Unpaper Towels

How to survive without paper towels

Before I get into this blog post, let me say that the term “disposable” is a marketing stroke of genius. It makes us believe that we are “able” to “dispose” of single-use products and packaging, after which, they magically go away. In reality, these go to over-burdened landfills or developing countries.

Merriam-Webster records 1643 as the date of the first use of the word, but I’m pretty sure people weren’t throwing out gazillions of K-cups back then. Dictionary.com describes the origins of the word “disposable” as follows:

1640s, ‘that may be done without;’ see dispose + -able. Meaning ‘designed to be discarded after one use’ is from 1943, originally of diapers, soon of everything; replaced throw-away (1928) in this sense. First recorded use of disposable income (preserving the older sense) is from 1948.

Ahhh, 1943 and the dawn of single-use diapers, soon of everything. That sounds more like it.

Paper towel replacement ideas

On Day 27 of my recent 31-day zero-waste challenge, I posted a picture on Instagram of a big jar filled with rags that I had cut out of old t-shirts several years ago. The pic demonstrated the day’s accomplishment—to find a replacement for paper towels. At the rate Americans use paper towels, every citizen will finally be able to clear out their t-shirt drawers.

According to […] the market-research firm Euromonitor International, global spending on paper towels for use at home (but not in office or public bathrooms) added up to about $12 billion in 2017, and Americans accounted for about $5.7 billion of that total. In other words, the U.S. spends nearly as much on paper towels as every other country in the world combined.

No other nation even comes close: France, the runner-up in nationwide spending, only purchased about $635 million worth of paper towels last year, and the U.K., Germany, and Italy rounded out the top five paper-towel-buying countries.

The Atlantic, “Americans Are Weirdly Obsessed With Paper Towels”
Hand-knit cloths, pop-up sponges and a big jar of rags for cleaning up messes

In the bathroom

In the hopes that someone other than me will clean our bathroom, I placed a jar of rags conveniently in the bathroom cupboard for anyone to use. And I often do see evidence of cleaning—a sparkling sink or tub and a wet rag hanging up to dry. I scrub surfaces with these rags, baking soda and either scrap vinegar or kombucha that has fermented to the point of very strong vinegar.

In addition to regular cleaning, sometimes you also have to deal with substances in the bathroom that you’d rather not have to deal with—substances that came out of your body or out of your child’s body. I use rags in these instances. If using anything for cleaning up such messes other than a paper towel you can then toss immediately sounds absolutely disgusting—rather than merely mildly disgusting—you may not be a parent. Or you may simply be a queasy parent.

Our aversion to ickiness creates an awful lot of waste. We want disposable everything for dealing with messes. We often act as though we’re cleaning up nuclear waste when we have to clean up barf. Yes, cleaning projectile vomit off the walls at 2 a.m. is gross but it will not kill you unless your child has Ebola. Use a rag. After you rinse it out, hang it somewhere to dry before putting it in the laundry (wet clothes in the laundry can develop mold). Once dry, toss the dirty rag into your filthy-stuff-to-wash pile.

In the kitchen

I keep a few t-shirt rags in the kitchen to clean up small messes but for big spills, I clean up with a dish towel or flour sack towel, hang that up somewhere to dry (like outside on my drying rack) and wash it later with the other towels. This week, I made some unpaper towels out of an old flannel sheet. (Scroll down to the bottom for the instructions.)

When I wrote my post on Instagram about ditching paper towels, people had lots of questions about draining bacon and other fried foods—but mostly bacon. They wanted to know what to use instead of paper towels.

We don’t fry much food and most people commenting said they fry only occasionally, so you probably won’t face the what-do-I-drain-fried-food-on conundrum on a daily basis. But here are some ideas:

  • Keep one towel dedicated for draining fried foods. When you’re done, wash it by hand, not in the washing machine. 
  • Drain the fried food on a cooling rack sitting on a dish or cookie sheet. When the fat has hardened and cooled, remove it and set it aside. Reader @lezikul had a good idea for the fat—use it to season cast iron pans (thank you for that tip). Depending on the type of fat, you could also make bird seed fat cakes with it, something like these but try a muffin tin for the mold. (Thank you for that tip, @tinkerbel13.) If it’s bacon fat, add it to dog food for an occasional treat (thanks for the tip @kara_rane). Avoid giving this to your dog if the bacon contains nitrates or antibiotics (thank you @constancenott). Please keep in mind that I am not a vet! I’m just passing along information.
  • Drain the fried food on brown paper bags. Not entirely zero-waste, but most people have brown paper bags sitting around and you’ll reuse them at least. In some cities, you can put these in the green bin/yard waste bin/food scraps bin (different cities, different terminology).
  • If you find yourself in a restaurant with unwanted paper napkins at your table, take them home and use them as your emergency fried food draining stash. Again, not entirely zero-waste but perfect is not an option.

