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”
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.
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.