We Tried Giving Up Paper Towels and Here’s What Happened

Photo by MabelAmber on Pixabay

The Challenge

A few months ago, my husband and I traded in our lives, moving from New York City to Western Massachusetts. Because we initially believed we would straddle the city and country life, we decided to rent a 400 square foot studio apartment. However, after a few weeks of back-and-forth, we realized that, frankly, it sucked. The city was as expensive as always, and we both lacked so much sleep and energy, we had nothing left over for each other.

So we simplified our living and rid ourselves of a ton of unnecessary stuff in order to fit in our new, accidentally tiny, space in Massachusetts. As we let things go, we reevaluated what we had surrounded ourselves with — yes we watched the Kondo show — and challenged ourselves to get rid of more.

Inspired by the plastic-free challenge, where participants attempt to cut plastics out of their lives for at least 30 days, we decided to ditch paper towels for the month of January.

Paper towels have been a guilty purchase for me for years. Every time I bought them, I felt like I was wasting my money, something I really hate doing. Worse still, I felt like I was contributing to the wastefulness of our society, something I hate even more.

Over 110 million trees and 130 billion gallons of water are consumed to produce the 13 billion pounds of paper towels Americans consume every year.

The facts are in: paper towels create a lot of trash. According to Ocean Conservancy, we use 13 billion pounds of paper towels every year. Over 110 million trees and 130 billion gallons of water are consumed in the creation of this product.

Of course, the trees and water aren’t all that’s used. Don’t forget the carbon cost of transporting the trees to mills and the product to stores nationwide and from the stores to our homes. Factor in the plastic used in packaging as well and this easily becomes a huge problem if we are to get our consumption rates under control as a country.

Photo by Ales Krivec on Unsplash

If global warming isn’t your thing, maybe fiscal responsibility is. According to Euromonitor International — as reported by Joe Pinsker in The Atlantic at the end of last year — the U.S. spends $5.7 billion on paper towels alone, outspending the rest of the world by far. To put that into more meaningful terms, if you go through two rolls of paper towels every week, and you’re paying $12 for a pack of eight rolls, then you’re spending about $156 each year.

Lastly, I’ll just point out that paper towels are big and bulky and annoying. Sure, they’re light enough, but they take up so much space — especially in 400 square feet!

Paper towels waste space and money while contributing to pollution, whereas cloth towels take up less space and can be reused for years. That’s why we gave this challenge a try. It was much easier than we thought it was going to be. So easy, we’ve given them up completely, and we aren’t looking back.

How We Got Rid of Paper Towels for Good

With a little planning, we made our transition to paper-free with ease. Below is the system I developed based on our needs.


First, I replaced my paper towels with cloth towels that I already had on hand. I decided to use a three-towel system, dividing my towels based on what I needed them for. This made everything a lot easier to manage, and in the end contributed to less laundry being produced as well.

I mainly use my towels for wiping down surfaces in my kitchen. For this, I have a towel hanging on my oven door. It’s plain and dark blue, so as not to show stains. I now wipe my counters with soapy water and my dish sponge, which I replace monthly. I actually grew up using dish rags, so I plan to kick my sponge habit when this last packet is through.

My tea towels are used for drying dishes. I love them because they’re soft and absorbent, but also thin enough to feel the dish in my hands. They’re also much cuter than paper towels, and because they’re only for clean dishes, I don’t worry about them getting stained.

Photo by Caroline Attwood on Unsplash

Lastly, I keep what I’ve been calling a slop towel — name suggestions are welcome — tucked in the under-sink area. I use it for cleaning anything spilled on the floor, whether it’s splattered sauce or tracked-in mud. I keep about a dozen on hand, and they’re all ugly as sin. They’re my stained old towels and reclaimed fabrics that I don’t mind getting dirty. When I am through with them, I simply rinse them out and toss them into a repurposed small trash bin also under my sink. I do let them dry on the side of the bin first, so they don’t get smelly and gross.


I store my nice towels — the ones I use for dishes and the ones I use for counters — folded in a drawer. The slop rags are stored in a small bin under my sink. To be honest, I don’t even fold them after they’re cleaned. I just shove them in the bin. All in all, I have two dozen towels, which is more than we need, but it’s what I already had. I’m just happy we actually use them now.

One other important note on storage is that I have a separate hamper for towels. I highly recommend this if you aren’t doing it already. Towels should be washed separately from your clothing, anyways, so storing them separately means you don’t have to sort them later. It also means that the smells that come along with damp towels stay far away from your blouses.


At the start, I expected to use a lot of towels. In fact, the idea of doing more laundry was my main barrier to kicking the paper towel habit. But much to my surprise, we use, on average, only seven towels each week — unless there is a big spill. I think the main reason we use so few is that I have them separated based on their intended use.

We don’t hand dry all our dishes, so the tea towels aren’t used often. Meaning, I switch them out every three to four days. The oven towel is used more often, so I replace it every other day unless I clean up a big spill. The slop rag is not used as often as I expected, and it is used mostly to clean up water or minor spills. So I only find the need to replace it twice a week as well. Overall, it’s about half a small load of laundry, so I wash all the towels together — even the slop towels — and so far there haven’t been any issues.

Now, I know that this would be a larger task for a family, especially one with small children, but I think it’s still totally manageable. My husband and I definitely feel better knowing we aren’t contributing more waste to our environment while saving ourselves the cost of a couple’s massage every year.

What do you think: can the paper habit be kicked in your home?

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Photo by Hans on Pixabay