People had so many questions about—and answers for—replacing paper towels. You can read the post and many comments here.

How to make unpaper towels

This week, I transformed an old worn flannel sheet of my daughter’s into some unpaper towels. I had originally bought the sheet at Savers, a thrift shop. So I’m really getting my $2.50’s worth. Or maybe I paid $1.50. I paid next to nothing for this sheet.

The middle of the sheet is shot, but the sides and bottom are in good shape
12 unpaper towels

I made these very simply:

  • Cut out a rectangle of flannel, 12″ x 18″ or the size desired. Use this as a template for cutting out your remaining rectangles.
  • Finish the edges with an overlock stitch on a serger or a zigzag stitch on a standard sewing machine.
  • I made single-ply unpaper towels. If you want two-ply, sew two rectangles together on a serger and you’re done. On a standard machine, sew the two pieces together, right sides facing, leaving an opening a few inches wide on an edge. Turn the towel inside out through that opening, iron the towel and sew all around the edges, making sure to close the opening neatly.

If you have snaps—and the inclination—sew them onto the corners of these towels so you can snap them all together and then roll them up like paper towels. I didn’t do that and instead, simply rolled my unpaper towels up into a big roll. Flannel sticks to itself. I don’t have a paper towel holder but I do have a jar or two hundred, so I put the roll in one of them.

I had enough fabric to also make two more handkerchiefs to add to my stash. It is winter. Someone will get a cold. Not likely me because I eat so much fermented food!

If you don’t sew, you can buy unpaper towels on Etsy. You’ll find lots and by buying them there, you’ll support a small business.

27 Replies to “Unpaper Towels”

  1. Ms Mary Musker says: Reply

    I don’t have an overlocker, but I do have a pair of pinking shears, which also works well – and no sewing required 🙂

  2. I love the minimalistic way you do things, and it is not all complicated. Your approach makes me feel like I can accomplish all these things without so much stress.

  3. Eleanor Trebicki says: Reply

    The real problem comes when you’re not by a serious drought. Any clever ideas as washing rags under these conditions just isn’t practical.

    1. This is true. Drought presents a separate set of problem areas to deal with than the rest of us face.
      There is no one size fits all solution.

      However, paper mills are notorious wasters and polluters of massive amounts of fresh water and land. Those of us who can use substitutes contribute to saving those resources as well as reducing landfill waste.
      We also can learn from the drought areas for ways to lessen our daily water usage and waste. We need each other’s solutions and aupport.

    2. joannathegreenmaven says: Reply

      You read my mind! Excessive laundry (these would need to be washed often and in hot water to sanitize them) uses clean water, energy for heat and drying and exposes us to laundry chemicals. Much better to get out of the habit of using so many towels instead or to use a sustainable paper brand instead.

      1. Washing: yes, true, but dryers are often optional. I bought two clothes drying racks when I was a student with very limited access to a dryer (that worked worth a damn) and still use them thirty years later, living in apartments the whole time. The dryer only gets used for sheets and bath towels.

  4. Hand-knit cloths are a good thing to make when you’re learning to knit. More useful than scarfs (if like me you have way too many already) and doesn’t matter if there’s a few holes!

  5. I often think about how to create small businesses that can solve some of these needs for a more sustainable planet. Could be a worker owned collective that manufactures single usage towels from old clothing scraps and then would collect & distribute them much like a cloth diaper service would. Many people would have a hard time going to the length to do all this themselves but would wholeheartedly support a local service that sustainable dealt with these issues. I would gladly help set something like this up to anyone that was interested…

  6. That article in The Atlantic made me truly ashamed of our country and the amount of waste we produce. I need to double down on my efforts. Do have stacks of rags in the house but still reach for the p-towels to clean up bacon grease and cat vomit.

