How do I cut paper towels out of my kitchen habits?

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Between the Paper Towels

Karen needs your help!

Hey Homies!
We took the dive into a CSA, and it is so fun. However, this influx of new produce has us racing through paper towels — lots of items call for wrapping in damp paper towels for storage.

We’ve started talking about cutting disposables out — but it seems daunting to lose such a convenient product! How do I get started?

So, the easy answer here is, “Use cloth.” Sure, but what KIND of cloth do people use when you give up paper towels?

Me, I love tea towels. I don’t have any fancy ones — just some $3/pack jobbies from the grocery — but they’re thin, lightweight, all-cotton — and because of this they’re super flexible. Cotton tea towels work just as well for wrapping radishes as they do for dabbing my hands dry.

Homies, what have you got? If you don’t use paper towels, what do you use?

Comments on How do I cut paper towels out of my kitchen habits?

  1. I use flour sack towels that I’ve embroidered details on but also I knit my own dishcloths and washcloths.

    How to get started though would be to just cut down the number you use. Instead of pulling 2, use just one. If you used to use 1, use half of one. Then when you are out of your supply it’s time to switch to “ye old timey” way of using cloth.

  2. I’d say the best thing is to have a variety of different types of cloth in an easily grabbable place. We have a basket with tea towels, micro fibre towels and dishcloth, between the three most uses are covered. You need a place to put dirty cloth just as easily reachable (our washing machine is in the kitchen so they tend to go straight in but we do have a place to stash them if it’s running).
    But, I would say keep kitchen towel on hand for the real yuckies (like cat shit).

    • Yup we use dispsables for the really gross stuff like poop! Still it takes us forever to go through a roll. Well, it did before we got the puppy D:

    • I don’t even use paper towels for cat puke/poop. I pull something firm and flat out of the recycling or garbage (plastic lid, cereal box, magazine, etc) and use that to scoop up the majority of the offending substance, then throw both away. Then I spray down the damp spot with vinegar and use one of the grody/last legs/floor rags to clean it off. Second round with cleaner rag if necessary.

  3. Is it really neccesary to wrap produce in damp towels?
    I know that it helps to keep it fresh, but from my experience, it often isn’t needed. Most veggies and fruits are fine if they are left in the fridge a couple of days or in the pantry. Figure out what you are eating today and tomorrow. Eat veggies that are vulnerable or leafy first, more robust ones later on. Put the produce you are not going to use this week in the freezer or process it, preferably on the day you got the box. With some smart dinner planning you should be able to lower your paper towel use.

    • Yeah, I’ve never dampened produce to make it last (unless its asparagus, whose life can be lengthened a bit by putting them in a dish of water in the fridge, kinda like cut flowers). I would think that dampening it might make it more susceptible to mold. I just use the crisper drawer.

    • I wrap chopped herbs in small torn pieces of paper towel to get an extra day out of them. Sometimes I get carried away and cut up waaaaay too much. But the damp paper towel keeps them good for leftovers 🙂

      • My grandmother (and mother) always wrapped asparagus in a wet, clean kitchen towel – keeps it fresh for days in the fridge crisper drawer. We never had problem with mold, as long as the towel was moist and not dripping wet. Once you used the vegetables the towel goes in the laundry.

  4. I would say just go cold turkey. Buy a whole bunch of rags, any kind will do (dishrags, tea towels, even old t-shirts and bits of towelling from the thrift store). They just need to be cheap and you need to have a lot of them. Then commit to not buying anymore paper towels. You can use what you have in the house, but you will want to save them for the really nasty jobs that you don’t want to (or can’t) wash out. For instance, paint and adhesives do a number on rags and are a good time to use paper towels. You will find that you get used to it pretty quickly. One tip would be to have a specific set of rags you reserve for relatively clean activities (dishes, kitchen counters, etc.) that you keep separate from the rags used on floors and dirtier cleaning tasks. You may also find that you will develop a subset for the nastiest chores (like bike and automotive repair) as they are never quite the same after.

    • I would also suggest making sure you have your cloth rags in a convenient location (or many) and then take your paper towels off the kitchen counter and put them up on the top shelf of the pantry (or someplace equally inconvenient). You will naturally use them much less.

