The Nickel Pincher: Stop Trashing Those Towels

Single-use toweling costs money with every wipe—but there’s a better, cheaper way.

March 12, 2009

Sponge beats paper: Sponges clean just fine, and you can reuse them.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Judging by the shopping carts I see at the supermarket, the average family buys enough paper toweling and assorted disposable wipes each year to circle the earth several times. I, on the other hand, use perhaps one roll of paper towels every few months (mostly for greasing cake pans and cleaning up pet mistakes). And I don’t recall buying any disposable wipes since my daughter, now nearly 21, was a week old. I’m just too cheap to buy something designed to be thrown away, and besides, sponges and old terry towel rags work much better for almost every cleaning task. Whether you want to save some trees, you rankle at the thought of spending money on stuff that’s only good for one use, or both, here are some strategies to keep things clean without adding so much paper trash to the landfills.


In the kitchen, the humble cellulose sponge is tops for wiping up splatters, soaking up spills, and even scrubbing the occasional dish. I like cellulose sponges with a scrubby fiber pad on one side (very useful for loosening dried-on spills). Skip the soft synthetic foam sponges—they don’t hold up. And be sure you avoid any with label claims such as “kills germs,” “antibacterial,” or “antimicrobial.” Hot, soapy water kills germs just fine, and doesn’t add dangerous poisons into the environment.

As paper towel marketers are fond of pointing out, sponges can become breeding grounds for bacteria. So at least once a day, or whenever you finish mopping up something particularly nasty, drop the sponge into the top rack of the dishwasher so it will get sterilized next time the machine runs. Or if you can’t wait, put the rinsed, moist sponge into the microwave and zap it on high for 3 minutes (be careful, it will be really hot when the oven beeps, so let it sit a few minutes or grab it with tongs).

My second secret wiper weapon is a stack of terrycloth rags ripped from worn bath towels (about 10 inches square suites me). These rags are superabsorbent and good for wiping everything from grubby fingers to gloppy messes. Rinse as needed under running water. When done with a task, toss it into the wash basket and grab a fresh, dry one for the next cleaning mission. When washday comes I toss the collection, plus any table napkins and hand towels, into the washer set on hot (about the only time I use hot water, but I want to kill any lurking germs) and then hang them to dry, preferably outside (sunshine also kills germs and helps fade stains).

Wipes That Won’t Wipe Out a Forest
Whether you diaper your baby in cotton or disposables, you are going to need to wipe those chubby cheeks (both sets) and everything in between. At the very least, buy natural baby wipes, as they are healthier for your baby and the environment. Even better, save money and reduce your trash volume by making your own reusable baby wipes. When my first box of disposable wipes for baby number one ran low, I turned to my old towel pile and cut dozens of squares to fit neatly inside the wipe bin when folded in half. I filled the empty wipe bin with the squares, poured water mixed with a couple of drops of baby bath liquid over them, and viola! Baby wipes that out-wiped the thin disposable ones hands down! Soiled wipes got dropped into the covered diaper pail to be washed with the diapers in hot water. Wash your wipe bins well, inside and out, between refills and let them air dry to keep them sweet and clean. My repurposed bins lasted through two babies, including one who was in no hurry to leave diapers behind.

Farm gal, library worker, and all-around spendthrift Jean Nick shares advice for green thrifty living every Thursday on