I don’t know about you — but I have a bad habit of using paper towels for everything. Without thinking, I grab a paper towel to clean up messy spills, wipe down the stovetop and clean out the sink; and don’t get me started on how many I use to clean the bathroom. Paper towels are so darn easy and convenient!
I’m not the only one reaching for those paper towels. One source estimates that over 13 billion pounds of paper towels are used every year in America alone. Whew!
Since I’m aiming to be more earth-friendly, I knew I had to change my ways to something more sustainable. Today I’m sharing my test-run with reusable Swedish dishcloths and taking a closer look at why we should try to reduce our dependence on single-use paper towels.
Remember: We’re all about taking baby steps here on Honest and Simple. I’m not saying you “should” or “must” ditch all your paper towels cold turkey. Maybe like me, you’ll start a slow break-up with them. Come on in to read more about why we’re even talking about this…
Why ditch paper towels?
For starters, paper towels are not sustainable. We use them once and toss them. Without getting too science-y, we all know that trees need to be cut down (leading to deforestation) and chemicals (including bleach, glues and dyes) are often used in the production of paper towels. The paper and pulp industry, by one account, consumes a whopping 4% of the world’s energy.
Taking this further, the paper industry is the fourth largest contributor to the emission of greenhouse gasses. Simply put…opting for a single-use paper product just isn’t a good environmental choice. [Dive deeper with What Makes a Sustainable Product here.]
And since most of us toss our used paper towels in the trash — they end up inside a plastic bag in the landfill, which is never a good idea.
But aren’t paper towels recyclable/biodegradable/compostable?
Paper towels shouldn’t be tossed in your recycle bin. According to Treehugger, there are three reasons for this: one, the pulp in paper towels is ground up so finely that it can’t really be recycled into anything else.
Two, there are often glues, dyes and resins used in the manufacturing process that don’t lend themselves to recycling. And finally, used paper towels are generally “contaminated” by the messes we cleaned up in the first place, whether it’s a greasy spill, food or pet waste. [You can still recycle the cardboard tube, of course.]
Are paper towels biodegradable? The short answer is yes. Since they’re made from natural wood pulp, they’ll break down over time under the right conditions. But if you’re tossing paper towels into a plastic garbage bag and sending them to the landfill — then the conditions aren’t right for them to biodegrade.
Are paper towels compostable? Yes, they are — providing they don’t have grease, oils, fats or chemicals on them since these materials won’t break down in your compost bin.
What’s the alternative to single-use paper towels?
Okay…we’ve talked about why we should reduce our use of paper towels, but what are the alternatives? You have a number of options when it comes to choosing something more sustainable. Today we’re talking about Swedish dishcloths — which is one of the more popular choices — but you can search online for “reusable paper towels” to give you more ideas.
This article on Apartment Therapy lists 10 alternatives, but some are more earth-friendly than others — so you may want to do a little research first.
My choice for the reusable paper towel test
I chose to try Papaya brand reusable paper towels — which are indeed Swedish dishcloths, even though the company chooses not to market them that way. The information I’m sharing about this brand applies to many other brands of similar products as well. [Note: I didn’t receive any compensation for writing about this product and this isn’t an affiliate link. I just landed on this brand for my trial run.]
Are reusable paper towels cost-effective?
I’ve resisted the idea of making the switch from single-use paper towels to reusables for years (no exaggeration!) — in large part because of the price tag. I would longingly look at these babies in the store and then put them back on the shelf. A package of two (with a hook for hanging) cost me $18 — so $9 per towel, which seems high.
But then I did the math. Papaya claims that one of their cloths replaces 17 rolls of paper towels; they’re factoring in the lifespan of a cloth before it needs to be replaced in making this calculation. If a roll of paper towels costs an average of $1.50, then 17 rolls would be $25.50. Compare that with $9 for the cloth. [There are more affordable options on Amazon and at Walmart — although some reviews say they don’t hold up as well. See more on “imposters” below.]
