I Stopped Buying Paper Towels And Napkins Years Ago—Here’s How I Manage

The only disposable paper product that regularly makes it into my house is toilet paper.

July 13, 2017
girl with paper towels
Rene Frederick/ Getty

Fun fact: The only disposable paper product that regularly makes it into my house is toilet paper. By all accounts, I buy one or two rolls of paper towels per year max, along with a grand total of zero napkins. And I’m not a crunchy weirdo who lives in a pigsty.

Instead, I just use cloth towels, napkins, and rags. Initially, it started out as an easy way to save a few bucks when I was fresh out of college and on a shoestring budget. The two-pack of paper towels and pack of napkins that most people buy weekly costs around $5. Which might not seem like that much. But it adds up to about $20 a month—or $240 per year. 

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Eight years later, I can pretty much afford to buy as many disposable paper products as I want. (Score one for adulting!) But at this point, buying more than that occasional roll just doesn’t occur to me. There’s the obvious fact that disposable paper products are pretty wasteful, and skipping them is an easy way to cut down on my trash. (Here’s how you can cut down on your food waste, too.)  Plus, the vast majority go through a bleaching process that produces dioxins—environmental pollutants that accumulate in the tissues of animals, as well as in the soil, water, and air . 

I know that my reusable habit isn’t going to save the world. But small actions add up—and this is one that’s way easier than you might think. Here’s how I go (mostly) paper-free, and how you can do the same.  

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How I make it work

If you’re used to grabbing a paper towel or napkin for even the tiniest messes, going without them might seem pretty inconvenient—if not downright impossible. But it’s actually a no-brainer once you get the hang of it. You just need to have a lot of reusable towels and rags, and have a system in place for keeping them organized and clean. 

For the kitchen: White bar towels. Yup, these are the same plain white kitchen towels used by bartenders everywhere. They’re absorbent, and their cheap—a 6-pack from Target costs around $4. I keep 10 or so of these in my kitchen, folded up in a drawer. Most days I’ll go through one—sometimes two if I’m doing a lot of cooking. When that day’s towel isn’t in use, I hang it on a wall hook to help it dry faster. When I’m finished with it, I toss it in a bin under the sink.

For eating: Cloth napkins. When it’s time to eat, I’ll set the table with these instead of paper napkins, and toss them in the bin under the kitchen sink when we’re done. I have a ton that I’ve collected over the years, from thrift stores to vintage shops to cool online retailers like The Everyday Napkin and Food52. But I try not to be precious about them. I don’t worry too much if they get stained, and I would never dream of ironing them. Once they start to feel too ratty for dining, I’ll repurpose them for something else. 

For cleaning and non food-related messes: Old cut up rags. Eventually, old bar towels and cloth napkins will get stains that won’t come out, or they’ll start to fray. When that happens, I cut them into smaller squares to use for any other tasks that would otherwise call for a paper towel—from cleaning the bathroom, to dusting, to wiping schmutz off of icky surfaces. Ditto for old bath towels. I have tons of these rags, and I keep them tucked away in bins throughout the house for easy access. I’ll drop dirty ones in the bin under the sink or directly into the washing machine—whichever is closer.

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The key to making this work, of course, is to have a huge supply of reusables. That way, you don’t have to worry about constantly doing laundry. Right now, it’s just my husband, my dog, and I—and my stash is big enough that I only need to do a load once a week. When we eventually have kids, I’ll just stock up on more reusables and try to stick to the once-weekly washing schedule. 

Most of the time, this system works just fine. But if a towel or rag gets really soaked and I know I won’t be doing laundry for a few days, I’ll hang it in the kitchen or the bathroom until it’s totally dry. That way it won’t get moldy while it sits in the bin before it’s washed.

And for really intense messes? I firmly believe that it’s worth sticking with reusables as often as possible. But it’s about doing the best I can, not being perfect. So in the rare instance when I find myself up against something really gross—like when my dog has an accident or throws up some nasty stuff that she ate off the sidewalk—I’ll reach for the roll of paper towels and use what I need to get the job done. And I won’t feel guilty about it. (Here are 6 things your dog’s poop can tell you about its health.)

How you can go paper free

Full disclosure: I’ve used reusables since I first started living on my own, so doing so has always felt normal and easy to me. But these three tips seem like the simplest, most painless way to make the switch. 

Stock up on reusables. Buy more bar towels  and cloth napkins than you think you’ll need (remember, bar towels are crazy cheap, and you can find inexpensive cloth napkins at thrift stores). If you don’t have some old towels that you can chop into rags, pick up a few packs of washcloths to use instead. When you know you have a huge stash at your disposal, you’ll be less tempted to grab a paper towel or napkin.  

Only keep an emergency stash of disposables. We’re talking one or two rolls of paper towels, tops (and make them recycled paper towels). To keep yourself from grabbing them automatically, put them in a slightly inconvenient place. Instead of storing them on the paper towel roll on the counter, stick them on top of the fridge or below the kitchen sink.

Just go cold turkey. As soon as you have your reusable supply set up, just start using them. It might feel a little weird at first. But like with any new habits, the more you do it, the more normal it’ll feel. Promise!

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