Paper Towel Alternative! | Build Back Better

Washington (GGM) Analysis | March 5, 2021 by Pamela Scaiff (Canadian)

When was the last time you reached for a paper towel to clean up a mess?  Has COVID got you using more? How much do you pay for paper towels each week?  Each month?  Each year?  Or in a lifetime?  Do the personal finance math and then the ecological math and you may find yourself questioning whether paper towels really add quality to your life!  Did you know that Americans use more paper towels per capita daily than either of their neighbours?!

My daughters, 29 and 26 years old, never had their gorgeous baby faces wiped with paper towels, their spilled milk mopped up with paper towels, or their bedroom windows cleaned with paper towels.  In 2021, they never think to buy paper towels for their own homes.  Oh, the power of motherhood to plant sustainable living habits into future generations!  Muahahahahahaaa!!!

I think I am a bit weird, but I find the commercials for paper towels as morbidly fascinating as zombie shows.  Just as I wonder how zombies can keep walking when they have no blood circulating to keep the muscles working, I wonder how come people reach for paper towels when they can use a kitchen cloth to wipe up a mess?

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The heart of the matter. In order to wipe dirty faces, mop up messes, and sop up bacon grease, Americans use 8.5 million trees per year plus 144.5 million gallons of water per year, to manufacture the paper towels they consume, according to The University of Minnesota, the EPA, and Statista. Add this loss of natural resources to the consumption of fossil fuels used to make paper towels, wrap them in plastic, and transport them to the local store might give some folks pause for thought.  Is this use of resources worth it when there are easy, cheaper alternatives?

Back in the 1980’s, paper was already an environmental issue, so my husband and I decided to kick some paper habits out of our lives.  The easiest was paper towels.  Heck, we could save money and the environment!  A win-win, as far as we were concerned!

We had a stack of rags and made more from old towels and shirts.   

Peter, the fastidious window cleaner, felt that paper towels were still the best for not leaving streaks on windows and mirrors.  That was then. I used to clean the windows with rags and then polish them with newspapers as the ink really made the glass shine!  Ok, so who am I kidding… I probably only did this once as Peter was passionate about clean windows so this chore rarely fell to me. Now, microfiber cloths work as well as paper towels. And now that Peter and I are friends, not husband and wife, I have to clean my own darned windows!

Sometimes, I wistfully dream of paper towels when cooking bacon, but less so now that my daughter’s boyfriend introduced me to baking bacon and letting the fat drip away!  I have a special cotton tea towel that I have been using as my bacon degreaser for years, but washing it was annoying… so baked bacon it is!  (And yes, not cooking bacon at all would be the better decision… one transition I have yet to make.)

Window cleaning and bacon degreasing used to be the only two tasks when paper towels seemed better than rags;  today,  microfibre cloths and baking are better than paper towels. 

You might wonder what to do with the paper towel alternatives.  Under my bathroom sink, I have a bowl for dirty rags, hankies, and dinner napkins which makes about a quarter laundry load each week.  They get washed, usually with towels on a hot wash.  By washing rags, I have one less kitchen bag of trash going to the curb each week.  

My rags take up less space than a two-roll pack of paper towels. 
My garbage bins are lighter. 
My purse is heavier.
My house is just as clean!

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Next Steps

  1.  Buy only paper towels made from recycled paper as at least you will save trees.  
  2. Bamboo paper towels are reusable and cost effective but they are transformed into rayon through a toxic process and are not compostable once they become rayon.  So although they are an alternative, be aware of this eco-trap.  
  3. Reduce the number of paper towels you buy. 
  4. Notice when you use paper towels.  What else is nearby that you can grab to wipe up that mess?  Becoming aware of our habits is the most important step in any transition. 
  5. Start stockpiling rags made from old clothes. 
  6. Purchase some good quality microfibre cloths and learn to take care of them. 
  7. Feel good about reducing your paper towel consumption and share that feeling with your friends and neighbours!  It is in the discussions that seeds of change are planted. 

Sources

https://www.theworldcounts.com/challenges/consumption/other-products/environmental-impact-of-paper/story

The environmental effects of paper production include deforestation, the use of enormous amounts of energy and water as well as air pollution and waste problems. Paper accounts for around 26% of total waste at landfills.

https://www.statista.com/statistics/275731/us-households-amount-of-paper-towels-used-within-30-days/#:~:text=The%20data%20has%20been%20calculated,of%20paper%20towels%20in%202020.

https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2018/12/paper-towels-us-use-consume/577672/

EPA

http://www.mntap.umn.edu/industries/facility/paper/water/  17,000 gallons of water to make a ton of paper

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