Even if my numbers are off a little — this still seems like a wise choice, both for my wallet and the environment.
What are the main features of reusable paper towels?
- Swedish dishcloths are typically made from cellulose and cotton, both of which are renewable resources.
- They’re more absorbent than a dish towel and less likely to develop odors than a regular dishcloth.
- Just like paper towels, reusables are suitable for many different uses in every room of the house.
- Since they’re a lot thinner than a sponge — they dry much quicker, which means there’s less time for bacteria and moldy smells to grow.
- You can wash and re-use them many times — with some estimates saying one cloth can last anywhere from three to six months.
Features of Papaya Brand Reusables
As I’ve mentioned — these features aren’t exclusive to Papaya brand reusable paper towels. But here’s what drew me to the brand when I saw them on Instagram:
- They come in pretty designs. I like that I can choose different colors for different uses. So I’m not cleaning the kitchen with the same cloth I used in the bathroom. Eeww.
- Papaya cloths come with a little adhesive hanging hook. If you hang after each use, they’ll dry much quicker with less chance to develop bacteria and nasty smells.
- Love, love, love that they can be washed on the top shelf of the dishwasher! They can also go in the washing machine and then get air dried or you can hand wash them with soap and water. Since I have an aversion to laundry, tossing them in the dishwasher seems much more convenient.
- Swedish dishcloths are better than paper towels for cleaning glass and mirrors because they don’t leave behind any paper towel lint.
- They are compostable — so long as they’re clean when you put them in the compost pile or bin.
So those are the basic pros of Swedish dishcloths vs. paper towels.
Be sure to read below for an honest review since I made the switch.
My review after two weeks with Swedish dishcloths
Let’s be honest. Have I found reusable cloths as convenient as single-use paper towels? Nope. I keep forgetting to reach for the dishcloths first! This is because the Swedish dishcloths are hanging inside a cupboard while the paper towels still sit out on the counter. So it’s “out of sight…out of mind.” [I won’t leave them out because I don’t like staring at dishcloths all the time.]
Also, there’s an extra step with reusable cloths: you have to rinse or wash the cloth after using it. This seems like a small thing, but it does make a difference when you’re trying to adopt a new habit. I’ve also noticed that grease from my cooktop, for example, seems to stain the cloths and never really washes out. I think this is more of a cosmetic thing.
I mentioned a slow break-up with paper towels — but I don’t think single-use paper towels will ever completely disappear from our household. There are some really “icky” messes that just call for a paper towel — like when your cat hacks up a hairball, say. I also make soap in my kitchen and really just need to toss that mess.
But my long-term goal is to greatly reduce our use of paper towels, saving us money and helping the environment. Remember — every little bit helps and it doesn’t need to be an “all or nothing” proposition.
Now it’s your turn. Are you going to make the switch to reusable paper towels or have you done this already? Do you have any tips to make it easier to adopt this new habit? Let me know in the comments.
What’s an Imposter Swedish dishcloth?
They’re cheap, so it’s tempting! But if you buy a “Swedish Dishcloth” that’s packaged in plastic, and seems wet when you open it, it’s not authentic. It most likely contains petroleum-based fibers, which is why they feel wet to the touch. Authentic Swedish dishcloths are rigid when dry — due to their natural and sustainable fibers. This is what makes them dry quicker.
I am not a licensed nutritionist, medical professional or cosmetics expert. The information provided on Honest + Simple is for general informational purposes only. The statements on this website have not been evaluated by the Food + Drug Administration and are not intended to treat, prevent or cure any disease. Before making decisions about your health or other concerns, please consult a qualified professional and do not rely on this website for medical advice.
Oh my gosh! I am so hooked on paper towels. Can I break the habit and reduce my footprint on the environment? Well, I am going to try because I have adopted your nonjudgmental, baby steps approach. Thanks, Lucie.
I’m hooked, too, so I resisted this for a long time! I think this one will be tough, but taking baby steps we can at least improve on old habits and be more aware. Thanks for taking time to comment.