      As for produce, either wrap it in a damp tea-towel, or just drop it in a plastic bag and call it good. Most things will keep for a week in a bag in the fridge with no further special treatment. Things like fresh herbs and asparagus you can treat like fresh flowers, you set them upright with the bottom of the stems in a little bit of water and then put them in the fridge.

    • My mom did this. She had the nice dishtowels just for drying things, the crappy tea towels for spills, the mismatched and raggedy rags in the utility room for polishing furniture or tying over a wound or scrubbing up vomit, and the mismatched, hair dye and bleach and wound ointment covered big bath towels of yesteryear known as the “dog towels.” Best thing ever to clean up a wet dog, wrangle a cat to clip their nails, place around a sick child in case of misfires, and wrapping around casseroles that are of a highly stainable, spillable nature until you get to your destination.
      I highly recommend.
      If you don’t have the above, hit up a garage sale or thrift store and walk away with stuff you don’t care about for a song.
      Oh, and all old t-shirts are shop rags. Period.

      • Yep, that’s pretty much my system actually. My partner and I have other roommates, and I am OCD, so we (ahem, I) wash/fold/sort all the towels into their clearly labeled baskets rather than making it a household chore. So far the only mishaps have been someone wiping frosting-covered hands on a hand towel, and using a “messy jobs” cloth on cat vomit instead of a “disgusting jobs/floor” cloth. Both of which I can understand the misconception, so the cloths simply got downgraded.

  5. I cut up a ton of old white undershirts. I store them in a bag hanging off of the fridge, and use them for wiping the floor, counters, etc. Since they’re reused cloth and not too big, I don’t feel bad about throwing out the ones that truly disgusting, and we can cut them down to size as needed. I do keep dishtowels on hand for drying hands and dishes.

  6. I think this question was more about food storage than cleaning cloths… so…

    1. For food and veg storage, I’d highly recommend fridgesmarts… it’s a tupperware product and is unbelievable. (And I’m not a sales’ lady or anything).

    2. I always “process” my food the day it arrives. It keeps the vitamins fresh for when you actually get around to eating it. My freezer is stocked with herbs, peas, frozen berries, etc. There’s a great “textbook” call “Putting Food By” that tells you how to deal with everything. It takes a good 2-3 hours (depending on what you’re doing) but it’s totally worth the effort.

    3. Root vegetables can be left for months in a “root cellar”. Basically all you need is a box of dirt left in a cool, but not damp location.

    4. We always wrap our hard fruit and tomatoes individually in newspaper to keep them from ripening all at the same time. If the fruit was not too ripe when picked, then they should last 1 or 2 months that way. It just prevents the occasion “bad apple” from spoiling the “whole bunch”!

  7. I made myself a bunch of cloth napkins. We use them when we eat and we use them to clean up spills, too. If you’re not a sewer, you can always buy some cute vintage napkins instead.

  8. I use the flour sack towels and cheap cotton dish cloths. The biggest problem I had when moving away from Paper towels was breaking the automatic habit of reaching for one for every little thing. I solved this by simply storing my paper towel holder under the kitchen sink. This way I have to think about it and open a door every time I want to use one. I still keep a roll of recycled paper towels on hand. Lets face it, you need one sometimes- like for mopping up kitty throw-up or that glass of wine you dropped on the floor. But, other than for emergencies, I’ve cut out paper towels from my day to day needs and don’t miss them that much at all!!

    • Our paper towels are used for the same things. We have them, we just barely use them unless it’s just something too gross to put in the washing machine 🙂

  9. We left paper towels behind a couple years ago (with the exception of a few months when our dog was a puppy, and we used them for puppy accidents). I invested in a couple packs of IKEA sack cloth towels for dish drying and lighter cleaning, and cut up some old shirts and some of Himself’s old boxer briefs to use for heavier cleaning. Like I said above, I never heard of wrapping produce in damp paper towels to keep it, but if you feel it’s necessary you might try cheese cloth (I’m not sure how much more durable cheese cloth is, but you could probably get a few uses out of it if you rinse it carefully).

