Skip The Microfiber Cloths—They're Not Environmentally Friendly
Microfiber cloths are a popular solution for a paper towel replacement, but they have a lot of problems. They're popular because microfiber has a slight positive charge, making dust cling to it. The microfibers are also up to 100 times finer than a human hair, giving it a large surface area.
But microfiber is typically made from polyester or a blend of polyester and nylon. Plastic.
It doesn't biodegrade; it stays in our ecosystem for a long time.
New studies have shown that out oceans are being thoroughly contaminated with synthetic microfibers. Small fish can easily eat these fibers, and then those fish are eaten by bigger fish, moving their way up the food chain. Before long, it ends up on your plate.
At Better Goods, we never recommend anything made from polyester, and that includes microfiber cloths.
The Best Reusable Paper Towels & Alternatives
Their "paperless towels" are made from 100% cotton and are therefore 100% biodegradable. They come in a set of 5 and are 9x9 inches in size. This set will run you $10, which is a pretty great deal
Since they're white cotton, be sure to rinse them well after using to avoid stains.
As of February 2020, ThreeMain is a carbon neutral company, so you can also feel good about buying from them, too.
These super absorbent towels are a replacement for both paper towels and sponges. They can absorb up to 15 times their own weight in liquid and last longer than the average cotton dishcloth, too.
They're also made from 70% cellulose wood pulp and 30% cotton, making them compostable when they finally wear out. You should get about a year of constant use out of them before it's time to compost them.
With a selection of nice colors, you can't go wrong with these eco-friendly dishcloths.
A True Paper Towel Replacement
These 100% cotton flannel "Unpaper" towels are handmade in Oregon. They come in a variety of fun and colorful prints (our favorite is the avocado print!) and are a perfect replacement for disposable paper towels.
They're a good size at 12"x10" and will shrink after the first few washes. Once they shrink, you can actually store them on a paper towel holder. How cool is that?
The cloths are always shipped plastic free, too.
A Bamboo Alternative
These 6” x 7” two-ply bamboo dish cloths are a great replacement for sponges and paper towels. It has a looped outer weave that scrubs out dirt and grime efficiently and absorbs liquids effectively.
It comes in a neutral shade that is highlighted with bright colored piping that keeps the material from fraying. Because of its light colored material, it will have to be washed regularly to remove any unsightly stains. Expect them to shrink a bit after the first usage because they're made of bamboo.
Some other things we love about this product is its easily stored, dries up quickly, and remains odorless, making it a great addition to any household.
A Bamboo Alternative
These 2-ply paper towels are 100% tree-free. Instead, it is made from sustainable and fast-growing bamboo fibers (it only takes about 3 months to grow bamboo compared to the 20 years it takes for trees to grow!). This material makes it more durable than the average paper towel. Not only that, but every purchase contributes to the replanting in the American forestland - how awesome is that?
The paper towels are perforated in half sheets so there is no need to waste a full sheet for small spills, making clean up more sustainable.
Seedling also also ensures plastic-free packaging. They are packed and delivered in recycled and recyclable paper.