  7. Replacing paper towels is one of those things that once you do it you start to wonder how disposable ones ever seemed like a good idea in the first place!

  8. joannathegreenmaven says: Reply

    I love the idea of using pinking shears! So much less work!

  9. joannathegreenmaven says: Reply

    I don’t have a washing machine in my house (I live in an apartment) so I don’t want to accumulate excess laundry.

    1. I have a few suggestions. I use t-shirt rags, fabric cotton rounds, unpaper towels, cloth handkerchiefs A LOT. They are so small they really don’t accumulate that much more laundry even with frequency of use. I just toss them in with bath towels when I do laundry about 2-3x a month. While doing dishes your could toss them in your sink and hand wash them. or Take them in the shower with you or bath water before you drain it and give them a quick mechanical wash, then hang them dry on your towel hanger, shower curtain rack or balcony/porch? Saves money, trees and water. It’s definitely not a time-saver but I don’t think that’s the #1 goal of zero waste or sustainability.

      Great post Zero-Waste Chef!

  10. I love that you made towels out of the old flannel sheet. It is such a good use of resources and they are attractive!

  11. “If using anything for cleaning up such messes other than a paper towel you can then toss immediately sounds absolutely disgusting,” you can use one of those rags made from old clothes and then throw it away. You’re still reusing something instead of buying a new thing to use once and discard, and when it’s a rag you’ve already been reusing for 14 years, there’s really no guilt necessary over throwing it away finally.

  12. We have been paper product free for years now! I often hear arguments about excess laundry, but I’m certain we do exactly the same amount of laundry with or without kitchen towels. Small handkerchiefs and kitchen towels take up very little space. We toss ours in with laundry we have to do anyway and would do 3-4 weekly loads with or without the added rags. If every napkin, rag, and hankie were dirty at the same time, they wouldn’t even make up half a load of laundry. If you wash your clothes and towels at all, washing a few rags with them doesn’t use any additional resources.

  13. I made some unpaper towels a year or so ago, and they work brilliantly. They are somewhat overengineered, a layer of old towel and a layer of old t-shirt, edges sewn together, a cross sewn joining opposite corners to stabilise, and a button hole.

    They hang on a hook in the kitchen, with a bucket in the laundry for dirty ones (also other cloths and tea towels). There are 8 towels, and the four of us rarely run out. We also have paper towel, but the holder has been empty for months, and no one’s bothered to refill it from the package in the pantry.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Hi Krista,
      They don’t sound overengineered, they sound beautiful! I love your design, especially the button hole. I need to up my unpaper towel game! Thanks for sharing these great ideas!
      ~ Anne Marie

  14. Michael Quimby says: Reply

    I use microfiber towels they don’t require soap and they dry quickly. I like them for steak free Windows and mirrors. Wet the cloth and squeeze until almost dry Awesome!

    1. Michael Quimby says: Reply

      Streak free! 😆

  15. Great tips! Thank you for sharing!

  16. Sheets that are worn in the middle, can be turned. i.e. Rip the sheet down the middle, sew the two good sides together, then hem the new sides that have a ripped edge.

  17. I use paper towels to soak up oil from frying eggs, which obviously doesn’t harden. How can I replace paper for something else to do this? I don’t want to tip fat down the sink as it clogs drains, even oils like sunflower and olive oil can harden when mixed with other materials down the drains.

  18. Used to work in a restaurant. They used stale bread to drain the bacon on.

    1. Oh that’s brilliant! Thanks for sharing that idea Shellee.
      ~ Anne-Marie

  19. Another couple ideas for re-using scrap cloth: Instead of toilet paper, use a bidet and dry with a 3-4 inch strip of old cloth diapers. Without a bidet, I sometimes I use a bottle of water with a squeeze top (like a shampoo bottle) to spray my bottom with water after peeing, and then dry with a cloth. A friend actually uses scrap cloth “pee rags” and just tosses them into a basket to dry, then throws them in the washing. They rarely smell, since they dry out fairly quickly.

  20. For woven cloth, I find I can just cut or tear them and not need to edge them at all. Tee-shirts tend to curl, so maybe edging helps.

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