  10. Maybe start with a yard or two of muslin from the fabric store, for wrapping your produce in? I love to sew, so that’s my first thought. If you have a sewing machine, you could even make bags out of it to put the produce in. I think muslin is the same material that the infamous flour sack towels are made of.

    • You’re right, I think muslin would work much better than cheese cloth. I’m switching my vote to muslin!

    • Or if you’re not near a fabric store/don’t want to buy new, old pillowcases would do well for food storage. (You can cut them up, too, if you don’t mind not-so-lovely edges, but I suspect if you’re using them to wrap up slightly-dirty lettuce heads, you won’t mind uneven edges.)

  11. we have three things we use:

    tea towels for looking pretty and low-impact things like drying hands.

    cheap bar cloths/washcloths for most ordinary kitchen uses (drying dishes, wiping counters).

    rags for everything…and gross stuff. usually i rinse, wash and reuse them, but these are the ones you can toss if it’s really bad – plus, cloth is a lot sturdier. we cut up any old clothes that can’t be donated and have a rag bag in the closet. mostly it’s socks with the toes cut off (so they don’t end up back in the wardrobe after a wash), but don’t be surprised to see me wiping down the bathroom with a pair of underwear =) raggedy t-shirts and undershirts get this treatment too.

    i do keep paper towels around for deep-frying – soaking up oil is a one-time-use task, and it seems less wasteful to me to toss paper than cloth. but that is the one and only task they have in our house now.

    • Oh, man! Cutting off the toes = genius! Why didn’t I think of that? Once I had the uncomfortable experience of holding a pair of undies and thinking, “These look so clean… but I could SWEAR I used them to clean up cat vomit last week…” (fear not, I erred on the side of caution and threw them away).

      • haha! that’s brilliant. for the record, i always chop the waistband and/or crotch of the undies – basically anything that renders the item unusable.

      • Thanks! After reading that post, it doesn’t seem like it’d be a good fit for my house, but I can see the appeal in it!

        I was just looking for alternatives to paper towels because I just used the last one here (considering a roll lasts over 2-3 months here, so it’s not like I’m burning cash on paper towels). *sheepish*

    • Damn it. I’m still not great at this no-acronyms thing. Thanks for stepping up to clarify, Hannah! I’ll modify the post.

  12. We have 6 pets, and we haven’t bought paper towels or paper napkins since we moved here 2 years ago. I always thought the pets would keep me addicted to paper products, but my now-husband proved me wrong. Everyone here has basically covered my advice:
    – Multiple types of cloths, including tea cloths, dish rags, microfiber, napkins, cheesecloth (for food draining purposes), and old towels/t-shirts/etc.
    – Different types of towels placed where they’ll be needed.
    – Easy place to put disgusting ones until they go in the wash.

  13. I use a combination. I have pretty tea towels, I have some kitchen cloths, and for the nasty stuff I have cut up old socks–inside out, they soak up things really well, and I don’t care if they get gross or ruined!

  14. Flour sack towels are my favorite, because they’re really big, so can wrap around whatever, and they don’t have any weird grid on them, so they’re great for straining yogurt or whatever, and a million other tasks.

    The only thing I have to use paper towels for is anything involving grease, oil, or fat because I’ve just never been successful at getting those ones clean, no matter what I try.

  15. We use tea towels to wrap up our CSA goodies too! We don’t dampen the towels, but usually our produce is pretty damp when we get it.

    We also bought a big package of towels from the auto section of our Walmart. They’re white, thin towels (not chamois clothes or something silly like that) and came in a pack of 25. We use them to wrap produce or wipe down counters or dust (not all at once). When they’re gross, we put them through the wash. They’re holding up surprisingly well and we’re using a lot less paper towels.

  16. I switched over when we ran out of paper towels. It wasn’t a difficult transition at all, we have cloth napkins and tea towels work for almost everything! As for produce storage, we keep them in the fridge in the crisper with no other special treatment. They do just fine in there

  17. NOTE: If you are using rags, you want to set up a place to hang them to dry. If you do laundry every couple of days then you’re cool, but a pile of wet rags over the course of a week can become pretty mildewy and bad-smelling.

    • My laundry room is kitchen-adjacent, so I throw dirty rags straight in the washer to wait for the next load.

