Reader Question: Why Cloth Trumps Paper

by Landis Carey on March 29, 2011

A couple of great questions were submitted last week by a reader in response to the post DIY Home: Easy-to-Sew Square Tablecloth. She was curious why and how I decided using washable cloth table linens was the less wasteful option when compared to using paper napkins, etc.

I wanted to share her questions, my thoughts on the subject and also that we’ve successfully lived without paper products in our kitchen for the past two weeks.

Jessica: I have a question — given the water used when washing cloth linens & napkins, I’m always torn w/ the cloth v. paper debate. I feel like I read conflicting information all the time. How did you make your decision?

Mint Peach: It’s a good question, Jessica! And a tough one to answer! I justify using (and washing) cloth napkins and super absorbent kitchen towels (the ugly workhorses pictured above) by rotating them and using them multiple times. For our cloth napkins, we keep track of which one belongs to my husband and which one I’ve used. We tuck them away after each meal and use them for several meals. For kitchen towels, I always have 3 on the counter: the cleanest is used to dry freshly washed fruits and vegetables and dishes. Once that towels is too wet, it becomes the counter towel. I use it to wipe down the counters when I’m done cooking and cleaning. Once that towel is at the end of its life, I set it aside and use it for wiping-up spills on the floor. There’s usually another one floating around for drying hands, as well. I have a gigantic stack of inexpensive workhorse cotton kitchen towels (pictured here) that are super absorbent and I wash them regularly. Most paper towels and napkins are made from virgin tree pulp, something I just can’t justify using to clean with. And what’s worse, if you don’t recycle or compost your paper products once you’ve used them, they just sit in a landfill where their energy will never be used again. Long answer, I’m sorry!

Jessica: Thank you!! I’d rather have a long & thorough answer than a short and incomplete one. I hadn’t thought of the virgin tree pulp argument – it is compelling. This week, I will try to cut down on my paper towel use & see how it goes. One more question — what do you use for cleaning bathrooms, mirrors, windows, etc? My mother was always a ‘use a newspaper’ kind of lady, as she thought nothing else got a good streak-free clean. But I have always found cotton to be a poor substitute for either paper towels or newspaper when talking about the above surfaces. Thanks for your patience w/ me!!!

Mint Peach: Oh, windows and mirrors…those can present a challenge! Yes, I hear newspapers work wonders, but for some reason I haven’t used that trick more than one or two times…not because it doesn’t work, but I forget I have the option. I usually find one of the towels pictured above to be fine for the job. They are called bar back or bar mop towels and I bought them from Bed Bath & Beyond. Super cheat and super absorbent…couldn’t ask for more. Although I don’t have much experience with the newspaper trick, it does work. I’m definitely into it and see it as a perfect alternative to using paper towels to clean windows. I’ll definitely make the switch! Thanks for the suggestion, Jessica!

You may wonder why I don’t choose paper products made from recyclable content? When I do have to use paper products, that’s the route I go. I really can’t justify virgin tree pulp being used to clean our home. Marcal makes great products from 100% recycled content and has been doing so for years. I like the idea of reusable useful items in our home, so instead of a product made for the specific purpose of wiping down my counter and then being discarded, I prefer reusable (even if not so pretty) cloths.

What do you all use in your kitchen? To clean windows? Is living without or cutting back on paper towels possible? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

(Image: Landis Carey)

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Sally Sherman March 30, 2011 at 9:55 am

Newspapers do work to clean windows. I washed many windows in Chicago years ago with old Sun Times or Tribunes!

Thanks again for the idea of cotton bar mop towels, I will finally head over to BB&B later today to buy a supply.

I grew up using cloth table napkins. Napkins of the paper variety were beneath his dignity, my father used to say :-) . I agree, and think fabric napkins are classier than paper napkins anyway (unless for a unusually large outdoor picnic kind of affair). We use our cloth napkins once, then toss them in the laundry. The napkins you made in your recent entry were very attractive, we have a sewing machine, my husband sews, think I’ll ask him to whip up a few.


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