What can we use instead of paper towels?

wiping a jar with a paper towel
Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to refusing single-use products, plastic gets a lot of attention, but we also need to find eco-friendly alternatives to paper towels. There’s one obvious answer to what to use instead of paper towels: cloth towels. 

But as with all obvious answers, reality is a bit more complicated. We put paper towels to lots of different uses, after all. Each one needs a different set of possible sustainable substitutes.

As I was looking for ideas for this article, I was amazed at some of the ways people have used paper towels that never would have occurred to me. In some cases, they can’t work very well. Any replacement would have to work better in addition to being better for the environment. 

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Let’s start with the obvious and then go on to more dubious uses:

Cleaning up spills

You’ve seen the commercials. You spill something, or your kid spills something. So you reach for the right brand of paper towels and voilà! The mess is all clean and you can get on with your life.

What they don’t show you is the mound of dirty paper towels that have now become their own mess. 

If you like to live that way, you can at least get bamboo paper towels. instead of paper towels. Growing and harvesting bamboo is at least more sustainable than growing and harvesting wood. 

But the whole point of finding paper towel alternatives is to cut down on the waste from single-use products. Bambooee paper towel substitutes are actually bamboo rayon instead of bamboo paper. They come on a roll like paper towels, but you can use each sheet many times. After you’ve used a sheet, you have several ways to wash them. For one, put them on the top rack of your dishwasher.

You can also use Swedish dish cloths for any cleaning chore instead of paper towels. In fact, if you use them to clean up a mess on your carpet, you can scrub so vigorously with them that you’d rip a paper towel to shreds. They’re made of about 70% cellulose (from wood pulp) and 30% cotton. Neither component is as eco-friendly as bamboo. 

Swedish dish cloths have a spongy texture. They are more absorbent than ordinary cotton dishcloths. 

Washing windows and mirrors

Paper towels work well enough for cleaning spills, but not for washing windows. They leave a linty, fuzzy residue. Any cloth works better and is more sustainable. 

You probably already have ratty towels, tee shirts, etc. no longer fit for anything but as rags. You can also use any dish cloth. And instead of throwing these paper towel replacements out when you’re finished, toss them in the laundry.

Dusting furniture, cleaning floors

Microfiber cleaning cloth instead of paper towels

Image by NoobinNature NIN from Pixabay

These two tasks may not seem related, but I suggest microfiber cleaning cloths for both of them. Actually, you can use them for a wide variety of cleaning tasks instead of paper towels. Some manufacturers design cloths to handle specific tasks, so be sure to get the right ones.

They last longer than other cleaning cloths. And you don’t need any of the usual cleaning chemicals. It’s the microfibers themselves that pick up all kinds of dirt and grime.

Microfiber cloths have polyester fibers with a positive charge and nylon with a negative charge. Between the two of them, they attract whatever it is you want to clean away. And they lift off 99% of the bacteria, too.

Be sure to get high quality microfiber cloths. The more microfibers per square inch, the better they’ll clean and the longer they’ll last. 

Caring for microfiber cloths is easy. Rinse them after each use and let them dry. I have seen instructions to launder them if you use them heavily or after they start looking dirty and leaving streaks. Unfortunately, they will shed microplastics. Hand washing them and rinsing them seems more eco-friendly.

Handling grease

I have a confession to make: I cook a lot of chicken parts, hamburgers, etc. at a time and freeze most of them. Then I put them on a paper towel to absorb the grease when I microwave them. When I cook bacon, I use paper towels, too. Then I compost them.

But in preparing for this article, I found recommendations to use rags and dish cloths instead of paper towels. Someone even recommended having a special dish towel just for bacon. Just be careful not to let any of these substitutes become too saturated with grease. When you launder thems, the grease will eventually make its way into the sewer system and too much grease will do a lot of damage there. 

Napkins and hand drying

Cloth napkin. paper towel substitute

Image by Eak K from Pixabay

Here’s where we come to some of the most dubious uses for paper towels. Even the paper napkins you find at the grocery store are preferable. For one thing, they’re a lot less expensive. And that probably means that they have less embedded energy and water.

As for drying your hands, you have towels in the kitchen and bathroom, don’t you?

When I get fast food take-out, I keep forgetting to ask the clerk not to give me any paper napkins or plastic table service. And sometimes they do, anyway. So I take them home, use them, and add them to my compost.

Use cloth napkins and towels as a paper towel alternatives. You probably have plenty of dish towels. Just designate one as a hand towel in the kitchen. 

When I bought my cloth napkins, they didn’t look very good after I washed them. I suppose I could iron them, but it’s too much trouble. If you want cloth napkins to stay looking good, choose no iron napkins.

Covering food 

I read that some people cover food in the microwave to keep it from splattering. Does that even work? Get microwave splatter covers. Put one over your plate or bowl, and if it gets splattered, put it in the dishwasher. 

And some people apparently use paper towels to wrap leftovers. Again, I can’t imagine how that could work well. Beeswax food wraps do a much better job of making an airtight seal and keeping food fresh. Plus, they’re reusable and, when they wear out, compostable.  

You can greatly reduce or even eliminate paper towel waste with sustainable replacements that you can use over and over. You’ll save lots of money and reduce your carbon footprint for years to come. 

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