  18. I agree with all the uses for produce and house cleaning, but one of the things that keeps me addicted is bacon. After I fry it up, there’s all that excess grease, and I lay the bacon on a sheet of paper towel that I double over, and I take a second sheet to mop out the vast majority of the grease in the pan (can’t pour it down the drain, so what do you do with it?).

    Would seem odd to toss all that nastiness into the wash if you had used cloth. Also, I’m not sure the laundromat would be too pleased…

    • well, i wholeheartedly agree with the use of paper towels for bacon grease drainage, but as for the stuff that’s left in the pan, that is cooking gold! let it cool, pour it off into a container, cover and refrigerate. it solidifies and looks gross, but you can scoop out some lard to fry other stuff in any time you need it. i don’t even like bacon and i love cooking in bacon grease. mmm…

    • Growing up, we always poured grease in a jar (like an old spaghetti jar) stored under the sink. Once the jar was full, we screwed the top on as tightly as possible and just threw it away.

  19. Wifey and I decided to try to not use disposable paper products (except TP) when we bought our own place almost 2 years ago. We decided to go with all white towels so they could be washed and bleached together in one big load. We checked out discount stores, Target clearance shelves, even found packs of cheap white towels in a few random places. We accumulated about 3 dozen and keep half upstairs, half down. We have used them for everything from kitchen counters, to cleaning tasks, to dinner napkins, to puppy piddle. (Puppy poo accidents we usually picked up with TP, but not always… We do go through a lot of bleach.) we have bought literally 2 rolls of paper towels in the past two years, and only because we had guess who requested them. We used to go through a roll or more a week.

    You do not need to and should not use disposable towels to dry produce, or cover in your fridge. Oh, and any fried food like bacon or fritters can be accomplished on a folded paper grocery bag. We try to use green bags at the store but occasionally forget to bring them, so we save any paper bags we go home with to put to good reuse such as draining fried stuff.

    • And if you don’t use paper grocery bags? That’s my issue – I’ve been using canvas (which also gets tossed in the wash just like those rags. Lots of bacteria thrive there if not washed http://trib.in/pfEhVw ) I don’t remember the last time I had paper bags in the house, but I’d love to stop using paper towels or products at all for that matter for fried foods if there is another option!

  20. Dunno if this has been mentioned, but if you compost, paper towels are compostable. Same story for paper bags, which can serve triple duty: carrying groceries/sack lunches, storing your veggies then new soil for your daisies.
    Your compost can’t be ALL paper, though, and you might not even be able to/interested in compost. So Above Posters’ advice comes in for that. 😉

      • Lawn clippings. If you don’t leave them/don’t leave them ALL on the lawn, walk around and pick the clippings up, dump in paper bag, dump in compost bin/yard waste bin. DUN.
        Similarly? Rip open a paper bag, place it under your cutting board when you’re prepping a big dinner with a lot of peelings and scraps. Bundle it all up when you’re done, carry out to compost bin. This is great when you’re cooking for a party so you don’t have to leave scraps out and also don’t have to take a trip out to the bin to dump it.

  21. I’ve never lived in a paper towel house in my life. When I moved in with my current house, they wanted to get paper towels and I was just bewildered by why these people thought they were necessary.

    At the moment, we use these fantastic white 12×12 terry cloth shop/industrial towels. We keep a laundry hamper in the kitchen and just chuck them in when they’re dirty, or hang them on the side if they’re too damp to pile. They’re less than $20 for fifty.

  22. I like ikea’s dishtowels. they are white (mostly), thin enough to dry quickly when hung and large enough to use when covering fresh baked bread and about 50 cents each. I have a stash of old washcloths for dirtier stuff and I keep papertowels on hand for cleaning up the hair from the baseboards in my house. I swear my hair is everywhere. I like paper towels for that so that the hair doesn’t stay tangled in the cloth.

  23. Swedish kitchen cloths. They’re gorgeous, reusable and you can launder them like cloth. They’re somewhere between paper towel and kitchen sponge, and compostable! I also have lots of bar rags for sturdier jobs, but these are great.

    I got mine here: http://jangneus-design.com/

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